Every year, tens of thousands of undergraduate students attend Washington State University without the financial relief of a full-ride football scholarship.
The first player to catch a touchdown pass against No. 11 Oregon this season still identifies with that group, which is probably why he’s so widely embraced by the other, much smaller group of high-level, Pac-12 athletes who have their tuition compensated in exchange for the highlight-reel plays they make every Saturday during the fall.
Lucas Bacon’s first career reception was worth six points. While it admittedly took some creativity from the redshirt sophomore to identify a soft spot in Oregon’s touted defensive secondary, and some imagination to slip into the end zone without being thumped by Ducks safety Jamal Hill, the real work of Bacon’s 18-yard touchdown didn’t begin until he returned to the home sideline.
As soon as he got there, Bacon was swallowed by a crimson mosh pit that didn’t spit the walk-on back out until almost every player on the dress list got the obligatory high-five, chest bump or bear hug.
“I was probably more tired getting through to the bench on the sideline than actually scoring on the play,” Bacon said. “So tired. Just trying to get a hug to everybody and thank them just as much as they’re thanking me.”
It reaffirmed what many already knew about the amiable, easygoing, hard-working walk-on who came to the Cougars two years ago from Spokane’s Mead High School and made an unlikely climb up the depth chart this preseason to emerge as one of the team’s top two options at Z receiver.
“Win or loss, to see walk-on guy come in the whole offseason preparing like he’s a starter and wants to be a starter, just working his butt off,” left tackle Liam Ryan said. “He’s a character off the field, I can say that. But when he puts in so much work, you kind of expect things to happen that way and congratulations to him.”
“It was amazing. I’m still happy for Bacon,” WSU receiver Renard Bell said. “Whether we lost or whether we win, I’m really happy for Bacon because he’s been putting in the work all season and even in year prior. He’s been working, he doesn’t like to let up. … Happy for him, truly. That’s my dawg.”
“Lucas is a really, really well-liked guy on the team,” center Brian Greene said, “if you couldn’t tell.”
Naturally, he’s also made an impression on the head coach: “I enjoy Bacon,” Nick Rolovich said. “I’m not sure what showed on TV or if you got a chance to see it in person, but Travell (Harris) was so happy for Bacon. Jarrett (Kingston), the first lineman over there, so happy for Bacon. So that tells you there’s some love and excitement in seeing him have some success.”
This much is fairly easy to deduct: Everybody loves Bacon.
Like most walk-ons who start at the bottom of college football’s metaphorical totem pole, it took the receiver three years to open the eyes of his coaches and teammates. Bacon sizzled last week against one of the country’s top programs, but reaching that point required a long, slow simmer.
Bacon’s arrival on the Palouse wasn’t atypical for a nonscholarship player. He came to WSU without much fanfare after receiving zero scholarship offers from the FBS or FCS, even with two Big Sky programs within a 90-mile radius of his home. WSU was one of the first to extend a preferred walk-on opportunity and Washington, the school Bacon and his family supported growing up, did the same less than a week later.
One of Bacon’s cousins, Zechariah Brown, is a defensive back for the Huskies. Brown recently posed for a cardboard cutout at Martin Stadium. Bacon returned the favor, so a cardboard cutout with the receiver’s likeness is also sitting inside Husky Stadium. But that’s the extent of Bacon’s existence at UW.
While the Huskies strung out the walk-on process, the Cougars continued to show interest and Bacon warmed to the idea of playing college football close to home in an offense that often distributed the ball to 10-12 receivers. Bacon’s uncle, Jeff Christensen, was a wide receiver for Mark Rypien in the 1980s and the family spent fall Saturdays watching college football under the floodlights of Martin Stadium – either there or on the red turf at Eastern Washington.
“There was one season I think we hit about every game,” said Bacon’s father, Kevin. “One weekend Wazzu would play, the next weekend Eastern would play. We’re just college football fans.”
Being a walk-on measures the depth of a player’s patience. Most who stay four or five years never attain what they came for, while others transfer down when they see the writing on the wall. Bacon’s patience has been tested in Pullman, but it helps he has some experience in that realm.
When he was a junior at Mead in 2016, Bacon’s knee buckled on the final play of the final game of the season. The multipurpose Panthers star had rocketed 40 yards downfield on a punt return, escaping every Walla Walla player but one. The last man between Bacon and the goal line brought him down, tackling him at the knee. Doctors diagnosed Bacon with an ACL tear, which forced him to miss the offseason football camps and other activities that may have raised his recruiting profile – not to mention a large chunk of his senior season with the Panthers.
The specialist who was recommended to the family told Bacon he’d have to wait three months for an appointment. For Bacon, putting rehabilitation on hold for nearly 100 days was not negotiable.
“We came out of that meeting and Luc right away said, ‘That’s not going to work for me,’ ” Kevin said. “He goes, ‘We’ve got to find somebody else that can get me in sooner because I want to get back and get training.’ … He had this time frame in his mind that what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work for him. That was nothing his mom or I had planned for him, that was his plan.”
Bacon eventually recovered, but he lost something else in the process.
Football was not Bacon’s first love. Nor was it basketball, track, baseball or any of the other sports college football players often excel in before making a permanent transition to the gridiron.
“Lucas was really a lacrosse kid,” Kevin said.
From fourth to 10th grade, Bacon played competitive lacrosse. It’s not unreasonable to think the hand-eye coordination he’s demonstrated as a wide receiver was developed through corralling a small rubber pill into a triangular, mesh pocket at the end of a metal stick – often with that pill flying at 70-80 mph.
“I think as a receiver or a position athlete in football, some of the skill sets you have to be deceptive and the ability to move and cut,” said Mike Shannon, who coached the non-WIAA sanctioned lacrosse team at Mead that served as a varsity sport in just about every other sense of the word. “That’s very similar to lacrosse in terms of being a slasher or being the guy that kind of bowls through the middle and gets inside.”
With solid athleticism, good size and a rare understanding of the sport, Bacon was not only the best lacrosse player at Mead when he stepped onto the field as a ninth-grader, but one of the top prospects in the region, which hadn’t embraced the game the way the West Side had.
Bacon was so advanced that he’d play on the back line as a long pole when the Panthers were in the lead and change positions when they weren’t, picking up a short stick so he could give them a boost on offense. When Bacon scored enough to make up the deficit, he’d retreat to defense again.
“It wasn’t even a challenge sometimes,” Shannon said. “He could juke guys, he could move, he could cut and he could use his lacrosse skills and guys would come charging at him full head of steam and he’d just, phew, they’d miss him.”
Shannon has fond memories of Bacon, as a freshman, taking over a game against Wenatchee and outclassing a much older and bigger opponent who was thought to be one of the best players in the league. The opponent had scored eight goals against Mead earlier in the season, but Bacon willingly took the assignment in the rematch, shutting him down and scoring five goals.
“Lucas just destroyed him,” Shannon said. “He just took him apart and we were like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Spokane still wasn’t offering an elite lacrosse club at the time. The city’s understanding of the sport was so elementary that Bacon often found himself explaining rules to referees who weren’t too well-versed themselves, which eventually earned him a reputation. Bacon was occasionally recruited by competitive programs from the other side of the state, and he eventually joined one of those, Seattle Starz Lacrosse, a nationally prominent program Kevin described as “the club to play for kids that are kind of ambitious to go to the college level.”
Kevin made twice weekly drives over the Cascades to satisfy his son’s desire to play high-level lacrosse. It wasn’t uncommon to leave Spokane around 9:30 a.m. for a 2 p.m. practice in Seattle, then make the return trip when practice ended. Other times, they’d drive to Seattle to meet up with the team for a flight to the East Coast, where the Starz would often play in front of 20-30 Division I college scouts.
“He’s always wanted to play at that next level,” Kevin said. “High school lacrosse around Spokane was good, but he always wanted to test himself against the best. He always wanted to see. Same thing with football.”
With only a handful of schools sponsoring Division I lacrosse, and most of the Division II programs situated on the East Coast, Bacon turned his attention to football full time. The ACL injury, which forced him to miss his junior lacrosse season, played a role in the decision.
If you ask him, Bacon might say his first college touchdown wouldn’t have happened without all the sacrifices he made during a most unusual offseason. When friends returned to Spokane over the summer, he often turned down their invites. When family members gathered at a cabin on Priest Lake, he either passed or made sure it was a short trip.
Bacon didn’t form too many new relationships with people his age this summer, but he can probably tell you a little bit more about every member of WSU’s strength and conditioning staff.
“I really didn’t leave Pullman,” he said. “I just kind of stayed. People kind of left as things were up in the air with the schedule and kind of just stuck with the strength staff and followed their plan, what they had going for me, and it really just started to fall into place once everything started to happen toward the season.”
Sometimes, it’s helpful to see the rewards a walk-on can reap if they display the right work ethic and maintain a positive attitude. Bacon doesn’t have to look far in WSU’s locker room for that. One of his old rivals in the Greater Spokane League, Gonzaga Prep’s Armani Marsh, is a former Cougars walk-on who earned a scholarship last season and starts for the team at nickel.
“Bacon deserves it and he works hard and he doesn’t say too much,” said Marsh, who’s not much different.
“He just every day comes to the football stuff and just works. He deserves it all and I’m super excited for him and know there’s more to come.”
Then there’s Greene, a first-year starter on WSU’s offensive line who took a chance as a walk-on coming from nearby Yakima. Greene, another soft-spoken player who couples humility with a relentless work ethic, was put on scholarship last summer.
“I think we have a really great walk-on tradition here, so I’m always fired up for those guys and I’m always supporting them and we’re just really fired up for Lucas,” Greene said. “He’s been working really hard since he got in here, which many people don’t see.”
It’s no surprise that when Bacon was asked in a recent news conference which NFL wide receiver he’s tried to emulate, he didn’t resort to the common answer of Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones or Dez Bryant. The redshirt junior walk-on knows who he is, and maybe more important, who he isn’t.
“I always loved Cooper Kupp,” Bacon said. “… Cheney was always like a 30-minute drive away, so I really didn’t miss a game going out to Cheney and watching Cooper Kupp play. So I just love how he runs his routes and just how he carries himself through the game.”
After two weeks, reactions from teammates and fans seem to indicate there’s an appetite for more Bacon.
When he scored against Oregon, fellow Z receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., who’ll soon be one of Bacon’s roommates, tweeted an internet GIF of three strips of bacon on an iron skillet, with the caption, “FEEEEEED BACOOOOONNNN.”
Running back Max Borghi, who hadn’t posted anything since he suffered a back injury in preseason camp, came out of a social media hiatus to express his excitement on Twitter: “LUCAS BACON!!!!!!!! LETS GO!!!!!!”
And yes, his last name evokes a pun or two.
“It’s endless,” said Kevin, who claims generations of Bacons have dealt with the same.
The “Baconator” stuck for some time in middle school and high school. Since Bacon’s been at WSU, the wordplay has taken on a life of its own.
“Since I got here, Rolo’s like, whenever I do something good or anything, ‘Oh that’s crispy,’ or whatever,” Bacon said. “So, anything that is good about bacon, I kind of just embrace it. I don’t know, people have kind of thrown the kitchen sink at me with nicknames and whatever.”
The puns and nicknames may only be getting started. Bacon has been a savory surprise for WSU’s offense through two games, and he can only hope the best is yet to come.
“It’s kind of fun. They play with it and I’ve just got to embrace it,” he said. “Why not?”
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