The Talk on Walk Ons

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January 31, 2003

 

Best fetes forward: football's Guidry and soccer's Weiner

 Best feats forward: football's Guidry and soccer's Weiner

 
 

Walk-ons are best known for having things like heart and courage and for lacking things like talent and size, like the small and plucky Rudy Ruettiger, who famously walked on to Notre Dame's football team in 1972 and, immortalized as he is in the movie Rudy, has never really walked off. Like Rudy, walk-ons tend to sit the bench. But they stand for a big idea: that college is a place of opportunity, even in the realm of athletics.

Better yet, walk-ons make for inspiring stories. They provide college sports with a picture of innocence that really helps when a lot of the images are mug shots or when the image is darkened by a point-shaving scandal or payment of players. Walk-ons play for love of team and a love of the game, not for scholarships or SUVs. They are wonderful ambassadors of sportsmanship. And they are a message to fans: Sure, basketball brings in big revenue dollars, but this game is a game--not a job.

In recent years, though, and by some upside-down logic, non-scholarship walk-ons have become rather expensive additions to the team. Under Title IX, the law that requires a college to maintain numbers of male and female participants proportionate to the enrollment, athletics directors at schools large and small have begun to trim the rosters of men's programs. As The New York Times reported last September, one impact of the 1972 law has been to put more financial pressure on intercollegiate sports. "At many colleges nationwide, it has become commonplace in recent years to turn away walk-ons in men's sports....Doors at athletic departments are slamming shut to thousands seeking a tryout."

However, as cutting back has become the rule nationwide, Duke has become the exception. Not only has the university added women's teams, but it has also managed to preserve men's teams--walk-ons, too--while striking the necessary gender balance. Duke coaches don't complain of roster limits, athletics administrators say they don't have to enforce them, students are not critical. And yet the opportunity to participate in sports at Duke is still limited, restricted to the very few and the very talented. That's not owing to Title IX, say coaches. It's the price of playing in Division I. There is nothing at Duke to stop a Rudy Ruettiger from walking on to, say, the men's soccer team. But he would have to be very, very good at soccer.

When Michael Weiner '03 made his campus visit, no one on the Duke soccer team had ever heard of a walk-on making it. The then-head coach shook his head and told him, politely, that he needed no more goalkeepers. "That was hard to hear," says Weiner. It was December, and Weiner had received his acceptance letters: Emory, Washington University, Tufts, MIT, Columbia. But he didn't want an Ivy. He wanted big-time soccer, where people cared about it and where school was fun--even if playing meant watching from the bench. It didn't hit him all of a sudden, he says, but by the end of his visit, Weiner knew he wanted Duke.

" I was so nervous on my way to the field for my tryout. I remember telling myself, 'This is pointless, but what the hell--I've already put in so much work for it.' Honestly, I just didn't want to embarrass myself." Weiner performed like a Division I goalkeeper. He showed the team why it needed this walk-on, and everyone who was there that day left convinced.

As far back as head coach Bill Hillier can recall, not a single walk-on has played baseball for Duke. Hillier says flatly that "if there is a guy on this campus who can compete at a Division I level, we already know about him." Hillier does not like to hold open tryouts. He hasn't for the past two years, and he doesn't plan to any time soon. While this has not detracted from the quality of his team, he says, it has reduced to zero the number of calls he gets from disgruntled parents. "They would tell me how good their boy was in high school and how in the world could I cut him like that. People don't realize what the level of competition is like here. We play in the ACC. That's as good as it gets."

Coaches of most revenue sports at Duke do not hold open tryouts. Many claim that doing so is a waste of time and that it builds a false sense of hope in students who would give anything to make the team. But, although few coaches schedule and actively advertise open tryouts, some are still open to the idea of a non-recruited undergraduate trying out.

Mike Pressler, head coach of men's lacrosse, says if a student approaches him request-ing a look, "We open up practice to him. There's no definite time limit, but after practice is over, we'll let him know if we'd like to see him again or if we've got a spot for him." The captain of the lacrosse team for last spring, Jon Enberg '02, walked on after he gave Pressler a call and said he'd like to come out for the team. Enberg saw very limited action over his three years--he sat out one season with a knee injury--but, as Pressler describes him, "He was incredibly impressive. He did it all: Navy ROTC, ACC Academic Honor Roll. It's not often you get a guy with leadership skills like that."

Andrew Guidry walked on to the Duke football team. "I'm not Rudy," he says. He's an offensive lineman, and at a feathery 240 pounds Guidry has done something his father regrets not doing and his high- school coach can hardly believe. He is not seeking glory and he is not dissuaded by the fact that he will likely never see a minute of playing time in his four years--even if he's a senior, and even if they're beating somebody like a drum. He wants to be on a team. This is about membership, he says. It's about playing your part, working hard to make other guys better. In high school, Guidry did not dazzle recruiters. After deciding he would attend Duke, he was far from certain his career would continue.

In the spring of his senior year, Guidry called head coach Carl Franks '83 to let him know he was on his way and did he, sir, need a walk-on? "He told me to come that summer for preseason practice and we'd see about it. When I made it through that, he told me I had a spot on the team." Franks is a coach who is open to walk-ons, says Guidry (and football has more walk-ons than any other revenue team, typically six at a time). "He gives you the chance to prove yourself, and, if you're good enough, you can earn a scholarship."

Guidry did not walk on because he thought he would play. He walked on because he never imagined it was possible. "I remember hearing in high school that less than 5 percent of all high-school players make it to Division I programs, and I remember thinking, 'Man, that doesn't sound good. Now how am I going to get there?' "