To walk-on in college football, you need to be pretty courageous. In a world that has turned the process of recruiting into a science, to come forward and assert that you belong there is standing up to the system itself. To do well as a walk-on in college football is akin to being a glitch in the matrix: at one point, your talent was considered by coaches as not good enough to play in college. Overcoming that to find triumph in college sports is a great story of defying the odds. A walk-on succeeding is always a tale that touches hearts and shows what the power of hard work can do. So, without further adieu, here are 5 of the best walk-ons in college football history.
With a name as big as his, it’s no surprise Mayfield made this list. He had an iconic run during his time at Oklahoma and even earned a Heisman out of it, but many people forget about how his college career began. As a true freshman at Texas Tech, he started his very first game; what’s even more impressive is that he did so as a walk-on, the first player in FBS history to do so. It must be noted that Baker didn’t go completely under the radar in his recruiting: he had a few offers from schools like Florida Atlantic, but always saw himself playing in a bigger environment. In any case, going from a walk-on to a starter at two different schools, achieving Heisman recognition, and finally being selected first overall in the NFL draft is a great achievement.
Only a few years removed from his time in the NFL, people forget how mighty a force Clay Matthews was in football. Being selected to the pro bowl six times and earning two all-pro recognitions, he also racked up a list of achievements while in college. During his time at USC, he achieved two special teams player of the year awards and left being selected as a first-round pick in the NFL draft. While he ended his time in college football reaching the top of the mountain, he began it as a walk-on. He strictly played on the scout team during his first year, and during his second and third year, he was only a backup. He eventually found his way to the field through special teams, and the rest was history.
You can’t talk about the best walk-ons in college football history without mentioning Brandon Bullsworth. He went from walk-on at the University of Arkansas to All-American recognition, to eventually having an award named after him in college football. He began college as an undersized, doughy walk-on with thick-lensed glasses. Nobody expected him to go far. But, over the next year, he worked day in and out to change his physique and rise up through the depth chart and start a game in the SEC, a mammoth of an achievement by itself. He pushed forward: he was voted as team captain his junior year, earned all-SEC honors in 1997 & 1998, and earned an All-American honor in the 1998 season (the first Arkansas player to do so since 1993). Most of all, he stayed focused on growing himself as a person: he was the first Arkansas player to secure a master’s degree before playing their last game. Sadly, Brandon died shortly after the NFL draft, but the example he set will live on forever.
One of the biggest fan-favorites in professional football today also was widely beloved. Renfrow walked onto the football team at Clemson, one of the best teams in the country, despite having a few offers from small FCS schools. He chose the hard road, and it paid off. Within one year, Hunter Renfrow was put on scholarship and started 10 of 13 games, catching two touchdowns in the national championship that year. He continued to flourish throughout his college career, helping win a national championship and receiving the Burlsworth trophy, an award given to the best player in college football for that year.
One of the faces at the forefront of the University of Miami in the late nineties, Santana Moss began his time there as a walk-on. His story is unique in that he was recruited to Miami not for football, but to join the school’s track team. He was happy for the opportunity, but was excited to see what lightning speed could really do and tried out for the football team. His success made him rise so fast that he was put on scholarship by the third game of his freshman year. He would go on to become the Hurricanes’ all-time leading receiver and receive first-team all-big east recognition. He was awarded the big east offensive player of the year and special teams player of the year within the same season, the first to do so.
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