A rare breed: The walk-on

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By David Morris

On Monday night Stetson Bennett will become the first former walk-on quarterback to start in the CFP National Championship when his Georgia Bulldogs take on Alabama. His journey to this moment is well-documented: Stetson came to Georgia as a freshman walk-on then left for a dominant year of JUCO ball before returning to Athens on scholarship. He finished last season as Georgia’s top passer, but started this season as the #3 quarterback. After taking back the starting role, he has put together one of the best seasons of any quarterback in the country. He has had to prove doubters wrong at nearly every turn. He is a star that has earned every inch.

That’s how it is and always will be when you’re a walk-on. Whether you’re a national championship game starter or a D2 backup who has never taken a snap, you’re never going to be good enough, talented enough, or deserving enough in the eyes of most. And that’s OK. You don’t walk on because you’re looking for affirmation. You don’t even do it because you love football. You walk on because you can’t live without football.

There is something about a kid who’s not afraid to go the hard route. The walk-on knows it won’t be easy or fast. In that sense, the walk-on is a rare breed in today’s instant gratification world.  It’s a special kind of kid that doesn’t need to be given something and isn’t afraid to go after it when the odds are stacked against him. The walk-on pursues the dream knowing fully that it comes with long odds. You walk on anyway. You walk on because you know that in five years, ten years or 40 years, you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t go for it. You walk on because however it plays out, football is worth it.

Most walk-ons fully believe in their heart and brain that people missed on them. A lot of the time they’re right. When I think about some of the walk-ons we’ve trained who have had very different paths – like Gardner Minshew or Stetson or Jake Lange at Southern Miss – there are a few key traits that stand out. These guys are very confident, very optimistic, very prepared, and very tough. They’re not going to quit. Their mindset is they believe they’re starters; they may not know how long that’s going to take, but they believe they can and will get there. Stetson is a two-year starter on one of the best teams in the country; Jake went from scout team to starter in less than a week for a rebuilding team riddled with injuries. Both guys eat, breathe, sleep, and dream about football no matter their situation — they live for ball. Give me a uniform and a chance to show you what I can do and I’m going to give you everything I’ve got. This is the definition of authentic confidence.

I love this quote from Jake when he was first named a starter this season about why he wears #24:

“Last year we had eight or nine QBs on the roster and I was pretty down low on that list so they gave me 24. Shoot, it took me this far. I figured I might as well keep it. Kind of for the guys, the walk-ons, you might not get the swaggiest jerseys, you might not get all this and that but I thought it was one for me. Also, the greatest competitor in the history of sports [Kobe Bryant] wore 24.”

And this quote from USM coach Will Hall sums up Jake’s walk-on mentality perfectly:

“Jake has come to work every day. He has maximized every opportunity he’s been given and the good Lord’s provided him an unbelievable opportunity right here. There’s a lot of people that would’ve given up in his situation. There’s a lot of people who would think an opportunity would never come and you can’t live life that way. You’ve got to constantly put your line in the water and when an opportunity comes you’re there and ready to make it happen.”

Stetson has had incredible success. Jake struggled through some tough moments this season. But as walk-ons, even when it’s good, it’s still hard. There’s no guarantee that Jake gets a scholarship next year at USM even though he started six games this season. There’s no guarantee that Stetson is the starting QB at Georgia next year even if he wins the national championship — and he knows that. He’s not distracted by that. That’s just what it is when you’re a walk-on, and an undersized walk-on at that. The five-star, the kid in the transfer portal, the 6’4 gunslinger…coaches are always looking past you for those guys. The walk-on doesn’t care: Bring ‘em on! Let’s compete! I’ll bet on me every time.

I was a six-foot tall walk-on at Ole Miss. I knew I deserved a scholarship out of high school and I knew I was capable of playing in the SEC. The way I pursued my opportunity is kind of the way I grew up. My father created an environment where we didn’t have a whole lot that we didn’t earn. That’s not easy. It’s tiring – exhausting, in fact. You read about everybody else’s scholarships, watch them get recognition while you’re busting your tail knowing that could be you. It can be a lot for a kid to process, but it makes it that more special when you achieve a goal. When I earned a scholarship after my true freshman year and called my dad to tell him, it was powerful, emotional stuff that I’ll never forget. And it drives me in our current business to help connect and open doors for deserving kids who might otherwise fly under the radar.

For the walk-ons who never get a shot or never earn a scholarship, but stick it out – that’s possibly even more admirable. They’re not only incredible, selfless teammates, they’re great for the sport, for the locker room, and for their university. In my opinion, these are the types of kids who are great for our country. We need more leaders like that – who give 100% and are committed to being part of something even though the light’s not shining bright on them. That’s how great teams, and I would argue, great communities win.

When you’re a walk-on, you don’t always get treated well. Sometimes you have to share a locker. Sometimes you don’t even suit up or travel. And I think that’s the reality of being a human being. It’s not always fair, people aren’t always looking out for you. It’s a reality that sets you up for the future – you learn to develop tough, thick skin. You don’t need everybody to be patting you on the back, you just go about your business and that’s enough. You do your work. It’s very blue collar and very much needed in any kind of business, organization, or society.

I like hiring walk-ons, guys who weren’t stars or who have had to overcome disappointment and failure, because I find that the guys who had a lot of success in college are hard to please. I like guys who didn’t have tons of exposure because they understand it may take years to earn something. They’re not entitled. I avoid entitled people. We tell prospective coaches up front, “you’re not going to make money for two years.” Most people when they hear that, they walk away. They don’t get it. And that’s fine, because we know right away who has the mentality to succeed.

Ben Neill, our operations director, who runs QB Country Birmingham was a walk-on at Samford. Our business has gone from two locations to 12 in the six years he’s been with us. We would not be where we are without Ben. He’s an incredible coach, a man of character, and a leader who’s in it for the long game. He was a hell of a high school player who was a back-up throughout his four years of college. Yet he was the first person his coach Pat Sullivan recommended when we were looking for someone to get things started in Birmingham. Ben, above all, is a winner.

I was at Jake Fromm’s wedding last summer and Stetson was there, too and we started talking about the walk-on experience. I proposed creating some kind of platform that recognizes the stories of the walk-on quarterback – we joked about calling it “The Six Foot Club,” because it seems like all of us walk-ons are six-foot, plus or minus. Stetson’s first comment was: “Well, it better not be ‘woe is me, I feel sorry’ stuff – that mentality pisses me off!” And we agreed that it should be about more than honoring toughness — people need to know that those kids are bad mf’ers!

When you work your tail off and you’re good at something, I believe you deserve an opportunity. I take more pride in helping a kid get an offer and a scholarship and connecting coaches to kids than I do in any part of our business. I know how transformational and important that opportunity can be to a kid and his family. I also know if you can’t find an opportunity to keep football in your life, you’re not trying hard enough or you may not want it enough. There is opportunity for anyone who won’t be denied. The walk-on knows that.

There are plenty of guys out there who have been “stars” their whole lives, and plenty more that think they deserve to be. What’s most rare – and what the world needs more of are walk-ons. Whether you end up in the National Championship or not, you’re a bad dude!