October 14, 1997 in Sports

Five For Free Walk-Ons Give Cougars Character

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:feature

Yeah, Lee Harrison walked on. That’s only half of it.

The rest is that Mike Price all but invited him to walk off.

Price tells the story on himself, shaking his head at yet another you-never-know irony - the kind that abounds on his Washington State football team, the kind that would seem to mitigate against the notion of the Cougars being 5-0 and ranked 13th in the nation but instead helps explain it.

Maybe you can’t win with 22 Lee Harrisons. But it’s for certain the Cougs can’t win without at least one.

Heck, they can’t even start without him. He’s the guy who snaps the ball.

But you’ll notice that since Harrison was installed as the starting center for the season opener against UCLA, no one’s been able to get him out of there - or get WSU into the loss column.

This was not exactly the scenario envisioned in 1993, when Harrison joined the Cougars football program without a scholarship - a pretty fair offensive lineman out of Bend, Ore., who had come to WSU to study engineering. Five semesters later, Price finally called him into the office to give him a scholarship - but it was another meeting the coach remembers best.

“I brought him in,” Price said, “and I told him, ‘Hey, my oldest son coaches at (Cal Poly) San Luis Obispo. They’ve got a good engineering school and that would be a great place for you to play.’ “And he just gave me a look that said …” Obispo this?

Close enough.

That’s the Lee Harrison story.

It’s a lot like the Todd Nelson story, but very different, too. Ditto the Shawn Tims story and the Cory Withrow story.

Call the anthology Price’s ode to opportunity.

All four originally walked on to the program without scholarships. All four were eventually rewarded with rides. All four will be in the starting lineup Saturday at Martin Stadium against Cal - Harrison and Withrow on the offensive line, Tims at receiver, Nelson at linebacker.

Four might not be a Pac-10 record, even for WSU. But for the 13thranked team in the nation, it’s a hell of a showing in the scavenger hunt.

Actually, there’s a fifth - placekicker Rian Lindell, although he almost doesn’t count. It’s the rare kicker who comes to any campus on the school’s dime.

Dredge the other nine Pac-10 programs and you’ll come up with just a half-dozen starters who originally walked on.

So what’s up at Wazzu?

“If you can show any sign at all that you can play,” said Withrow, a graduate of Mead High School, “they’ll give you a shot to prove yourself - and that’s all a player needs, a shot.”

Or maybe Price just has a soft spot for the lowly walk-on.

“Why not?” the Cougars coach said. “I walked on here.”

An NCAA grant-in-aid covers room, board, books, tuition and fees. If you don’t think that’s huge, you’ve never put a kid through college.

And if you believe all players are created equal, Blue Chip Illustrated or any of a dozen other recruiting rags will hype you into recanting.

That doesn’t mean the distinctions are obvious - even to the recruiters. But on one level, players know.

“I mentally separated myself,” remembered Harrison. “Now, I’m not even sure about some of the new kids, whether they’re on scholarship or not. But when I got here, I felt they knew I wasn’t. I segregated myself.”

Actually, there is some unavoidable segregation at Wazzu. Because of space limitations in Bohler Gym, walk-ons dress in an auxiliary locker room. Price said that will change when the new Bohler addition opens.

Even in separate locker rooms, though, it can be confusing.

“Shawn Tims and I had lockers next to each other,” said Withrow. “I couldn’t believe he was a walk-on. He was so fast.”

Beyond dressing quarters, Price is determined not to discriminate.

“I’ve seen programs - not naming names - where walk-ons sit in the bleachers during practice,” he said. “A coach will yell, ‘Fifty two, get in there,’ and then send him back into the bleachers when they’re done with him. Talk about humiliating.

“We try to treat kids with dignity and respect, scholarship or not.”

Dignity has a way of disappearing once the whistle blows, of course. Walk-ons must work their way up from the scout team, and the abuse they endure from the starters comes with the badge.

“I thought I had prepared myself physically every way I could before I came here,” said Withrow. “I put on about 10 pounds - thinking, ‘Man, I’m up to 240, I can play.’ Well, the first week I lost 15 pounds and Chad Eaton and Donny Sasa were pretty much wiping their noses with me. I thought about packing my bags.”

Most do.

In more than a decade as the football staff secretary, Marie Taylor has seen hundreds of wannabes walk through her door - up to 30 each fall and spring. And no, she doesn’t claim to be able to tell at first glance who will survive and who won’t.

She leaves that to the coaches, who put the hopefuls through strength, agility and speed drills. There’s a winter conditioning class they can attend with the scholarship players.

“I don’t know how many head coaches in the Pac-10 spend time watching walk-ons run the 40,” said Price, “but I do.”

But when the best are invited to draw a uniform and pad up, they step into another world.

“I remember the first play at my first practice,” said Nelson, who is so shy you wonder how he worked up the gumption to ask for a chance.

“I don’t remember who hit who, but a wide receiver went on an out pattern and he got hit by two linebackers. They knocked him out and his helmet came off. It happened so fast that I stepped back and went, ‘Whoa - do I belong here?”’

That, of course, is the $64,000 question - or however much a year of college costs these days.

But money is often the least of a walk-on’s motivations - at first.

Saddled with out-of-state tuition, Harrison took a job at Videoland to make ends meet in his third year and told Price he’d have to skip winter conditioning. A few weeks later, a scholarship opened up.

“That was the ultimate - not for the money, though that helped,” said Harrison. “It was them saying they wanted me.”

Withrow came to Pullman with a bit of a chip on his shoulder - just not a blue one. He’d taken a recruiting visit to WSU, only to be told the Cougs didn’t have a scholarship with his name on it.

“I had a lot of people telling me I couldn’t do it and that’s one thing I can’t stand,” said Withrow. “I was too small, too slow, not athletic enough. I had some people tell me I wasn’t Big Sky material and that upset me.”

The tales of Tims and Nelson are just as Mittyesque.

From Vallejo, Calif., Tims was desperate to escape (“It’s kind of wild there”) and earned a small academic scholarship from WSU.

“I was going to play baseball,” explained Tims, twice an all-city outfielder in high school. “But when I came up, football was in the air.”

Nelson, too, was baseball inclined.

“But I’d be running by the football stadium at night and see the lights,” he said. “It was, ‘What if?”’ No one knew at the time that stadium lights would lure WSU’s successor at middle linebacker to current pros James Darling, Mark Fields and Anthony McClanahan.

No one knew Shawn Tims would eventually make the All-Pac-10 team as a return specialist, the only Cougar other than Dan Grayson in 1989 to go from walk-on to all-conference.

No one knew that Withrow would start 27 consecutive games - and counting.

The NCAA limits Division I-A schools to 85 football rides, but it doesn’t limit walk-ons. At WSU, other issues do.

Like Title IX. The concept of proportionality so integral to that federal statute - that athletic participation by men and women should mirror the makeup of the general enrollment - makes it prudent for the school to limit football walk-ons.

So while the roster at Washington pushes 160, WSU caps its roster at 125 - 105 who can be on campus for two-a-days in August.

Price is comfortable with the number, but not the concept.

“If I’m a parent paying for my kid to come to school, I’d want him to be able to participate in the activities of the university at whatever level he’s capable of,” Price said.

“My son walked on here. He had to earn a scholarship. He worked two jobs, delivering pizza, and went through all the things a walk-on has to go through. I’d hate to do that and then be told, ‘Hey, we have to cut it off at 125.”’ As part of perhaps the most successful walk-on class in WSU history, Withrow sees another downside.

“When I walked on in 1993, 26 of us came out for double days,” he said. “Four of us are here today. But now you can only have a handful come on for double days. What if that had been true when I started?”

Well, then somebody - Harrison or Tims or Nelson or Withrow - probably wouldn’t be in the lineup Saturday.

“I think everybody should have an opportunity to see if they can play, in any sport,” Withrow said. “It’s all about opportunity.”

Yes, it is. And about knowing when not to walk off.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. Pac-10 walk-ons

Here are Pac-10 football starters who originally joined their teams as walk-ons:

Arizona: FS David Fipp

Arizona State: none

California:none

Oregon: DE Terry Miller, LB Garth White

Oregon State: none

Stanford:none

UCLA: WR Danny Farmer, DT Damon Smith

USC: none

Washington: WR Jerome Pathon Washington State WR Shawn Tims, C Lee Harrison, G Cory Withrow, LB Todd Nelson.

2. Football his 2nd stop on walk

Give him your tired, your poor, your Grady Emmersons yearning to play for free.

Welcoming walk-ons has become a way of life for Washington State football coach Mike Price, but sometimes the circumstances border on the ridiculous.

That’s why Price calls sophomore linebacker Grady Emmerson “the walk-on of all walk-ons.”

Emmerson, who backs up Brandon Moore and plays on special teams, received not a single scholarship offer out of Kennewick High School in 1995 and so “college football never entered my mind,” he said.

But he did have a notion of playing college baseball, so when he arrived at WSU that fall he tried walking on Steve Farrington’s baseball team.

“I made it through a few practices, but I got cut the last day,” Emmerson recalled.

“When I went up to coach Farrington’s office to find out why, he wasn’t in. I tried a couple of times and finally I just walked around the corner and there was the football office.

“I figured I’d just keep going down the line if I had to.”

The memory drew a laugh from Price.

“Now that is walking on,” he said. “Baseball wouldn’t have him. The only team that would have him is us.”

-John Blanchette

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. Pac-10 walk-ons Here are Pac-10 football starters who originally joined their teams as walk-ons: Arizona: FS David Fipp Arizona State: none California:none Oregon: DE Terry Miller, LB Garth White Oregon State: none Stanford:none UCLA: WR Danny Farmer, DT Damon Smith USC: none Washington: WR Jerome Pathon Washington State WR Shawn Tims, C Lee Harrison, G Cory Withrow, LB Todd Nelson.

2. Football his 2nd stop on walk Give him your tired, your poor, your Grady Emmersons yearning to play for free. Welcoming walk-ons has become a way of life for Washington State football coach Mike Price, but sometimes the circumstances border on the ridiculous. That’s why Price calls sophomore linebacker Grady Emmerson “the walk-on of all walk-ons.” Emmerson, who backs up Brandon Moore and plays on special teams, received not a single scholarship offer out of Kennewick High School in 1995 and so “college football never entered my mind,” he said. But he did have a notion of playing college baseball, so when he arrived at WSU that fall he tried walking on Steve Farrington’s baseball team. “I made it through a few practices, but I got cut the last day,” Emmerson recalled. “When I went up to coach Farrington’s office to find out why, he wasn’t in. I tried a couple of times and finally I just walked around the corner and there was the football office. “I figured I’d just keep going down the line if I had to.” The memory drew a laugh from Price. “Now that is walking on,” he said. “Baseball wouldn’t have him. The only team that would have him is us.” -John Blanchette


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