You are not good enough, fast enough or tough enough is a common and negative misperception of anyone who dares to take on the title of a “walk-on,” a non-scholarship athlete, at the collegiate or professional level. Much to the dismay of some, being a walk-on is not a bad thing, and it does not mean you don’t have the talent.
Not every high school athlete will be recruited to play in college; some may be talented, but never gain the exposure that they need to get their names out there.
Shawn Singh was a soccer player at Garces Memorial Catholic High School. Does that name sound familiar? Unless you are a native of or familiar with Bakersfield, Calif., then it probably won’t ring a bell. Location wise Bakersfield was not home to the best teams, nor was it the ideal place for top schools to look for recruits, so as a result Singh got very little exposure. People tend to assume that if you weren’t recruited by top schools it was simply because you were not good enough.
Despite that common misperception, Singh said he always believed that he was good enough to compete at the higher level. Singh decided to walk-on at UCLA as a sophomore and was able to make a name for himself, quickly gaining the respect of both his teammates and coaches. That year he started 15 out of the 17 games, according to willofachampion.com. In 2011 as a senior, he carried the Bruins to a PAC-12 championship, playing 19 games and starting in 17. He went on to play Major League Soccer (MLS) for Sporting Kansas City, not too shabby for someone who was not recruited and started his college career as a… cues dramatic music… walk-on.
Still there are others who have talent but struggled with grades and as a result lose offers. Marcus Singletary was a two-sport athlete star in basketball and track in high school in Georgia. He added football to his resume, quickly working his way up to a starter on special teams as a junior.
As a student, Singletary wasn’t as focused holding a 2.1 grade point average and didn’t pass his science graduation test, thus failing his senior year. The common misperception of student-athletes like this is that they are a waste of talent and time. The athlete labeled as the infamous dumb jock, who is capable of doing amazing things on the field but can’t read or think to save his life.
However, Singletary was determined to turn things around and apply himself. Because he didn’t graduate from high school, he applied to 60 junior colleges, according to everyathlete.com to earn his GED so he could continue on to college. His newfound effort earned him Dean’s List honors at Rainy Junior College while excelling in both football and basketball. Eventually, it led him to the University of Minnesota where he began a career as yes, a walk-on. But it was never a question whether or not he could play or compete with other guys on the field, it was a matter of being able to balance his studies with his academics. Choosing to be a walk-on gave him another option to do what he loves to do – play ball.
Still, some players may have been eliminated due to injury and coaches not wanting to take a chance on them. Or some declined Division II and III offers just so that they could play Division I. Regardless of the reason, being a walk-on gives you the option that you did not have before. It also gives you the chance to prove yourself and help show people what you are made of, that you belong there as much as anyone else, like both Singh and Singletary have.
Walk-ons are not the exception, meaning that like the scholarship players they still have to be available for team meetings, attend grueling practices, go through conditioning and even do weights. The only difference is they are not financially awarded tuition, meals, books, room and board. These players are doing it simply for the love of the game, and because of that, they are often respected. Especially the ones who stick it out until the very end, choosing to help their team in any way they can.
There are some advantages to being a walk-on, through sports you get to travel to places you’ve never seen before, have first dibs on classes, get uniforms, sweats, shoes, travel bags and make lasting friendships. Your team really becomes your family. It teaches you mental toughness and can be very rewarding if you stick with it.
For Kayla Woodard, a women’s volleyball player, her decision to walk-on at Mississippi State University as a freshman in 2007 was life changing. She had turned down offers from local smaller schools to accept the walk-on opportunity at the Southeastern Conference (SEC) school merely for the challenge the prestigious program offered, according to willofachampion.com. As a result, of her hard work and talent for the game, she was given a scholarship following her second year and maintained it until her senior year. Being a walk-on for Woodard help get her foot into the door of athletics at the collegiate level.
So what do all these players, Singh, Singletary and Woodard share in common they all had to choose an alternate route as walk-ons to get the opportunity to continue to do what they love – play sports. Does that make them bad? No. Does that make them any less talented than someone on scholarship? No. Their stories help prove that being a walk-on does not mean you cannot be a star, with time, hard work, drive and dedication you can always turn things around. But everyone has to start someone where so why not with walking-on.