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For Washington State linebacker Nate DeRider, it’s a full ride

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 12, 2017, 9:19 p.m.

Washington State linebacker Nate Derider (54), shown here returning an interception in a 2016 game against Cal, was awarded a full scholarship by Cougars coach Mike Leach on Friday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State linebacker Nate Derider (54), shown here returning an interception in a 2016 game against Cal, was awarded a full scholarship by Cougars coach Mike Leach on Friday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Giving a gift is often more fulfilling than receiving one.

When Washington State rewarded Nate DeRider with a full scholarship on Friday afternoon after four years of thankless walk-on service, nobody was more amped than the recipient himself. Though, inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson may have been a close second.

“It’s so exciting man. It’s like a dad at Christmas there, watching your kids open presents,” he said.

Wilson should know. Not that long ago, he watched his own son unwrap a pretty sweet financial package.

Tyler Wilson, the oldest child of the fifth-year Cougars assistant, had to cover his tuition, room, board and books for two years while long snapping at the University of Nevada. Not until his junior season was the Wolf Pack specialist awarded a scholarship.

“You just never know when it’s going to happen,” Ken Wilson said, “but man, it’s exciting when it does.”

DeRider got the news during a team meeting on Friday, just hours before the Cougars’ scrimmage at Martin Stadium. WSU coach Mike Leach has traditionally invited two players and one coach to speak in front of the team throughout fall camp. DeRider was conveniently on the docket for Friday, along with kicker Erik Powell.

A redshirt senior from Bellevue, DeRider had finished his spiel and returned to his chair when Leach asked him to return to the podium.

“What’s it like being a walk-on?” Leach asked.

DeRider responded: “Walk-on, it’s about playing with heart, you start low on the totem pole. You’re not recruited very highly.”

On the projector screen behind DeRider, an image with overlaying text that read “You earned a scholarship!” popped up. Then Leach interrupted, “Well, you’re not a walk-on anymore.”

Players bull-rushed DeRider and a small collection of seniors who’d been in the loop gave their buddy a silly string shower.

“I guess they’ve been talking about how they wanted to do it for awhile, but I was in the dark the entire time,” DeRider said.

DeRider’s story isn’t unlike that of most walk-ons. At the prep level, he won four consecutive state titles playing for west-side juggernaut Bellevue High. DeRider led the 3A champs in tackles as a senior and was a two-time All-KingCo second-team honoree.

But what followed was an instant slide to the bottom of the food chain. DeRider decided to join the Cougars as a preferred walk-on, rather than accept a Division II scholarship. Both of his parents attended WSU. His cousin is former Pac-12 slugger Derek Jones, the Cougars’ all-time leader in home runs.

“This is my dream school,” DeRider said.

His first few years on campus, DeRider did all the grunt work usually asked of a walk-on. He redshirted in 2013 and didn’t appear in a game the next season. But DeRider found his niche where many non-scholarship players do: special teams.

“(Special teams) coach (Eric) Mele tells us all the time, ‘If you’re a walk-on, scholarship, whatever. If you don’t have a role to start with, special teams is the way to get yourself on the bus, on the field,’ ” DeRider said. “So I took that to heart and busted my butt, tried to get on every special teams.”

He landed on all four: field goal, punt, kick return and punt return. DeRider made his college debut as a redshirt sophomore, then appeared 11 more times that year, notching six tackles – all on special teams – while forcing a fumble and recovering it in a victory at UCLA. In 2016, he appeared in 12 games, made seven special teams tackles and began to get defensive reps at linebacker. He broke out against Cal with four tackles, a sack and an interception.

“His role is definitely expanding,” Wilson said. “He plays two different positions (on defense).”

Leach, who pegs DeRider as “an incredible team guy,” said the strains that come with being a non-scholarship player often go unnoticed.

The time commitments of a walk-on and full-ride athlete are similar, if not identical, but the walk-on – depending how long he sticks around – may wind up covering more than $100,000 worth of expenses, while the scholarship athlete reaps the copious benefits of full cost of attendance.

“Some (walk-ons) occasionally have to get jobs, so yeah it is hard. It’s really hard,” Leach said. “It’s harder than people realize. I think it’s a little overrated how difficult a scholarship athlete’s life is financially. I think that’s overrated.”

A wave of relief surely came over DeRider – his folks back in Bellevue, too – when the fifth-year senior learned WSU would cover the bills for his final season of eligibility.

“Definitely a really happy moment I’ll never forget,” he said.

Don’t call him a walk-on anymore. He’s “Full DeRider.”