Ryan Burbrink knew that time was running out on his dream of playing college football.
After a stellar career at DeMatha Catholic, in which the wide receiver from Shady Side, Md., was named to the All-State team after a senior season in which he tallied 28 catches for 632 yards, Burbrink wasn't drawing much interest from recruiters.
So he headed off the University of Pittsburgh's summer camp, giving himself one final shot at finding a place to play. And after an impressive performance there, he drew the interest of an unlikely suitor -- Bowling Green.
"We had some coaches working at the University of Pittsburgh camp," Falcons coach Dave Clawson said. "They saw him and really liked him. We thought he was a guy that might be under the radar."
Indeed. There's not much of a market for 5-foot-8 slot receivers, so the Falcons had the inside edge merely by expressing some interest.
"They offered me a preferred walk-on spot," Burbrink said. "Bowling Green gave me an opportunity, and I jumped on it."
Burbrink's rags-to-riches tale continues at next Thursday's Military Bowl at RFK Stadium, where the Falcons (8-4) will try to cap a surprising campaign with a victory over No. 24 San Jose State (10-2) with help from one of their most unlikely heroes.
After redshirting in 2011, Burbrink faced steep odds in trying to crack Bowling Green's depth chart, but he put in the work to make an impression on his coaches.
"Coming in as a walk-on, you have a lot to prove," he said. "People have told me I was too small, too short, and it just motivated me. My mindset was getting out there and working twice as hard."
It's rare that a walk-on has a breakout game against Florida, but there was Burbrink, in the Falcons' season opener, nabbing a game-high eight catches for 45 yards in the team's 27-14 defeat, a sign of things to come.
"It was a great experience," he said. "You see Florida, and they're the No. 2 team in the nation. It was a confidence booster knowing I could go out there and play well against a great defense like that."
Burbrink played in 11 games this season (he missed the contest against Rhode Island with a strained hamstring), starting six of them, and finished with 36 receptions for 305 yards, plus an average of 9.4 yards per punt return.
"He's earned a starting job. He's tough and catches everything thrown his way," Clawson said. "He's very reliable, very dependable. He's a good, hard-working, blue-collar football player."
Burbrink credited his success to doing the little things right.
"I think it's knowing the playbook and understanding the defense," he said. "The big thing is catching the ball. I love getting the ball, and the only way you're going to get it is if you catch it."
Thanks to his solid season, Burbrink earned a scholarship, but that still won't keep him from playing with a chip on his shoulder.
"My hard work has paid off, but I'm still not satisfied," he said. "I'm still working on my routes and my vision."
Burbrink is thrilled to be heading home for the Military Bowl, allowing him an opportunity to play in front of his parents, who traveled to two games this year, at Florida and when the Falcons lost 37-0 at Virginia Tech. That was part of a 1-3 start that seemed to portend bad things for Bowling Green, but the Falcons rallied to earn a trip to D.C. as their reward.
"The night I found out [about the Military Bowl], I couldn't sleep," Burbrink said. "I was calling and texting everybody. It's exciting to be able to play in front of friends and family and to have guys that played with you in high school coming out to support you."
The bowl destination also has made Burbrink a popular resource among his teammates.
"Oh yeah, I get tons of questions every day," he said. "They ask, 'What's the weather like?' and 'What's fun to do there?'"
Burbrink is more than happy to answer, and more than happy to contribute to a winning team given his untraditional route to the starting lineup. He may not be a walk-on anymore, but he won't rest on his laurels.
"I still have tons to prove," he said. "We'll get there."