September 4, 2009

Walk-ons serve as team backbone

MADISON, Wis. - They may not be the most visible players to the common fan and they make most of the contributions on the practice field and not on the game field. They typically never complain and just let all their hard work do the talking.

They are the long running walk-on tradition at the University of Wisconsin.

From players such as Jim Leonhard earlier in the decade to Chris Maragos currently on the Badger roster, walk-ons have typically had success in cardinal and white in one way or another.

"I think it's very unique," UW senior wide receiver Richard Kirtley, a former walk-on who was just awarded with a scholarship this week, said. "You really don't hear about it anywhere else other than here.

"With the success that Wisconsin has had, I think it's a very unique tradition that they do have. I think all former Badgers and current Badgers can take pride in it."

On the opening day roster, 82 of the listed 105 men are scholarship players. That means the 23 others have walk-on status. Some of those walk-ons, such as Bradie Ewing, will play a larger role on game days than others. But that doesn't mean the others aren't making an impact. It's just typically behind the scenes on the scout team in practice.

In short, the walk-ons embody everything that is good about Badger football. They are the walking, talking definition of hard work and perseverance. And they are simply the backbone of the team.

"Some of those guys are overlooked in high school," UW sophomore Aaron Henry said. "Wisconsin is not a huge recruiting state, but I truly think if you take those guys and put them in Florida, put them in Texas, put them in California, you may not get as many, but here or there it would be guys that definitely have that ability.

"But those guys, all of them, all of them are very hard workers no matter what."

During a team meeting last Monday, UW head coach Bret Bielema called certain players up to address the team. Only he had a different plan up his sleeve that left Kirtley shocked, Tyler Holland surprised, Nate Emanuel in awe and William Hartmann smiling all night long.

"I didn't tell those guys what they were going to get," Bielema said. "We brought seniors up to talk. I had told William Hartmann that I wanted him to get up and talk about some things. I called his name, and when he was walking up, I stopped him and said, 'Also, please welcome to the team the newest scholarship member at the University of Wisconsin.'

"The whole place went nuts."

That reaction hit Hartmann so hard that he was a bit taken aback and couldn't figure out what he wanted to say. When he called his parents, his dad couldn't believe it and his mom cried.

Tyler Holland and Nate Emanuel received similar reactions from teammates and were also shocked by the news that they had earned a scholarship.

And those reactions from teammates as well as the reactions from the players being awarded show how the scholarship players view the walk-ons and how much a scholarship means to them.

"All those guys put in a tremendous amount of work," Henry said. "They're here everyday. They're dedicated to the program. When you got guys like that, that just love the program and always want to be around. (They ask) How can they contribute? They may not play much, they may only be on special teams. But they're guys that would die for the program.

"When I say die, I mean sell themselves in honor of the program. We definitely need guys like that. I think everyone on the team is like that."

For the four new scholarship players, the full-ride is sort of the peak of hard work and the realization of what can be accomplished through it.

Before the scholarship, all walk-ons pay their own way. That includes books, tuition and room and board. They are basically like any other undergraduate, except they get to take part of a team that many people not only around campus, but around the state and country cherish.

And it's that comoraderie that keeps them willing to sacrifice so many things with the hopes of it paying off in the long run.

"We got a lot of walk-ons here that love playing the game and work hard," Holland said. "Quite honestly, there's been a long list of walk-ons that we've had. If you look at Jimmy Leonhard, Luke Swan, Josh Neal from last year, I mean, we've got tons of guys that love playing the game and want to work hard and be part of something special.

"And that's what it's all about."

Kirtley may have summed it up best, though.

"It's just something that I felt really proud of to say that I can go back and tell my family that Wisconsin has the great walk-on tradition and for people that played there and go on to earn scholarships.

"I can tell my family and my kids that I was one of those people that went and walked on and worked hard and earned a scholarship. Maybe if my kids want to play sports, I can tell them you can do the same thing.

"I did it."

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