Oct. 16, 2004
by Michael Bruscas
February's "Signing Day," when teams hand out the available portion of their 85 scholarships to prep and junior college athletes, receives significant attention, but few fans know that a "second season" of recruiting begins almost immediately thereafter, when coaches fill out their rosters with walk-ons.
Some are invited -- talented preps who were almost good enough to earn scholarships -- while others struggle just for a chance to tryout. Even for those who make the team, though, the promise of playing time is never certain. Some, like former team captain Ben Mahdavi, a UW walkon in 1999, will eventually earn scholarships and a spot in the starting lineup. Still others will just as quickly walk-off, the sacrifices required of walk-ons far outweighing the daily rewards.
There are a select few, however, who complete the four-year journey. This year, six Huskies -- Ricardo DoValle, Jens Jellen, Mike McEvoy, Lukas Michener, Will Murphy and Eric Roy -- will finish out their careers at Washington having never earned a scholarship, but having persevered thanks to a true love for their sport and their teammates.
Every talented prep player who does not earn a scholarship from a major college program but still wants to pursue football at the next level faces the same dilemma -- whether to seek football glory at a smaller school, or attempt to battle their way from the bottom of the depth chart at a major-college program.
While the decisions they face are similar, the reasons for making the choices they make, and their experiences after having made those choices, vary widely from player to player.
Offensive guard Jellen simply chose the best school, then decided after being accepted to give football a shot. For McEvoy, now an inside linebacker, the decision was based largely on a family history at Washington, which has graduated nearly every member of the McEvoy household. Roy, on the other hand, committed to Washington the day the team won the 1992 Rose Bowl -- despite being just eight years old at the time.
Murphy, a defensive tackle from Spokane who spent his senior prep season in Georgia, had no family connection or personal history with Washington, but simply relished the challenge of Division-I football.
"I didn't think that playing for a smaller school would be enough of a change from high school," he says, echoing the sentiments of many of his fellow walk-ons. "I figured if I really applied myself, I'd feel better down the road playing in a big school. For me, this level of college football was the ultimate goal."
Making the team was the easy step. Once workouts started, reality set in.
"I wondered if I was ever going to be at a point where I could step on the field with these guys and not get crushed in hitting drills," McEvoy recalls. "I learned that the only way I was going to earn respect was to work hard, so I've never missed an optional workout. I wanted to show people that I'm not the fastest, but I'm going to keep finishing first in drills because I'll push through the pain."
As Roy sees it, the key to success lies in believing that you can succeed, and that your talent level is no less simply because you aren't on scholarship. That mindset has paid off to the tune of two letters for Roy in the past two seasons for his play on special teams. McEvoy also saw enough game time to pick up a letter last season, while Murphy and Michener each appear likely to letter in 2004.
As varied as their reasons for turning down small-college fame for major-college grunt work are their methods for acquiring the funds to pay for school, funds their scholarshipped teammates are simply handed each quarter.
Jellen counts himself fortunate enough to have parents with the ability to cover his educational costs, while McEvoy and Roy each work part-time for a portion of the year, McEvoy as a valet.
Murphy's parents supported his education for his first two years, but could not afford to continue after his sophomore season. Faced with having to give up football, or take out loans to cover the costs, Murphy made what he considers now an easy choice.
"I can work for the rest of my life," he says, "but this is something that's very special to me. It's huge to my family and it feels good to be able to make them smile. I'll pay back the loans in the future, but right now I'm just happy to be a Husky."
Jellen agrees: "It's an enjoyable experience that you can only have once in your life," he says. "Why give that up?"
"The most important thing for a walkon would be a sense of the greater good," Murphy says. "You have to really appreciate the team more than you appreciate yourself. I want the Huskies to do well more than I want to get on the field -- and I badly, badly want to get on the field. Every time I get on the field, it just feels spectacular."
So watch for Ricardo DoValle, Jens Jellen, Mike McEvoy, Lukas Michener, Will Murphy and Eric Roy. They may be on the field only briefly, but for them, each appearance is special, each play cherished, every second a gift.
Their struggle is the essence of college football, their fleeting glory the greatest gift the game can give.