Forget about Rudy Ruettiger. While an inspirational story and an entertaining movie, Rudy was a 5’6″ and probably around 140 pounds dripping wet defensive lineman that under normal circumstances should not be allowed to be around football other than to hand the real players water bottles.
Every year in this country there are hundreds of legitimate athletes that have a shot at helping a major college football program that are classified as a walk-on.
Many of these guys never make it, some of them even quit. A small minority of them stick around for 4 or 5 years and grind it out, but never see the field. Some of them do a little better and get to play on special teams or maybe even a few plays in a huge blow out win.
But, some of them do make it and make it big, even All American big and some even make it NFL big.
In 2010, an award was started to honor the best walk-on player in the country each year called the Burlsworth Trophy, named after Brandon Burlsworth. It’s sort of like the Heisman Trophy, but for walk-on players only and of course gets way less publicity. So little publicity, in fact, that the average college football fan has never even heard of it.
Brandon Burlsworth was a walk on offensive lineman at Arkansas that not only earned a scholarship, but became a 1st team All American in 1998. He was mostly famous for being a Drew Carey lookalike with his thick black rimmed glasses and his chubby body.
Burlsworth was drafted in the 3rd round by the Indianapolis Colts. Tragically, 11 days later, he was killed in an automobile accident.
The Burlsworth Trophy has been awarded 4 times, the first award winner is playing football in Europe. The following 2 were QBs and they are playing in the NFL. Last year’s winner was Jarred Abbrederis an outstanding WR from Wisconsin that should be in the NFL next season. He went from a walk-on nobody to become his team’s best offensive player.
Other notable walk-on players that made it big are some of the best players in the NFL such as Clay Matthews, J.J. Watt and Jordy Nelson.
But, these guys are the exception rather than the rule.
So many young men decide for whatever reason that they are not done with football and they decide to walk-on to some football team and are never heard from again.
One of those walk-on players was Chris Stone from Greenville, South Carolina.
When I asked Chris Stone to interview for this, I was unsure what to expect. For one thing, I had no idea what level of athlete he was. I knew he wasn’t a Rudy caliber of guy that had never played the game, but then I also knew he wasn’t a 1st round NFL draft pick kind of guy like J. J. Watt or Clay Matthews. Like the vast majority of walk-ons, he was somewhere in between.
Chris was a really good athlete. He may have been a better baseball player than football player but he was really good in football. Chris Stone attended Eastside High School in Greenville. Eastside is a top 10 3A high school program in South Carolina, one of the better 3A programs in the state.
I don’t have specific stats on Chris, but stats can be overrated at times, anyway, regarding talent. Chris played wide receiver, safety, quarterback and he returned punts and he started all 4 years of high school. An indicator of talent in high school football is that coaches generally put their best athletes at quarterback on offense and at safety on defense. Obviously, a guy returning punts has to have great hands, almost perfect hands. Then, he’s got to be super quick and explosive if he is going to excel at returning punts. Starting all 4 years in high school is also pretty impressive and rare.
Another indicator of a high school player’s athletic ability can be what colleges are interested in the player. Chris heard from Stanford which also indicates what kind of student one is as well as a football player. He also heard from Colorado, every ACC school, most SEC schools and a whole lot of smaller schools.
There is a difference between receiving mail and from seriously being recruited hard. Schools will send out letters to a lot of guys to gauge interest and receiving mail does not necessarily mean that the school is going to offer the recruit a scholarship.
When they find out if a recruit is interested, then they may or may not make a move at that time depending on their particular needs or how much a coaching staff will like a certain player.
Some schools recruited Chris pretty seriously. The South Carolina Gamecocks are the biggest and best school that seriously recruited Chris. Wake Forest recruited him reasonably hard as well. The Ivy League school, Princeton, came after him which is another indication of what kind of student Chris was. Ivy League schools are not known for putting out tons of talent, but it’s quite the honor to be recruited by them. A large number of Division 1-AA schools came after him as well.
One thing about recruiting, is it’s a total crap shoot. Of course, a school like Florida State and Alabama will want to go for the 5 star guy and those top recruits often turn out to be the cream of the crop. But, some of them also turn out to be average or total busts. There are so many examples of the guy that was a 3 star or lower that made it to the top.
Fans of Florida State or Alabama will be upset if their coaching staff signs too many 3 stars and not enough 4 and 5 stars and probably rightfully so.
But, it’s really difficult to see from watching high school football or highlight tapes what’s inside a man’s heart. Will that prospect wilt when he gets hit in the mouth for the very first time and I have often heard that the softest hit you take in college is comparable to the hardest high school hit you ever took. It’s an entirely different level of game. Great college players then find out the same thing about the NFL. It’s a whole other level of talent. Either a sports fan will love or hate Mike Tyson, but he maybe said it best. “Everyone has a plan until he gets hit in the mouth”.
Well said, Mike Tyson. Playing college football is a lot tougher and more difficult than playing at the high school level and we really didn’t need Mike Tyson’s philosophy of life to tell us that.
I can tell you, however, that a young man that is a high school star that will walk-on to a college football team and make it through till he graduates has a lot of heart. More heart generally than a normal 5 star recruit that has all the physical tools for greatness. Anybody that goes from high school star with all the accolades and becomes a 5th string player in college yet hangs in there till the end has what it takes to be successful in any endeavor.
Chris was All District Quarterback on offense and an All District Safety and also All District as a return specialist. He was also his team’s MVP.
He was expected to have a huge senior year and was well on his way when part way through he broke his hip. He missed 5 games and only returned for the last game.
Almost as bad as the injury, the recruiting mostly stopped at that point. Instead of ACC and SEC schools he was now only hearing from small schools like North Greenville and Mars Hill.
Like most walk-on players, Chris Stone still had dreams of playing at a major college whether it be in football or baseball. I don’t really follow college baseball much, but I learned from this interview that it’s actually harder to walk on for a baseball team than for a football team.
It’s sort of complicated and I have zero interest in attempting to explain, but baseball only has 11.7 scholarships to give and they have to split those 11.7 scholarships among 27 players. Then, they are only 8 walk on spots available to get a team’s number up to 35 total.
Chris thought he was going to get to play baseball at Furman University, but that fell through at the last minute.
Suddenly, it was two weeks until classes started and he had nowhere to go.
In almost desperation, Chris and his parents visited Clemson University for their freshman orientation and had a meeting with the baseball coach. He was told that if he came to play baseball at Clemson, that they would not have room for him.
Chris and his parents walked right into the football offices at Clemson and took a tape of his highlights. Clemson coaches called a week later and invited him to come walk-on as a wide receiver.
Chris, like a whole lot of guys. really wanted to experience the big school and get a feel for the atmosphere and that’s exactly what he did.
In college football, they have a type of walk-on that is “Preferred”. This is a guy that has been recruited but there may not be an available scholarship for them right now. These guys are invited to join the team pretty much like a scholarship player.
Then, there are others that just walk in and ask to play for the team. These guys are put through a very strenuous work out to determine whether they can make the team or not. I’ve heard from a lot of people that this is really tough and you had better be pretty tough or pretty fast to make it through. But, Chris was asked to come out by the coaching staff after presenting them with game tape, so at least he had the blessing of the Clemson coaching staff and didn’t get the worst of that.
Some walk on guys don’t make it for their first Fall season, but get another chance in the off season. These guys have it rough and they have my admiration.
Players like Chris Stone can earn the respect of the other players pretty quickly, but it’s another matter with the coaches and the staff. Most good college coaches are very fair with the walk on player giving them good instruction as well as the star players on the team. Opportunities are extremely rare for the long shot walk-on.
Chris is a smart guy. He knew that the only way he was going to get noticed was going above and beyond what is expected. I said at the beginning to forget about Rudy, but that is exactly what Rudy Ruettiger did. If a walk-on is ever going to play he definitely has to work harder and longer than the star players. Coaches and staff members believe you are nuts for working so hard because they believe you will only get so far no matter what you do or how hard you work.
Chris worked for hours and hours in the weight room and outworked most guys on the team, scholarship or otherwise. He was there day after day, busting his butt without quitting. A lot of guys would have thrown in the towel. Maybe most guys, in fact.
The same is true for walk-on players as is true for hot shot super star guys at most colleges, they are tight with the Strength and Conditioning coaches more than the position coaches or the head coach. The S and C coaches spend more time with these guys than anyone else and they form a bond with them. The coaches job is to develop these guys and by doing that it’s not only about their physical well being but about their minds as well. The S and C coaches try to build up the confidence level of the guys under their tutelage. All those hours in the gym at Clemson paid off with a good relationship with strength coach Joey Batson. Batson not only pushed Chris, but he also had faith in Chris and really taught Chris to believe in himself. That’s a life lesson that one doesn’t forget.
Not only is a bond formed between the strength coaches and all the players including the walk-on guys, but a huge bond is formed between the walk on players themselves. At any given time on any given team there are about 20 to 35 players and they become a tight knit group. They are all on the same boat and it’s much better to pull together and unite to get through those hard days in the gym and on the football field.
Clemson has a pretty unique game day experience. The players get on buses and ride to the stadium and hundreds of loyal fans are standing around waiting for the players to get out. Often, the rabid fans just want to touch the players similar to when the Beatles or Elvis came to town. Every Clemson player, whether he be an early NFL draft pick and super star like Sammy Watkins or the 6th string walk on tight end feels like a rock star.
Then, every Clemson player gets to run down ‘the hill’ into the stadium. This is quite the honor for anyone that plays at Clemson. Death Valley is what they call their stadium and it’s a pretty intimidating and extremely loud place to play.
Chris loved Clemson, but he decided to leave the school after 2 years to explore options elsewhere. He was looking to play and to be a more integral part of the team.
He transferred to his home town of Greenville’s Furman University. Furman is a fine University located at the base of Paris Mountain and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Without Furman University I never would have known what a Paladin is.
The Furman University football program is division 1AA. The smaller division of college football is allowed to give fewer scholarships. Fewer scholarships to give leads to less depth. Chris confirmed my earlier theories that the level of athlete is similar at a D1AA as to the bigger schools just that there are fewer of them, plus the guys might be a little shorter and a little smaller. Because of depth issues, the walk on has a little better opportunity to prove themselves. Chris was looking to prove himself.
Chris has no regrets about leaving Clemson for Furman, He got to experience both levels of football, the game day experience at Clemson is something that nobody can ever take from him. He made friends at both schools and loved them both. .
The average walk on is never promised anything. Chris was thrilled with every opportunity he received at both schools. He was hoping for more playing time than he actually got at Furman but he did eventually earn a partial scholarship his junior year and then a full scholarship for his senior year. By his junior year, he was playing on all the special teams at Furman and then by his senior year he was playing regularly on the Paladin defense
Make no mistake, a walk-on’s life is tough. A lot of walk-ons out work the star players, but they have to out work them if they are going to even hope of getting any playing time.
It was worth it for Chris. He got a degree and he got a little bit of his school paid for. He got to run down the Hill at Clemson and be a part of that experience and he learned a lot of life lessons along the way.
Chris Stone’s advice to a kid that wants to play college football is make a tape. Most of them do these days, but seek after coaches. Swallow your pride, and go to the coaches. Don’t wait on them coming to you because they may not make it. Go to camps and go watch practices and workouts. Mainly, just be as visible as you can possibly be. It’s all about who you know and who knows you.
After graduating from college and being through with college football, Chris decided to hike the Appalachian Trail before he got tied down with life. The people that make it from one end to the other is supposedly around 20%. However, I believe it’s actually much less than that. When I heard he was going, first thing I said was “he will make it” and he did. Of course, he made it. What is hiking 2181 miles compared to walking on to a college football program.
A guy that has the guts to walk on at a college program and sticks it out to the end has heart. He has no quit in him. If you are a CEO of some company, this is the kind of guy you should want working for you, he has a lot of heart and he won’t quit or wilt under pressure. He’ll be there with you when times get hard.
Chris Stone has a huge heart.