The following is a personal essay contributed to Athletes Anonymous, our blog series showcasing the experiences of current and former college athletes, at the intersection of life and sports. Email us at email@example.com to contribute.
J.J. Watt. Clay Matthews. Scottie Pippen. These three sport icons all have one thing in common: each of them was a college walk-on. Looking at the athletic success they’ve each achieved, few would realize the barriers they overcame. However, for walk-ons to succeed, they all need the same thing: determination, and a shot.
I was a college walk-on.
Like many who aspire to play collegiate athletics, I was the star of my high school team. I was one of the top players in my state, and then my athletic world came crashing down. The summer before my senior year, I tore my ACL. This forced me to miss out on a critical summer in recruiting and exposure to college coaches. I was able to rehab 100%, and competed in my senior season. However, at this point, I found that the only schools showing interest were in my home state. I wanted more.
A school I had always wanted to attend recruited one of my high school teammates during the summer I was rehabbing my knee. That coach signed my teammate, and when she came to watch our state final game, she saw me play for the first time. At this point, she had already signed all her recruits for the following season, and wasn’t necessarily looking to bring anyone else on. However, she liked what she saw and offered me the opportunity to walk-on, meaning I would join the team without an athletic scholarship. She had never had a walk-on before, but was hopeful it could lead to something more.
So, I made the decision to walk-on. My naïve self didn’t think twice about the emotional load that this would bring. I figured that once I proved myself, I could earn a scholarship. Be like everyone else. I accepted the challenge.
I was welcomed with open arms. Several of my teammates didn’t even know I was a “walk-on” initially. I quickly propelled to the top of all the conditioning activities. This was where I thrived. I definitely needed improvement from a skill standpoint, but I
never questioned this team was where I belonged.
Everyone always treated me as part of the team. It made no difference, walk-on or not. I received all the same gear, could utilize all the same facilities, and was given the same academic support. The only difference was that I couldn’t eat at the Student-Athlete Training table, or live in the student-athlete apartments, as these were solely for those with athletic scholarships. Being that I liked to eat, this was sometimes a point of contention.
However, I persevered. By the end of my sophomore year, I considered myself a team leader, and my coaches did too. My coaches looked to me to make my teammates better. Finally, I gave my coach an ultimatum. It was the scariest conversation I had ever had. I knew that I wanted to continue to play, but I also felt I had earned that sacred scholarship. I told my coach that without a scholarship going forward, I was going to leave the team. She told me the team “needed” me, and granted that scholarship. And just like that, I was now a “scholarship athlete.” I could finally eat at Training Table, and even received a monthly per-diem check for basic living expenses! I was happy, but my work wasn’t finished.
Every college student-athlete knows that far more goes into the sport than the time played on the court or field. Practice, film, weights, volunteering, team activities. It’s grueling. Although I was well on my way, I still wanted my “shot.” I wanted to prove that all my hard work outside of game-time could carry over to glory between the buzzers. Unfortunately, my real “shot” never came. Looking back, I believe my coach carried the stigma of the walk-on. She never gave me a shot to prove myself in a game-time situation. Scholarship or not, she never believed that I was more than a “walk-on,” even though I believed I was.
I will never forget the practice where she berated the team for not practicing as I was practicing. Then, five minutes later, she proceeded to say, “How you practice determines if you will play.” Apparently, that was true for everyone but me. Maybe she was not aware of players like J.J. Watts and Scottie Pippen, and their beginnings? Maybe she didn’t really believe that “How you practice determines if you will play?”
Maybe I just simply wasn’t good enough?
Please know that I am not resentful. I am eternally grateful for my four years of college athletics. Would I change some things? Maybe. Do I regret anything? No. I knew and understood there was so much more to being a college athlete than game-time. I am proud to have earned a scholarship. I am thankful for the lessons I learned. I am proud of my teammates, and the women they have become, and the friendships that were made. No one can ever take away or understand what those 10+ girls shared with me, and the impact they continue to have on my life.
There are some questions that I should have asked, that I provide now as advice to any athlete who is considering walking on. First, has the coach has ever had a walk-on before? If so, has he or she ever granted a walk-on an athletic scholarship? What are their hopes for walk-ons? Will they be viewed in the same light as the recruited players?
And finally, if they prove themselves…will the coach even give them a shot?