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Alternative Routes to College Sports

Posted August 05, 2009

The 1993 film Rudy told the story of Daniel Ruettiger, a 5-7, 165-pound football player from Joliet, Illinois. Based on a true story starring actor Sean Astin as Ruettiger (nicknamed Rudy), the film is a tale of a kid who struggled with grades, was half the size of his peers, yet dreamed of playing college football. And he did. Rudy made the Notre Dame football team as a walk-on, earning the respect of his teammates and seeing action in two plays. In the closing seconds of a game against Georgia Tech during the 1975 season, Rudy entered the game and recorded a sack on his second play. Following the game, he was carried off the field by his teammates.

The film, and Ruettiger’s story, has inspired many athletes who dream of playing college sports, whether they’re offered scholarships or are forced to walk-on. For those not offered scholarships there are two distinctions of walk-ons. The first, is an invited walk-on. An invited walk-on is usually an athlete who a coaching staff doesn’t deem good enough to earn a scholarship, but potentially good enough to play on the team. In some cases, schools may be limited in their scholarships and may ask a player to walk-on with the promise of a future scholarship.

The second type of walk-on is similar to the story in the film Rudy. For athletes who have not been deemed good enough to play at the next level, their only opportunity of making the team is by walking-on. Most colleges have tryouts or specific programs for walk-ons.

Cameron Mills
In the fall of 1993, Cameron Mills was offered a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Georgia. The school was pushing Mills and his family for an early commitment, prior to his senior season at Dunbar High (Lexington, KY). At the time, Cameron was holding out hope that Kentucky would come calling. “I grew up in the state of Kentucky and when you grow up there and think about college basketball, you think of Kentucky,” he says. “I had this thought that what if I have an incredible senior season and Kentucky becomes interested in me. Now what? I would have been stuck in a commitment I had made while the school of my dreams came calling. I didn’t know what was possible.”

To gauge Kentucky’s interest level, Cameron’s father Terry—who played basketball at Kentucky for legendary coach Adolph Rupp in the late sixties—contacted an old friend, the late Bill Keightley who served as Kentucky’s equipment manager for 48 years. Keightley helped Terry get in touch with Billy Donovan, an assistant for head coach Rick Pitino at the time. Donovan made it clear that the program would not be interested in offering Cameron a scholarship regardless of how he performed during his senior year. However, during the discussion another option developed. “Somewhere during the discussion the idea of walking-on came up,” Cameron says. “My father told Kentucky that he would have to discuss it with me first. I remember being in school that day knowing that my father was at Kentucky having this discussion. I was in my English class and I got a call to come to the office. My father was there to see me. He told me that Kentucky wanted me to walk-on. All I heard was ‘they want you’. I asked my dad if we would be able to afford it and in-state tuition wasn’t that expensive at the time. My mind was made up at that moment. I didn’t need to sleep on it.”

There were no guarantees at Kentucky. Pitino told Mills that as an invited walk-on he had made the team, but he was realistic about his standing as a player. Kentucky was one of the best programs in the country, its roster littered with McDonalds All-Americans. “My first two years were very hard,” Mills says. “There were a lot of times where I didn’t want to hang in there. During my freshman year, I probably went home to visit my parents at least five times with the intention of telling them I was going to quit. I would tell them how hard it was and how tough coach Pitino was. But my parents never let me quit. They knew this was my dream. Just because my dream had gotten tough, I couldn’t turn my back on it.”

With his parents support, Cameron worked hard to earn playing time. During his junior year, one of Kentucky’s top players Derek Anderson was lost for the season with a knee injury, opening the door for Cameron. Given the opportunity, Mills proved his worth and became key contributor to the program, earning a scholarship for his final two seasons. In 1998, he hit a pivotal shot against Duke to send Kentucky back to the Final Four for the third straight year. He remains Kentucky’s all-time leader in 3-point percentage for a season (53 percent) and career (47 percent).

For athletes considering taking a similar path, Mills stresses the importance of the summer camp circuit. “Whatever school you want to play for, they likely have a summer camp,” he says. “You need to be there. Rick Pitino knew who I was because I attended his camp. He didn’t see me play in any all-star games or come to my high school to watch me play. He saw me at his camp. Now, he decided at his camp that I wasn’t good enough for a scholarship but he had seen me play and because of that, he was willing to take me on as a walk-on without any tryout.”

Prep School and Junior College

For those not ready to walk-on at a major college program, there are other options, one of which is preparatory school. These are secondary schools, usually private, designed to prepare students for college. Many consider prep schools as the “13th grade,” allowing student-athletes a full year to develop both in the classroom and on the playing field.
Some athletes use prep school in order to better their grades and become eligible for college athletics. Others use it to further develop athletically with the hopes of earning a scholarship. Following his senior year at Mater Dei High in Southern California, Washington Redskins quarterback Colt Brennan enrolled at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. Brennan hoped another year of football would help attract better scholarship offers. The extra year also gave his body more time to develop before the rigors of college football. After a great season at Worcester, Brennan earned a scholarship to the University of Colorado, where he briefly attended prior to a record-breaking career at the University of Hawaii.

Junior College is another valid option. There are many great junior college programs for various sports throughout the country. While the level of competition is not the same as Division I athletics, junior colleges are still recruited heavily by major college programs. Take the story of former USC defensive end Gerald Washington. Following high school, Washington enlisted in the Navy. During his four-year stint a fellow sailor convinced Washington to play college football after leaving the Navy. Washington had only played one year of high school football but made the football team at Chaffey Junior College in Rancho Cucamonga (CA). Within two years, Washington had become an All-American tight end and earned a scholarship from Pete Carroll to play for USC. Washington switched to defensive end during his two years at USC, emerging as a key special teams contributor and dependable backup. Washington went undrafted in the 2009 NFL draft, but his combination of size and speed earned him a contract with the Buffalo Bills.

Hundreds of athletes take the unheralded route to collegiate athletics each year. For many of them, the experience is extremely rewarding. But the road can be difficult, particularly for walk-ons who are expected to practice and workout as if they are scholarship athletes without many of the benefits. Collegiate athletics have become big business and the demand on student-athletes is great. If your dream is to walk-on to a major college program, be sure you understand the demands and rewards of doing so. Before deciding whether or not to walk-on, it is important to check in with the program to learn about requirements needed, tryout dates, etc.

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