Walk-on Warriors Share Stanford Secrets

Throughout the offseason, The Bootleg has been exploring hidden keys to Stanford football's resurgence. One of those secrets is a vibrant walk-on program. An inclusive culture has flourished, from the team's brightest star down to every last walk-on. David Lombardi explains...

Walk-on receiver Sam Knapp was battered and bruised throughout the week leading up to Stanford's game against UCLA in 2011. His scout team duties placed him at tight end, where he helped the first-team Cardinal defense prepare for Bruin behemoth Joseph Fauria. On film, coaches had noticed that UCLA had taken a liking to a certain crossing pattern involving their six-foot-seven inch tight end. Naturally, Knapp was enlisted to simulate it.

"All I did the whole week was run straight from one side of the field to the other side, trying to hit a defensive end," he said. "I got my butt kicked all week."

The Cardinal would spank UCLA 45-17 that Saturday. One of the game's defining plays came when Fauria ran the same exact pattern that Knapp had been simulating on the scout team all week long. Stanford linebacker Blake Lueders was ready for it. Oomph. With a hit that reverberated on both sidelines, he pulverized Fauria.

"You could hear the wind get knocked out of him," Knapp smiles. "I felt validated, because I knew what that must have felt like. I think I got Blake ready to do that."

Walk-ons win the unheralded battles for Stanford football. For some, the spotlight does eventually arrive. Take Ryan Whalen, for example. He earned a scholarship in 2007, became the Cardinal's leading receiver in 2008, and ended up with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. That's the ultimate success story. But the vast majority of walk-ons remain unnoticed in the public eye.

Still, their contributions behind the curtains provide another critical advantage for a successful football program, and their stories within Stanford's system shed light on a vital ingredient of the Cardinal's success that is also often overlooked.

Medieval Warriors
Jim Harbaugh's staff recruited Knapp, the son of Stanford men's swimming head coach Ted Knapp, while he was still at nearby Menlo-Atherton High School. Cason Kynes, meanwhile, took a more circuitous path onto the Cardinal's roster. The Annandale, Va. native walked into the Stanford football office September of his sophomore year without having talked to a single member of the coaching staff. He left a video of his high school highlights with Director of Player Development Ron Lynn and hoped for the best.

Just a few months later, Kynes was a member of the Stanford football team. He would become known for his reckless abandon and bludgeoning ways on Stanford's special teams unit. (Coaches were forced to instruct him to stop hitting the fullbacks, because he was bruising them so badly from the scout team.)

But first, Kynes found himself stretching with Andrew Luck before a morning workout. The future NFL Pro Bowl quarterback had a question for the new walk-on.

"If you were a medieval warrior, what would be your weapon of choice?"

Kynes responded by choosing the mace.

"I would pick the longbow," Luck offered in his own fitting fashion.

Kynes won't soon forget his memorable interactions with Luck or his own underdog success stories. And neither will Knapp, running back Andrew Stutz, or linebacker Brent Etiz. All four players shared their Farm football experiences with The Bootleg before they received their Stanford diplomas this past Sunday. All provided a uniquely fascinating take on the beating heart of a Cardinal football program flourishing in the midst of a golden age, thanks in large part to the cohesive nature of the team that welcomed them with open arms.

The conversation frequently circled back to Luck, a superstar extremely popular with all of the walk-ons because of how he encapsulated the down-to-earth mentality that allowed them to quickly acclimate and contribute to the program. When Kynes first nervously entered the locker room in the spring of 2011, he only recognized a few faces. But Luck, coming off his Orange Bowl MVP showing and decision to return to school for his senior year, approached him immediately.

"Hey man, I'm Andrew, it's nice to have you," he said.

"Thanks, yeah, I know who you are," a stunned Kynes responded.

Within short order, Luck was discussing his medieval weapon of choice with walk-ons and scholarship players alike. It was just one of the ways that he fulfilled his goal of talking to every one of his Stanford teammates about something other than football.

Football is a Meritocracy
"We all had those nerves, looking around [at all the other walk-ons], thinking 'are you as nervous as I am?" Stutz said. "Our first interaction with the team was with each other, dealing with [sports performance coordinator] Shannon Turley. "I was concerned that [it might be difficult to fit in as a walk-on], but there was no divide. You can go to a bunch of freshman today [now sophomores], and a lot of them wouldn't know we're actually walk-ons."

"I have a hard time picturing that walk-ons get integrated as well at other big programs as we did at Stanford," Knapp added.

A recent Bootleg series examined the various ingredients of the "secret sauce" that has fueled Stanford football's epic rise to glory, and, along those lines, Knapp's point is a key detail that should not be ignored. It speaks to the quality of the individuals involved with Stanford football, a collection of personality types that has fostered the team's unusual cohesion and development toward a common goal. Remarkably, fullback Geoff Meinken, a scholarship player who recently graduated alongside with Knapp and the other senior walk-ons, recently told The Bootleg that he does not remember a single instance of locker room disagreement throughout his four years on the team.

"Andrew Luck told us that football is like a meritocracy," Etiz said. "You can't keep a guy off the field if he contributes. That leads to respect. As you begin to establish yourself as a football player, you gain the respect and trust of your teammates."

Thanks to the structure of Stanford's program, this opportunity to earn respect was there for the 2009 class of walk-ons, and they took full advantage of it. Etiz, in particular, enjoyed a movie-like journey. As a native of Clovis in California's San Joaquin Valley, he grew up a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. Former Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who migrated with Jim Harbaugh to the NFL after the 2010 season, invited Etiz to partake in a three-day 49ers' rookie minicamp that wrapped up just this Wednesday.

It was, in effect, a "surreal" graduation present for Etiz, a player who also enjoyed his share of fantastic memories in a Stanford uniform. In 2011, the coaching staff made good on a promise to anoint the special teams player of the week as a team captain for the following game, so Etiz represented the Cardinal at midfield of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, of all places, in 2011.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but Brent Etiz will be our captain for the USC game," head coach David Shaw told the locker room, which promptly erupted in uproarious approval.

So, on October 29, Etiz marched out alongside Luck and Michael Thomas to face Matt Barkley and T.J. McDonald in front of 93,000 fans and a national television audience.

"I can only imagine what was going through Barkley's head when he saw me, No. 50, out there," Etiz said, laughing. "'Who the heck is this guy? We haven't seen him on film!'"

That night saw Stanford win a heartrending triple overtime duel 56-48, but there was some comic relief before the extra period. Not realizing that only one captain handled midfield duties for the overtime coin toss, Etiz briefly thought he'd lucked out and would be able to jog out to midfield again. But Luck intercepted him first.

"Listen, sit back on this one," No. 12 said, putting his arm on Etiz's shoulder. "I have this one taken care of."

Wake Forest: The Annihilation
For the 2009 walk-ons, Stanford's 68-24 obliteration of Wake Forest in early 2010 stands apart from the others as far as on-field memories go. It was the Cardinal's first time wearing black uniforms, and the lopsided score meant significant playing time for the team's reserves.

"We'll definitely have fond memories of those uniforms," Knapp said. "When you're that deep on the depth chart and you get up by 20 points, you start stretching out a bit. You start talking to the other guys, and you say, 'All right, we need a couple more.'"

Knapp hauled in a first down reception in that game, while Etiz forced a fumble. Kynes, who walked on the season after and quickly earned special teams action, was not part of the Wake Forest showcase. Stutz, though, achieved the walk-on's ultimate dream that night: He scored a touchdown from two yards out.

"Seeing my parents after the game was surreal," he said. "But the next day, looking at all the photos, that summarizes what this team is all about. After I scored, I could see all of the starters celebrating and going crazy. You'd think that, up 68-24, Andrew Luck would have something better to do, but he was eagerly watching me score that touchdown."

As far as Rudy-like moments go, Stutz's score is on par with Kynes' memory a year later. In a desperate attempt to make the travel squad so that his Virginia-based parents could see him play at Duke in 2011, Kynes wrecked himself throughout a week of grueling practice.

"My shoulders were all bruised, and I was getting stingers in my neck and my arm. It was my chance," he recalls his maniacal effort to make the traveling roster.

After practice, Kynes was dismayed to learn that he had not made the cut. But the coaching staff had a chance to reconsider after reviewing film of his supercharged last-ditch effort, and his phone rang later that night.

"Cason, would you like to come to Duke with us?" David Shaw asked.

The Stanford Experience
Etiz, Knapp, Kynes, and Stutz have now all finished their journeys on The Farm. They'll all enter the working world in the Bay Area with nostalgic vibes emanating from Stanford at full force.

"I was biking home one night a couple weeks ago, past all the freshman dorms with their lights on," Etiz said. "I said to myself, these kids have the greatest three years ahead of them, and they don't even realize that. When you're in the moment, you're just taking things as they are; you're not fully appreciating them as much. Once you realize time is winding down, that time is finite, you start appreciating things more."

Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Bootleg's exclusive series with Stanford's graduated walk-on warriors, which will return to the Stanford offseason theme from yet another angle. You'll learn more details about the Cardinal's summer conditioning success.

David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

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