There’s a special place in my heart for those guys,” he said. “I will give them a better opportunity than a scholarship kid. If it’s close, I’m taking the walk-on. I’ve always been that way. I just appreciate guys like that.”
Urban Meyer-- from USA Today
Beware of the underdog!
As we enter the dizzying football bowl game season, I wanted to pay a little homage to some players that really make or break a college gridiron squad. I'm not talking about the stars. While they carry much of the weight at the top, they make up a very small percentage of a football team. Scholarship players are the meat and potatoes of any roster, but I think it is a fair to say that the small cadre of non scholarship walk-on players offer amazing heart and some serious value. Here you have players who play for the love of the sport, want the challenge of playing at a level nobody saw them in, and relish the role of the underdog. They are a force to be reckoned with, and teams cannot survive without them. Look no further than a great article in the December 20th USA Today ( Walk-ons play a key role for Ohio State and former walk-on Urban Meyer by Paul Myerberg) which talks about OSU coach Urban Meyer and his affection for walk-ons.
Walk-On This Way - The Ongoing Legacy of the Wisconsin Football by Joel Nellisand Jake Kocorowskiis the latest book to explore a walk-on perspective. For a long time, Badger football was bad. I could try to say mediocre, but that would be a stretch. Those who choke back vomit when I bring up Don Morton and the veer offense will understand. It wasn't until Barry Alvarez arrived in 1990 that the attitude changed. Alvarez reshaped, restocked, and bolstered his roster using non scholarship players to fill important depth. Four years later they won the Rose Bowl, and since then, winning has become an expectation, not a dream. Chris Kennedy also explores the Badger renaissance from the eyes of a walk-on in his book, No Bed of Roses. Both books do a fantastic job of describing the necessary role of a walk-on and how these kids inspire coaches, teammates, and any young, athletic dreamers. Gator Walk: How to Walk-On and Not Crawl Off by Brian Bianda provides a peek into the life of a major program walk-on who played for "the ol' ball coach." Matt Stewart, a Northwestern football walk-on tells a similar story in his book The Walk-On: Inside Northwestern's Rise From Cellar Dwellar to Big Ten Champ.Badger fans know all to well the plight of their Wildcat football kin. In fact, during the years of being crappy, the only sure "W" on the UW schedule was the Mildcats! Much like the Badgers, Northwestern faced a resurgance under Gary Barnett and earned a Rose Bowl berth in 1993. Stewart, like Nellis, Kocorowski, and Kennedy provides inspiration for those athletes who work hard, never give up hope, and have mountains of determination.
These books are a must in any high school library for obvious reasons. The typical high school is not full of stars, but full of talented kids. While the talent can only take them so far, the will shown in these stories of successful walk-ons will inspire any athlete with talent, heart, a dream, and the will of the underdog to reach for the stars.
Someone fell asleep yesterday (in the Temple game), who was it? (Coach Knight stares at me). First Kirk, you let your man get free for a wide open dunk and then (he) misses the dunk. Both of you are dumb as hell! Bob Knight from Days of Knight
Bob Knight has always fascinated me. Growing up a Wisconsin Badger, I was able to witness some of his most epic Big Ten tantrums. There's just something sickly thrilling about watching a guy who has the ability to snap at any moment. I was nearly giddy when I would see Hoosier turnovers, missed assignments, boneheaded plays and such, just to wait for the glare, the clenched jaw, the barking, and the tossing of objects!
On the other hand, I really admired the genious of Knight. I hated Indiana because they were consistently good, did things right, were disciplined, and were rarely rattled. Prancing around in those damn candy cane warmup pants, the classic script "Indiana" jerseys, and clean cut hair styles. They were good and they knew it. Say what you will, but much of the credit for this confidence goes to Knight.
Thus, when I saw Kirk Haston's new book Days of Knight: How the General Changed My Life, I was pretty intrigued to gain some Knight wisdom from the perspective of a player. It's one thing to hear Knight personally talk about his philosophy, as he did in his 2013 book The Power of Negative Thinking, but it is another to see it applied to the players. For his book, Haston drew from pages of notes that he kept during his career, some at the insistance of Knight.
To start, I like Kirk Haston as a human being after reading this book. Many player stories come out full of vindictiveness toward other players and coaches, becoming nothing more than first hand accounts of how they got screwed. It's hard to make it through most of these stories without questioning the reliability of the narrator. Haston is honest. He tells the good and the bad. He lets you know that while nothing with Knight was perfect, there was enough method in the madness to prove valuable. Isn't this almost the same parental song we all sing? "Dad got on my nerves nagging me about homework and mom pissed me off by grounding me for violating curfew. But they are also the ones who have my best interests in mind and will battle for me more than anyone." Days of Knight, while noodling mostly through the relationship of Haston and Knight, is far more an autobiogrphical look at Haston's life than anything. And that's a good thing, not a criticism. Haston really is a fantastic person, earning reader respect with tales of his strong bond to family, friends, teammates, and God. He's a guy to root for, and Knight is only one of the many sages Haston admits have made him a better person.
I would put this book in the hands of any young adult. It should be in every high school library--not just in Indiana. The book is written competently in an unpretentious voice. I particularly liked the format, with pullout quotes from Knight called "Knight Lines" that were both funny and inspiring. Ultimately, Haston's lessons of humility and hard work are ones that all young athletes could stand to hear. Just as Knight brought out the best in Haston, I think Haston brings out the best in Knight here.
One of the best developments in publishing from my perspective in the past couple of years has been the creation of young adult versions of high interest nonfiction books. Very often, middle to high school kids find some of the lengthy nonfiction titles to be a little imtimidating, and thus shy away from a book solely on the basis of fear and underconfidence. In the sports related world, the past couple of years have yielded "young reader" versions of Unbroken: An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive and Boys In the Boat with excellent results. These books are not "kiddie" versions that are dumbed down. They are still rather meaty in content, but tend to stick with a more streamlined story in a manner that still keeps with the spirit of the subject. Often, additional photos are added for reference, which accommodates the more visial nature of youth learners nicely. The latest entry into this is category is Andrew Maraniss and his fantastic book Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. Maraniss tells a powerful story of basketball, race, and history in the setting of the tumultuous 1960's Deep South. However, when I try handing the adult version this book to a 16 year old, I get reactions like I have just asked someone to guard Michael Jordan. At 400 plus pages, teens weep. So, when I saw that Maraniss was putting his story in "Young Reader" format, it was the jackpot. Now we will get an amazing story into more hands, and everyone will come out a winner. As an aside, there is such a chasm between the elementary versions of sports books that exist and the adult market version. At this time, there is very little content to bridge the gap. Is it any coincidence that these middle years are where we lose readers and stymie any momentum that is gained during elementary years? Why do we graduate from sports based light text picture books to 400 page white-knucklers and hope teenage kids just naturally adapt? We've gone from bench pressing the bar to throwing 50 lbs on each side and telling kids to suck it up. Anyways, hats of to Maraniss for understanding what this age group needs. He has taken a story that young adults really need to hear and handed it to them on their level. Stong Inside-YR Version will be released right before Christmas on December 20. This is a "must-have" for every middle school, high school, and public library with a young adult collection. The book would also make a great gift for any teenager in the family. And if you don't want to be "that person" who gifts a teenager a stinking book, then throw in a pair of tickets to a local college or NBA game as a bookmark!! You'll be untouchable!
To be released on December 20, 2016
Perry Wallace was born at an historic crossroads in U.S. history. He entered kindergarten the year that the Brown v. Board of Education decision led to integrated schools, allowing blacks and whites to learn side by side. A week after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Wallace enrolled in high school and his sensational jumping, dunking, and rebounding abilities quickly earned him the attention of college basketball recruiters from top schools across the nation. In his senior year his Pearl High School basketball team won Tennessee's first racially-integrated state tournament.
The world seemed to be opening up at just the right time, and when Vanderbilt University recruited Wallace to play basketball, he courageously accepted the assignment to desegregate the Southeastern Conference. The hateful experiences he would endure on campus and in the hostile gymnasiums of the Deep South turned out to be the stuff of nightmares. Yet Wallace persisted, endured, and met this unthinkable challenge head on.