- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

Mason Baggett won’t be on the sideline with his teammates when Virginia Tech faces undefeated Auburn in the Sugar Bowl tomorrow night.

The redshirt sophomore offensive tackle didn’t miss a practice this season and played a pivotal pregame role by helping introduce the Tech defense to Auburn’s zone-blocking scheme. But Baggett won’t be in the stands or even in New Orleans when the squad plays its season finale against the nation’s No.3 team.

Baggett will be watching back home in Richmond — not because of an injury or disciplinary action, but because he’s a walk-on, a member of college football’s forgotten fraternity.

“It’s always hard not being there,” said Baggett, who would love to be just another number at Virginia Tech. “Friends are like, ‘What’s your number?’ And I say, ‘Well, I don’t really have a number, but hopefully, I will one day.’”

From top-ranked Southern California to winless Central Florida, each of the nation’s 119 Division I-A football teams is stocked with walk-ons like Baggett — players with more guts than gifts, more temerity than talent.

They train with the team, but aren’t allowed to eat at the training table. They are required to attend practices, but rarely are allowed to attend games. They log hours in the weight room, but are lucky even to see a live snap. They are glorified tackling dummies, football’s ultimate cannon fodder, as necessary for conducting practice as they are gratuitous on game day.

Thirty years ago, before the NCAA imposed scholarship limits, walk-ons made far less of an impact at the elite level.

Most premier programs brought in about 30 scholarship freshmen a season, making walk-ons superfluous. In 1976, the season Pittsburgh won the national title behind running back Tony Dorsett, the Panthers featured a roster of 130 players, many of whom were holdovers from the largest class in history. (Pitt gave out 87 scholarships to incoming freshman in 1974.)

In the name of competitive equity and later Title IX, the NCAA reduced the maximum number of scholarships to 95 in 1977 and to 85 in 1992, unintentionally enhancing the value of the walk-on to the point where even their participation had to be limited.

In 2002, the NCAA restricted practice participation to no more than 105 players, creating a virtual cap of 20 walk-ons per team.

About half of them are recruited like regular players, sold on the idea that after a season or two in the weight room and on the practice field, their improvement might merit a scholarship.

The other half are pure walk-ons like Baggett, players who make their respective teams in open tryouts. Every walk-on is originally assigned to the scout team, where he is trampled daily by members of the first-team offense or defense while attempting to simulate the upcoming opponent.

“It’s easy to see the payback for stars, starters and even backups who dress and travel — their mamas and girlfriends see them out there in that uniform on Saturday,” said Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom.

“But where’s the payback for those scout team guys, particularly the walk-ons?

“Maybe after taking a beating from the first-teamers, we’ll let them use the whirlpool — after hours, of course.

“Man, those guys just have to love football for football, and there’s nothing you love more than that as a coach. … Those are some real men,” Croom said.

There is unquestionably a certain stoic machismo that oozes from Joe Walk-on, an attitude universally and shamelessly adored by any man who wears a whistle and carries a clipboard.

This attitude is personified by Virginia Tech redshirt sophomore Jesse Allen, who has followed a succession of Hokies fullbacks by working his way into the starting lineup.

“I’ve been shooting at getting a scholarship for a while now,” said Allen, a recruited walk-on from Monson, Mass.

“That would really help my parents, paying out-of-state tuition [$16,581 per year] and all. But that decision is up to Coach [Frank] Beamer and the other coaches.

“I can’t control it. What I can control is what I do on that field. And my mind-set out there has always been that, no matter what you put on my plate, I’m going to eat it.”

No knife, fork or napkin required, Allen seems the type who would smile through any nastiness life dishes up. Some teammates find this attitude infectious. But at times, others find the walk-on’s typically eager demeanor as insufferable as it is insuperable.

In the 1993 film “Rudy,” the quintessential story based on the experiences of undersized Notre Dame walk-on Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the protagonist is subjected to a practice-long pounding as punishment for his unbridled enthusiasm and effort.

“That absolutely was accurate,” said Ruettiger, a walk-on for two seasons (1974 and 1975) under coach Dan Devine.

“The [scholarship] guys did open up on me and set up a blindside hit to discourage me from coming back. I was disrupting their comfort zone by giving 110 percent out there when they might have been giving 70, and I had to be punished accordingly.

“Luckily, I had served in the Navy, so I understood that mentality and that behavior. … The feeling of alienation was overwhelming at times, because they made it very clear we weren’t really part of the program. I think it’s a little different now, because with scholarship limits, they really need their walk-ons.”

Walk-ons clearly are more valuable now, but Baggett still had his own Rudy moment as a freshman in 2001.

“I was going 100 percent on every play, trying to impress the coaches and get better,” said Baggett, smiling at the memory.

“And these older starters, who were still sore from the last game, got a little ticked off. I remember one time when I was bouncing around [former defensive end] Cols Colas, who was dinged and not moving so good.

“I came off the ball and got him pretty good about three times in a row, and finally he just decked me. It was his way of telling me to tone it down. … It took me a while to realize that my primary objective in practice wasn’t to try to beat our first-team guys, it was to give them a good look [at the upcoming opponent].”

Unlike starters and backups, walk-ons and other scout-teamers (usually freshmen who are being redshirted) spend much of their time studying the plays of opposing teams and attempting to mimic their schemes and stars.

Virginia Tech freshman quarterback Cory Holt was a coveted recruit from Lexington, N.C., when he signed with the Hokies. But none of Beamer’s boys gets the kid-glove treatment, so Holt has spent his redshirt season as the scout-team quarterback.

When the Hokies hit the road on game day this season, Holt wasn’t with them. He was back in Blacksburg watching film on the team’s next opponent, digesting a new playbook virtually every week.

“It’s pretty intense,” said Holt, currently charged with imitating Auburn’s All-Southeastern Conference quarterback, Jason Campbell. “I probably average an hour a day of film study for scout team and 90 minutes a day studying our film to try to get ready for next season. … It’s about doing your duty for the team. Everybody has a major role on this team, and being scout-team quarterback has been mine.”

Not every Tech freshman is such an easy sell on the scout-team process. Blue-chip tailback recruit George Bell, currently moonlighting as Auburn star Ronnie Brown, wasn’t thrilled about spending a season slumming with walk-ons.

“I was mad at first,” said Bell, a consensus top-five prep tailback last season. “It wasn’t me, you know. I wanted to play. I didn’t come here to be on no scout team.”

In spite of his attitude, Bell’s talent virtually guarantees his graduation to the varsity next season. For the walk-ons he leaves behind on the scout team, however, the dream is considerably more dim.

There are, of course, dozens of success stories. Three current Virginia Tech starters are walk-ons or former walk-ons (Allen, center Will Montgomery and kicker Brandon Pace). Allen and Pace are locks to earn scholarships for next season.

And schools such as Virginia Tech and Texas A&M;, a pair of programs acclaimed for their work with walk-ons, have even sent a handful of such players to the NFL.

But the vast majority of these players will never see a snap on Saturday, much less Sunday stardom.

“It’s awfully difficult to go out every day knowing your sole purpose is to prep the varsity, wondering if you’ll ever get to dress for a game or ever see a live snap,” said Ruettiger, now a motivational speaker living in Reno, Nev. “That’s brutal. That’s warrior time.”

Most of these anonymous reserves, players such as Virginia Tech’s Rashad Ferebee, would simply like three hours of silent sideline recognition in return for years of thankless work.

“I’d like to dress just once,” said Ferebee, a junior offensive lineman from Norfolk who suffered a broken leg before this year’s season opener against USC.

“I was close before the injury, and I’ve still got one more year. I would love to carry the flag out there and lead the guys onto the field.

“I know I’ve contributed in some small way, and that moment would make it all worthwhile.”

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