Austin Flynn knew his was a lonely quest before he took it up. And he took it up anyway.
The former multisport standout from University High is preparing for his second season as a walk-on wide receiver on the Eastern Washington University football team.
Walking on can be daunting. And frustrating. And expensive in ways the average football fan will never see.
It starts with the fact that walk-on players weren’t offered scholarships to play the game. Some players are invited to walk-on, giving them a preferred status that allows them to skip the try-out process. Still, a walk-on player wasn’t considered good enough. They set out to prove that assessment wrong.
Without the scholarship, players pay their own way or find academic scholarships. And without a scholarship, things like the team training table aren’t available unless the player is willing to pay for the meal – per NCAA rule.
There’s no fanfare – programs don’t issue press releases to announce the arrival of walk-on players. And walk-on players are guaranteed just one spot – the back of the line for every drill, scrimmage and depth chart.
The time demands of college football are substantial. Team meetings, position meetings, film study and practice amount to having a full-time job.
Walk-on players have to work harder than their scholarship teammates just for the chance a coach will notice you. Reps in practice go to starters and back-ups; when opportunities filter down to walk-ons, they have to be ready to make the most of the opportunity to impress.
“It’s tough,” Flynn said. “You have to be ready so that when they do call on you, you can show off what you can do. And if you mess up, you have to put it behind you and start all over again.”
Flynn has two older brothers who each went on to play in college. That sibling rivalry, he said, is part of what helped set his course in Cheney.
“We’ve always been competitive,” he said. “We’re always trying to one-up each other. We’d always compare notes and stats – ‘hey, in this game I had more yards than you did!’
“They did it and that made me want to do it, too. But it also prepared me for it more than some players. I knew what to expect.”
Flynn has a plan worked out.
“My goal is to make it into the rotation so I can start to see some time on the field,” he said. “Making it onto the scout team, playing special teams, it all helps.”
There have been some hiccups along the way. Problems with his transcripts kept him from working out with the team in the weight room over the winter. Once spring practices came along, he wasn’t in top shape.
Still, spring turnouts are a big opportunity – especially for players like Flynn, who are just trying to get noticed.
“Spring is important,” Flynn said. “There are open positions that coaches are looking to fill. There are chances to impress coaches and you have to be ready to go when they come along.”
There are walk-on role models out there to pattern your efforts after.
Green Bay Packers All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews III was an unheralded high school athlete, despite being the son of 19-year NFL veteran Clay Matthews Jr. and the nephew of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews. Matthews walked on at Southern Cal, the same school that sent his father and uncle to the NFL. By the time he graduated, he was a first-round draft pick by the Packers.
Wide receiver Santana Moss was a walk-on at the University of Miami, where he became an All-American and now plays for Washington in the NFL. Record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan was a two-time walk-on, first with the University of Colorado, then at Hawaii, where he set NCAA records for most touchdown passes in a season, highest pass completion percentage and passing efficiency. Darren Woodson was a walk-on at Arizona State before going on to win three Super Bowls as a linebacker in Dallas and Denver Broncos legend Karl Mecklenburg started out as a walk-on at the University of Minnesota before playing in six Pro Bowls and three Super Bowls.
“I can honestly say that I love every minute of it,” Flynn said of the experience. “When I’m done with practice, I still look around and love what I’m doing.
“Expectations here at Eastern are high because the program is so good. To have the chance to be part of that kind of program is incredible and look forward to earning a chance to be an even bigger part of it down the road.”