As a national debate regarding whether student-athletes should be compensated for their services rages on, a multi-billion dollar pie continues to bake.
Each year, as athletic department revenues escalate, the pie grows larger and in turn, student-athletes with forks and knives in their hands await the day they're allowed to cut in and have a taste for themselves.
Though some student-athletes like former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes have voiced their concerns over the size of the piece they're allocated, thousands head to practice every day without even considering what it would be like to have a spot at the table.
Those athletes are the walk-ons. The players who might never see the field, and may never earn a scholarship, but wake up each day and line up alongside peers who will have their faces plastered on billboards, jerseys displayed on sale racks, and autographs sold on eBay.
At Arizona State, the Sun Devils' football program boasts a proud walk-on tradition, so much so that a handful of players who didn't begin their college careers with scholarships wound up as the players featured on the posters. Alumni like Adam Archuleta, Paul Fanaika and Jordan Simone all went from paying their own way through school to earning spots on All-Pac-10/12 teams, giving hope to the next generation of Sun Devils yearning for an opportunity to prove they were overlooked.
“There’s always that underdog mentality when you are a walk-on just because no matter how coaches and teammates want to put it, they do treat you just a little bit different," senior wide receiver Ryan Jenkins said. "It’s just a different vibe around you, but it’s done nothing but fuel me since I’ve been here.”
The underdog mentality is contagious in Tempe this spring, as no fewer than a half-dozen walk-ons are lining ASU's two-deep depth chart.
The prominence of walk-ons shouldn't come as much of a surprise to the Sun Devils though, as the program has fewer than 70 scholarship players on the field this spring. And even with a slew of 2017 signees set to arrive this fall, ASU still won't come close to having a full complement of 85 scholarship players available.
Without the requisite number of scholarship players on the the roster, vacant scholarships will be up for grabs, which could allow the program's most impressive walk-ons to fulfill a lifelong dream.
“That’s definitely driving me," redshirt junior defensive tackle Jordan Hoyt said. "I just come out here and try to work my hardest every day and give it my all. I love competing, I love being a Sun Devil and I couldn’t be happier being at this spot.”
Jenkins and Hoyt are two of ASU's walk-ons earning first-team reps this spring, and head coach Todd Graham has indicated both players could be in line for a scholarship this fall. Both players have spent the two years with the program they need to in order to become eligible to be put on scholarship, and this spring, Jenkins and Hoyt are doing their best to add to their cases.
The duo isn't alone in their pursuit of scholarships, though, as offensive lineman Tyler McClure is one of a larger group of players competing for a spot.
A senior out of Chandler High, McClure turned down an opportunity to play at Northern Arizona to walk on at ASU. After working his way up the depth chart last fall, McClure earned the first start of his career at center in the Sun Devils' 37-32 loss against Washington State.
“I think Tyler is a guy that just epitomizes to me what a Sun Devil is all about," Graham said. "Great character, great discipline, tough, just not going to be denied. He’s worked his tail off and I always have respect for guys like that.
The start allowed McClure to take the field in front of his family and friends, including his parents, who he credits as the driving force behind his pursuit of football.
“I think it’s mostly a testament to my parents pretty much, I just want to go out and make them proud," McClure said. "They’re paying my way for school and that’s really expensive and they’re making a lot of sacrifices so when I got that first start, they were the first people I called. And they were super proud and super happy and really excited about it.”
This spring, McClure is battling with returning starter and senior A.J. McCollum for the center job, and for the past week, he's earned first-team reps with ASU's offense during 11-on-air periods open to the media. Though McClure is striving toward finishing his career on scholarship and on the field, he won't forget what the opportunity he received last fall felt like.
“My mom, she’s my number one fan so she was freaking out," McClure said. "She was beside herself and super happy and super proud and I think she took like 100 pictures of me on the field. So it was a good thing to see her so happy.”
For some walk-ons, the opportunity to earn playing time and even a starting role is the ultimate goal. But for others, the harsh reality of having to pay for their own education makes earning a scholarship their chief pursuit.
“It’s been my main goal obviously ever since I’ve been here so it would definitely be a big reward for all of the hard work and stuff, so definitely," McClure said. "It would just be a huge reward and a huge weight lifted off my shoulders to not have to pay for my last semester.”
The stories of how ASU's walk-ons ended up in the Sun Devils' program are all different, but nonetheless compelling.
Jenkins began his career as a recruited scholarship receiver at Tennessee, but elected to transfer away from the Volunteers in search of a better opportunity. That meant asking his parents for their blessing to sacrifice a full ride and for them to assist with paying for college.
“It definitely was hard but my parents gave me their blessing luckily and they supported me 100 percent and it wouldn’t have been able to happen without them," Jenkins said.
In Hoyt's case, he too gave up the financial assistance offered to him at UC Davis, where he began his college career and made six starts.
After a torn ACL complicated Hoyt's recruiting process, he ended up at the FCS level before getting the urge to come back home and walk-on at ASU.
“I felt like this was where I was supposed to play since I was a little kid," Hoyt said. "I had some setbacks in high school tearing my ACL and whatnot, it kind of screwed up my recruiting, but I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship over there. But this is where I wanted to play day one and I wouldn’t say it was a hard decision, it was hard financially, but in terms of football and everything else, I felt like it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Like his high school teammate, McClure, Hoyt grew up coming to ASU games and has a strong family connection to the university. Now, Hoyt spends his weekends picking up side jobs to help pay his way through school and compete for his hometown team.
“My brother was the student body president here, two of my aunts and my mom and my grandpa all went here so it’s in the blood," Hoyt said. "We’re all Sun Devils. I love ASU and being a Sun Devil.”
After passing up the chance to play at Northern Arizona and start his career at ASU, McClure said he has no regrets about the decisions he made to get to this point. Now, in his fifth year in the program, McClure is the only walk-on on ASU's roster who has earned a start in a Sun Devils' uniform, and he's hoping his list of accomplishments grows in 2017.
"It really wasn’t that big of a deal because this was my dream to come here," McClure said. "So when I got that call, my coach called me and said you could potentially play here, I was stoked about it. It was a bummer having to call them and tell them I couldn’t come, but at the end of the day, I live with my decision and I don’t regret it.”
Graham has mentioned Jenkins, McClure and Hoyt as three of the walk-ons who have impressed him the most this spring, but has also said that their potential to earn a scholarship will be determined by how they perform on the field the rest of the spring and in fall camp. Though the exact number of rides ASU has available won't become clear until the fall, the trio will have competition from the likes of tight end Frank Ogas, safety Owen Rogers and running back Jacom Brimhall for the coveted spots.
Though some players in their situation might allow the pressure of paying for school and devoting their lives to playing a sport overcome them, Jenkins, McClure and Hoyt are all at ease this spring. Each player could have chosen a different route, but in the end, all three wanted to come to ASU, and they're working to make the most of the opportunity in front of them.
“This is where I wanted to go and so I came straight here and said, coach I want to play for you," Hoyt said. "I said this is where I want to play and I just need an opportunity.”