Chasing the dream: Some walk-ons catch it, most quit trying

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Finally, Brad Simpson can call himself a scholarship player at a big-time football school. It's taken him four years, and he's run up student-loan debt into the tens of thousands of dollars. With one season to play, he says his walk-on experience at Nebraska has been worth every penny.

Derek Foster also walked on at Nebraska. He never earned a scholarship. In fact, he never played a down in his five years. He says he, too, got his money's worth.

With the start of classes across the country, freshman walk-on players are hitting practice fields to round out rosters and chase dreams. A lot of them turned down scholarships from lower-division schools and are challenging themselves to see if they can hack it in Division I. Their hopes are to become significant contributors and get a scholarship.

The reality is that most will transfer or quit. In fact, 15 of the 20 walk-ons who entered Nebraska with Foster in 2010 did just that. Foster never considered it.

"I'm a small-town kid who grew up in Nebraska. There was one team I watched, and one team only, and that was the Huskers," said Foster, who's from Elm Creek, population 934, and graduated in 2014. "To have the opportunity to walk through the tunnel and step on the field was a win in itself there. People always ask if I regret it that I didn't play a single down when I could have gone to a D-II school, had a scholarship and started right way. The answer: I don't have a single regret."

Walk-ons always have been part of college football. Nebraska was among the first programs to make a point of seeking out prospects who might not be talented enough to merit a scholarship but could help the team.

Nebraska's rosters regularly numbered 175-200 into the early 2000s. Stricter enforcement of Title IX, which requires equitable opportunities for male and female athletes, has led to a reduction in squad sizes. The Huskers now cap their roster at about 140, with 85 of them being scholarship players. That means Nebraska must be more selective when it comes to walk-ons.

Except for having to pay for tuition, room and board, walk-ons are treated the same as scholarship players. They're given the cost-of-attendance stipend, a laptop and Adidas gear, and they have access to the academic support and life skills programs.

Still, from 2008 to 2015, 80 of the 153 walk-ons (53 percent) left before completing their eligibility. But 2012 brought one of the best walk-on classes in program history, with 10 of the 22 earning scholarships, and at least three will be starters this season.

Director of high school relations Kenny Wilhite estimated 85 percent of Nebraska walk-ons had scholarship offers from lower-division programs. Walk-ons from in-state will pay about $20,000 this year for tuition, room and board; for out-of-state walk-ons it's about $35,000.

"This is a great institution. You have that Nebraska degree, and it goes a long way," Wilhite said, "but it's still tough to sell when kids have scholarship offers."

Simpson, from the Omaha suburb of Ralston, said he had to think long and hard about saying no to offers of partial scholarships from Division II Nebraska-Kearney and Northwest Missouri State and saying yes to the walk-on opportunity presented by the former Nebraska staff.

The son of an office worker and retired electrician, Simpson estimated his student-loan debt at $80,000 to $90,000.

"Every time the email comes, I don't look at it," Simpson said of his loan statements. "It's all an investment. If I ever think about the money, I just say put in your time, put in your money and it will all pay off — the education, the experience, the connections."

Simpson, part of that stellar 2012 walk-on class, worked 40 hours a week at an Omaha supermarket the summer following his senior year of high school. Meanwhile, the incoming scholarship players spent that summer on campus training with the returning players and adjusting to campus.

Simpson said it was intimidating being around the scholarship players at first, but he never felt looked-down upon. A linebacker, he spent his first year playing on the scout team and has become a key member of special teams the last three years.

Coach Mike Riley told Simpson a little over a week ago that he had done enough to earn a scholarship this season.

"It meant the world," he said. "Ever since I got here, that was the biggest accomplishment I could have. For me to reach my goal like that, it's not overwhelming but a big feeling of accomplishment, that I proved to myself I could do this."

Simpson is on track to graduate with a communications degree in December and begin a career selling medical equipment.

"I'm not leaving this place having regrets," he said.

Foster certainly had none. Nebraska-Kearney put together an attractive scholarship offer and was persistent, but Foster couldn't turn down the Huskers when he picked up the phone on Jan. 27, 2010 — his birthday — and assistant coach Barney Cotton was on the line asking him to walk on.

Foster had no academic scholarship to offset costs. His parents, who own the grocery store in Elm Creek, were able to pay his way.

Those long days of conditioning, weightlifting and serving as practice meat never paid off with playing time. The closest he got was in a 2012 blowout of Idaho State. He was set to go in late in the game on the kickoff unit. Unfortunately, the Huskers never scored again, so it didn't happen. Now he's a financial planner in Lincoln.

"I did everything I could while I was there," Foster said. "I would have loved to have gotten in and contributed on game day rather than just practice. That wasn't my calling. People say, 'How in the heck did you stick it out for five years and never play a down?' You hear that and ask yourself if you're wasting your time.

"That whole time, it was a life lesson, too. Just going through it and having the perseverance to keep going and keep working hard and saying, 'Yeah, if I get in, great; if not, I know I'm making the guy to my left and right better.' That's the mentality I took."


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