Much like superheroes, who shed their humble beginnings for power and even greater responsibility, college is where a high school football player transforms from a hometown standout into a national sensation. This ultimately sets the stage for the select few to make the leap from campus champion to NFL draftee, draftee to starter, and starter to football legend.
While many players get the chance to be recruited by schools – there’s even a National Signing Day where student athletes declare their intent to play for just one of the many colleges courting them – some need to earn their spot as a walk-on. It might surprise you that some of the most popular players in the NFL today didn’t just show up on campus to find a red carpet at their feet but as freshmen eager to impress and earn their scholarships.
J.J. & the Walk-Ons
It’s hard to imagine Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt as anything other than a success. But he’s just one example of a player who wasn’t flooded with scholarship offers; instead, he had to break a promise to his parents that they wouldn’t have to pay for college. Thankfully, for his parents’ pockets and himself, Watt is an example of a successful college walk-on. He not only earned a spot in the NFL but also significant recognition for his performance: He was selected to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team in four of his five seasons.
Michael Strahan, the now retired New York Giants defensive end and television personality, and Terrell Owens, former wide receiver, lead the way for college walk-ons for selections to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams with 11 each. Strahan is the only walk-on who “walked into” the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The NFL’s single-season sack leader shows that with hard work – even as a no-name, unrecruited college player – your possibilities are endless.
SATs & Super Bowls
In addition to delivering strong individual performances, there are former college walk-ons that have played in the biggest game of the NFL calendar year, the Super Bowl. New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski leads this pack.
“Ghost,” as he’s known by Patriots players and supporters, made more visits to the Super Bowl as a player than any college walk-on we uncovered. However, even with three appearances, his trip to Super Bowl XLIX marks the only time he and his team returned with a victory and the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy. Strahan, Clay Matthews, T.J. Ward, Jordy Nelson, and Dennis Pitta join the place kicker as walk-ons who have also earned a Super Bowl ring.
No. 1 Picks & No. 2 Pencils
In addition to their appearances in Pro Bowls and Super Bowls, college walk-ons in the NFL have also shown up in the draft. While none have gone as a No. 1 pick, there have been several selected in the first round.
Ezekiel Ansah, graduate of Brigham Young University and Detroit Lions defensive end, was selected the highest overall as the fifth pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. “Ziggy” led the league his first year among rookies with eight sacks, making an immediate positive impact on Motown’s defensive line. He’s a player that didn’t receive a scholarship until his senior year; he worked on grounds crews and custodial teams in between two-a-days and gamedays.
Six-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl XLV champion, and Green Bay Packers linebacker Matthews walked-on to the University of Southern California Trojans before being drafted 26th overall. The State Farm and Campbell’s Soup spokesperson isn’t alone as a first rounder – Watt, Santana Moss, Brandon Weeden, and Logan Mankins were all first-round draft picks as former walk-ons.
Making the Grade
While it may be tougher to transition from college walk-on to a successful professional football player, it’s clear that players can be successful doing so. We’ve seen Strahan turn his opportunity into a storied career, and Watt seemingly wants to be the sequel to that epic.
There are other players, like kicker Gostkowski, who made multiple trips to the Super Bowl. Being a college walk-on also doesn’t mean you’ll go undrafted. Just look at “Ziggy” Ansah: He was selected with the fifth overall pick.
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