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Pay to Play: The Life of the College Football Walk-On

Three former University of Oregon walk-on football players, Andiel Brown, Ryan DePalo, and Nick Federico, share their experiences as players who are literally paying to play.

Jonathan Ferrey

Andiel Brown was surprised when he saw Oregon coaches attending his games at Cleveland High School in Portland. A standout running back and cornerback, Brown wasn't sure that college would really be an option until he saw coaches in the stands. He would draw interest from other programs: Washington, Washington State, Colorado. However, when none would pull the trigger on a scholarship offer, Brown made the decision to attend Willamette University, a Division III power in Salem where he could get a chance to play consistently. "I loved Willamette" said Brown. "I loved the academics and the atmosphere. But they kept losing my transcript, and it made me question how much they really wanted me."

So Brown reversed course. He accepted an offer from Oregon to join the squad as a preferred walk-on. Preferred walk-ons are recruited players, and don't have to try out for the team. But they're not scholarship players, either. Everything that would come after for Brown had to be earned the hard way.

It was always Ryan DePalo's dream to play college football. As a high school freshman, he started on offense and defense at small Toutle Lake High School in Washington. The path from a small high school to big time college football, however, is not an easy one. After much deliberation, DePalo moved in with his aunt and uncle to Beaverton, where he could play at one of the biggest high schools in the state of Oregon at Southridge. DePalo would go on to excel, albeit on a mediocre team, and the recruiting process came shortly thereafter.

DePalo had some options, but they weren't exactly big time. Portland State appealed to him as the local school. He had some family connections at Hawaii. He looked seriously at Montana as well. But his high coach Bill Tarrow, a former Oregon coach, was able to get his name into Oregon coach Neal Zoumboukas, who liked what they saw well enough to offer him a spot as a preferred walk-on. After a visit, DePalo committed. "I fell in love with the atmosphere," he said. "I figured go big or go home."

Even the small bit of security afforded by the status of preferred walk-on was not one that was afforded to Nick Federico. An all-league lineman at South Salem High School, Federico was told by his own high school coaches that he wasn't good enough to play major college football. "I was recruited by Whitworth [a Division III school in Walla Walla]" said Federico, "but I wanted to be somewhere where I knew I would want to be a student even without football, and I had always loved Oregon"

Taking to heart what his high school coaches had told him about not being good enough as a lineman, Federico went to work the summer between his senior year at South Salem and his freshman year at Oregon. After noticing that the Ducks could use some depth at long snapper, Federico spend the summer learning the craft despite never having long snapped in high school. "I spent the entire summer snapping with my best friend, who would then watch film with me and kind of became my snapping coach," Federico said "I must have snapped the ball over a thousand times that summer"

Federico almost didn't get his chance to even try out. After having some grade issues in high school, Federico didn't even find out until September that he had been admitted to the University. Then, after school started in late September, he attended an open tryout with 50-75 other students hoping to catch the eye of the graduate assistants running the show. After watching Federico snap the ball, they sent him and a few of the other would be walk-ons to an actual coach for another look. Federico passed this test as well and was given a spot on the team, already by this point well into their season.

The first days of fall practice are critical for any member of a football team. That's doubly so for newcomers, as it may be the only chance a player gets to show they can contribute right away before they are relegated to scout team duty for the season. This is especially the case for the walk-on athlete, who, already getting fewer reps than the scholarship athlete, will see his reps decrease greatly after the first week if he fails to impress.

"To even get a chance, you have to work harder than any scholarship player" noted Brown. "You don't have to be the best athlete, but you have to play harder and smarter and continuously make plays. You have only limited reps, so every rep counts." The same sentiment was echoed by DePalo "You have to consistently stand out on film. They [the coaches] have nothing invested in you, whereas they have $100,000 invested in the scholarship player. If you don't consistently stand out, you will be forgotten."

Of course, this all makes sense. In the vast majority of cases, there is a reason that the walk-ons are walk-ons; they simply weren't good enough to play consistently at the Division I level. And that reality hits hard for a lot of kids who excelled in high school, but either didn't want to work hard enough to get on the field or couldn't adjust mentally to the fact that they weren't good enough to see significant playing time. "Turnover rates are very high," DePalo noted. "I think Andiel and I were the only ones from our class who made it all four years."

Redshirting first year players, as well as walk-ons, get placed on the scout team. The scout team is the group that is trying to replicate the upcoming opponent's scheme in practice. Usually, this involves spending Monday watching the opponent run their stuff, then doing the best they can to replicate that throughout practice the rest of the week. This is on top of learning their own playbook, for which they will get very few reps during the season. That's a lot of learning for one week. Of course, its an invaluable service to the team, but one that will never make the papers or show up in the box score.

To get a real idea of the sacrifice these kids make, you really have to go through a day in their schedule. The demands of football make school almost an afterthought, yet, you have to find a way to fit it all in. Federico would describe this as an average schedule during football season:

8:00-11:00 class

12:00-1:15 workouts/film session

1:15-2:00 team meeting

2:00-3:15 position meetings

3:15-6:00 practice

6:00-7:00 dinner

7:00-9:00 study hall

The commitment to football leaves only small amounts of personal time, and this is the schedule that the average scholarship athlete can expect this schedule during the season as well. However, Brown would be at an even further disadvantage, needing a job to help pay his college expenses. That would entail waking up at 4:30 and working a breakfast shift in the Carson Dining Hall on weekday mornings. Later, Brown would work at Foot Locker.

Furthermore, naturally existing stratification between the walk-ons and the scholarship players are reinforced by the NCAA itself. The post-practice meal is a buffet inside the Pittman Room at the Casanova Center. Between practice and study hall, players get treatment and help themselves to dinner, a rare time to unwind and bond as a team. However, players who are not on scholarship are not allowed to have their food paid for by the school, as it is deemed an extra benefit per NCAA regulations. If they wish to eat the post-practice meal, they must pay for it themselves. Otherwise, they must leave and eat dinner at home. Federico was fortunate enough that his parents would pay for his meals. Brown and DePalo would not be eating with the team.

In fact, there are only two situations in which walk-ons are treated with some semblance of the luxury that are afforded to scholarship players. One is that they are allowed to receive a stipend for time spent in Eugene in December that falls after school ends, but during bowl practices, as the NCAA recognizes that its helping students who stay during non-school time for football isn't an extra benefit. The other is the bowl games themselves-it's the one time of the year that the entire roster, including walk-ons, gets to travel together, and all on the roster are entitled to the same bowl gifts that the bowl sponsors provide.

We see above the story of players who practice hard every day, taking extremely large portions of their time to be a part of the football program. They see no monetary compensation for their pursuits, and odds are very likely that they'll never see the playing field, either. So what, exactly, is the motivation for these players to go through the process?

Those answers are as varied as the players themselves.

For Brown and DePalo, it was a supreme belief in themselves that they were good enough to play at that level. Federico held no illusions that he was destined for stardom at the collegiate level. He simply wanted to stay involved in football and gain experience that would be useful for achieving his dream of becoming a high school football coach.

Duck fans know the names of Brown and DePalo, as they are among the few that achieved that ultimate goal-a starting spot, and a scholarship. For them, the opportunity came via special teams.

Brown spent time at cornerback and running back his freshman year, but a crowded depth chart pushed him to pursue returning kicks and punts as a way to see the field. "Not a lot of guys wanted to do it, and I saw it as an opportunity to work hard and get a shot." For nearly two years, Brown worked on the craft, especially studying his friend Justin Phinissee, who had been a standout cornerback and punt returner at Oregon, and got a few shots to return punts in a game here or there. Finally, in the eighth game of his junior season, against Portland State in 2006, Brown saw his name in the starting lineup at punt returner. He would return six punts for 104 yards, and retain the position throughout his senior year in 2007. With that came a scholarship, and a sense of relief that he would not have to pay for any more of his education.

DePalo stood out enough to earn starting spots on both all four special teams as a redshirt freshman. This put him in a position to earn a scholarship as a sophomore-as well as a place on the defensive two-deep for passing packages. Going into the 2007 season, DePalo was in an enviable position for any former walk-on-a favorite to earn a starting spot. A torn ACL in spring practice ended that chance, and probably should have ended his Oregon career-but DePalo worked ferociously to get back on the field in only four months for what would be a legendary 2007 season for Oregon football.

Federico would be a member of the football team for four seasons and never play in a game. "I thought I would get in a couple of snaps, maybe play some on the offensive line against Portland State or Idaho," Federico recalled "but my name was never called." The closest he would come to seeing the field was during the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, when a finger injury to the regular long snapper prompted the coaches to tell him he may be needed, but that never materialized.

Oregon played two games last season-against Arkansas State and Tennessee Tech-where every player on the active roster got into the game. Many played a significant number of snaps. Many fans complained about the performance of these players, forgetting, or simply not caring that they had been running scout team all week. I am glad that every player got to play in those games. A situation like Federico's, where a player goes four years without seeing a snap in a game, should almost never happen. Kudos to Chip Kelly for providing all of those players, who work their butts off with extremely long hours dedicated to the football team, with the reward of playing in a college football game. Here's hoping that Mark Helfrich does the same. Walk-on players should have the thanks of every college football fan. They don't get the fanfare, but are an essential part of making the team successful.

Andiel Brown graduated from the University of Oregon in 2008 with a degree in music, and is now the Director of Gospel Choirs and Ensembles at the University.

Ryan DePalo graduated from the University of Oregon in 2008, and is currently the owner of eforcesport, a sports training company, and president of the Oregon Football Association, a group of Oregon Football alumni whose goal is to reconnect former Oregon players and give back to the community football camps and charity events.

Nick Federico graduated from the University of Oregon in 2005, and is currently a physical education teacher and head football coach at Woodburn High School.