Walk on Athletes: Little Playing Time, Lots of Passion

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BY Alex Rush > Senior > Journalism > University of Maryland

Sometimes it seems like NCAA athletes have it all: sweet gear, a plethora of fans, a chance to go pro and get rich and, of course, a free ride through college. It’s no wonder athletes dream of being recruited to a Division I team. But with few athletic scholarships, that dream doesn’t become a reality for most. Some student-athletes are trying it anyway, even if it means potentially not making a team (and paying tuition).  They’re doing it all for the hope of playing a sport they love, as a walk-on.


Walk-ons join teams despite not being recruited or lured with financial aid. Their athletic careers start at team tryouts where they have only a dismal shot at making the team. But for those who impress the coaches, playing their sport at the college level is compensation enough.

Beth Newell, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, initially planned to give up competitive swimming, a sport she loved and excelled at in high school, to focus on academics. But after a couple of weeks, she felt the urge to swim laps and attracted the attention of swim team officials. When the coaches asked her to walk-on, she couldn’t refuse the chance to compete at a Division I level. “I must have chlorine in my veins because I knew I was hooked on swimming and wanted to be on a team again,” Newell said. 

Kevin Clark, a Dunmor, Pa. native, also couldn’t resist the allure of competing for a top-tier school. But only Division III schools that were too close to home recruited him. Many star high school athletes face a similar decision: play for a Division II or III team, lack the elite competition, but can offer recruitment scholarships, or hope to make it at a tryout for a Division I team. “I knew I wanted to play Division I and being in New York seemed great,” said Clark, who is now a sophomore walk-on shooting guard for St. John’s University Men’s Basketball.

Each sport has their own tryout and scholarship availabilities, based on yearly official NCAA guidelines. Occasionally a walk-on who really tears it up on the court, field, track or pool can earn an athletic scholarship from their school. At least that was the case for Mat Schenauer, a sophmore finance major and wide receiver for University of Delaware’s football team.

Schenauer played varsity high school football in New Jersey, but only received full scholarship offers from Division II and III schools he wasn’t interested in. So he sent Delaware a film of his on-field highlights, and was asked to join the Blue Hens as a preferred walk-on: an athlete who doesn’t get financial aid, but attends the team training camp. Most walk-ons have to wait until the first practice of the semester to even try out. Schenauer said he started to get playing time in 2008 and impressed his coaches enough to earn a partial football scholarship.

For Clark, a communication major who was actually cut from St. John’s team his freshman season before qualifying for a spot the following year, earning a scholarship isn’t a concern. “I’m sure my family would appreciate the scholarship,” he said, “but they support me and I just really enjoy being with all the guys on team.”

Despite limited on-field action, a plight of many walk-ons, both Clark and Schenauer agreed they didn’t experience any alienation from their teams. Walk-ons get their own perks: free gear, on- and off-campus fame, trips to away games and tournaments and the camaraderie of the team. “It’s not at all like the movie Rudy where the walk-ons get beat up on,” Schenauer said. “The team really does operate like one big family.”

photo from http://sportsteamjackets.com/library/collegefootball4.jpg


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