Glory, wealth and fame: These are some of the rewards that drive athletes in the realm of professional sports and act as heavy influences on the culture and motivations of collegiate athletics.
For a select group of varsity athletes, though, these things are virtually inaccessible. They are walk-on athletes, the unsung heroes of every college campus. Because opportunities for athletic prestige are a rarity for them, these players must primarily focus on earning playing time and, if they’re lucky, a scholarship. While the “no guts, no glory” adage is often tossed around in sports, glory isn’t the primary motivation for walk-on athletes.
The most iconic portrayal of a walk-on comes from the 1993 film “Rudy,” which tells the story of a boy fulfilling his dream of playing for the Notre Dame football team as a walk-on. While it was certainly overdramatized, the movie captures the essence of what drives walk-on athletes: a sheer love of the game. This stems from the reality that, for the vast majority of these players, their desire to be part of a team is their sole motivation.
In many ways, walk-ons are the consummate student athletes, serving as a bridge between the University’s student body and its athletic programs. Though the vast majority will never play professionally, walk-ons still exert the same time and energy into practice as their teammates. This is remarkable considering the mental and physical strains such a demanding schedule places on them. After all, it’s more taxing to fit studying around practice times when there are not athletic scholarships and on-field accomplishments to fuel you.
Of course, there are success stories of past walk-ons. Scottie Pippen walked on at Central Arkansas before winning six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan. J.J. Watt, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, walked on to the Wisconsin football team after previous college troubles and a stint as a pizza boy. Green Bay Packers teammates Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson, who walked on at the University of Southern California and Kansas State, respectively, are further proof that even today, walk-on athletes can be successful at the professional level.
But, outside of a few exceptions, most walk-ons rarely touch the field. Instead, they dedicate themselves to countless hours of practice to help prepare their team’s highly-touted recruits for game day. Considering the sacrifices they make, these players deserve respect, regardless of how many touchdowns they score, baskets they make or home runs they hit. The grit, passion and perseverance they exert on a daily bases embodies the selflessness and determination that is critical to success both on and off the field.