For years, Ohio State overlooked the gold mine in their back yard. While Nebraska, Wisconsin, and other winning programs successfully refined walk on talent, the Buckeyes largely ignored that potential. Instead, talented players from the state would matriculate to other universities in the hopes of playing.
Since Jim Tressel has taken over as the head coach at The Ohio State University, the number of walk-ons who have played and earned scholarships has exploded. Mike Jacobs not only earned a full ride, he started in the 2002 Outback Bowl. Andy Groom labored in anonymity until Tressel arrived. He was given a scholarship and blossomed into an All American with a potential NFL career. Jason Bond has played fullback, linebacker, and even special teams for the Buckeyes. Until his injury, Mike Stafford started and played on the offensive line, leading the blocking for some of the most explosive Maurice Clarett touchdown runs early last season.
In 2003, fans can add another player to the list of those who have earned a scholarship after having walked on with nothing but a dream and a blue-collar attitude as yesterday afternoon, Mike Kne was offered and accepted a full scholarship.
Kne, a redshirt junior, is unlike most of the players who don the Buckeye uniform and sprint onto that field each Saturday.
"I wasn't recruited out of high school, so I didn't really have confidence in myself," he said.
So, Mike decided to go to Fordham and see if he could play football there. It turned out that he was good enough to see the field, and he was on scholarship there, but the question remained – what about Ohio State? Could he play at a higher level? Certainly it would be safer to stay where he was and not risk sitting on the bench for the rest of his career.
And what about being a walk-on at a Division I-A powerhouse? It is hard enough to earn playing time when all players are considered equal, but it is almost impossible in some places to get attention as a walk on. The mere idea of giving a walk-on player a scholarship is repugnant to some coaches because they consider it a slap to the face. By playing a walk-on, they have to admit that they might have made a mistake or overlooked a legitimate talent in their own back yard in favor of a big name player who has now flopped.
Yet Kne decided to throw caution to the wind and test himself.
"This has always been my dream to come here and so I figured I could give it a shot," he said.
Now he has done more than just give it a shot. Tressel kept his word and Kne has earned a scholarship through hard work and dedication.
It has been a long road, but one that was worth the journey.
"Two spring balls ago – I was getting maybe one rep a day, and that was tough," said Kne.
While others might have thrown a tantrum and quit, he stuck it out.
"Well, I just looked at it as that was my one rep to show people that I could play," he said. "Whether I was getting twenty reps or one rep, I was going to make every rep that I got count. Even though it is tough and there were a bunch of people ahead of me, if I just paid attention and knew what I was doing when I got in, somebody would notice."
Somebody did notice. Jim Bollman witnessed his efforts and decided that a promotion was warranted. In the fall, he went from just one repetition per practice to a place on the second team.
Meanwhile, another former walk-on in Mike Stafford was not only making a splash of his own, he was inspiring Kne to work even harder because he made it clear that the current coaching staff will play the best players.
"In my case, Stafford was a walk on and got a scholarship and got playing time, so that gave me the inspiration to keep going, and they will notice you eventually," Kne said. "I just kept working hard, kept my nose to the grindstone, and everything paid off."
Indeed it has paid off for this education major that hopes to teach middle school science and history while working as a middle school football coach.
Until then, he can revel in his accomplishment. He has earned his scholarship at Ohio State. It was not given to him like the bulk of players in Division I-A. He believed Coach Tressel when Tressel told him that if he worked hard, he might earn a scholarship. He believed in himself enough to walk away from playing time elsewhere to earn it in Columbus.
Mike Kne fought for this moment for two years, and now it has arrived. How does it feel?
"Well, I think it gives you more of a sense that maybe I might have earned it," he said. "Like I said, nobody was coming out of high school. Nobody was there, so I had to show everybody that I was worthy of one."
What about his family? What did they do when they heard the news? According to Kne, "They were ecstatic. They know I have been working hard and they were just so happy."
I am betting they were not the only ones happy for Mike.
Other assorted comments from Mike:
How does this affect walk ons when they see that they truly get a shot at playing time at Ohio State?: "Hopefully other walk-ons see that and keep working hard and make the whole team better."
What is your favorite part about being at Ohio State?: "I like the football and the fans."
What do you like about the fans?: "I came from a big program. I came from St. Ignatius, so we had a bunch of people at our games, but the fans (here) are just rowdy. It is deafening when the defense takes the field. I can't imagine playing here as an away team."
What do you like the most about playing on the offensive line?: "I just like the fact that if we do everything we need to do right, people are making big plays and scoring and that is just helping the team."
What is it like to have Bollman as a coach?: "I think it is great. I know at my old school (Fordham), we didn't focus on every little detail. Here we focus on just the tiniest little half-inch step helps you so much, and I think it is just great that he could share that wisdom with us with all his experience."
Do you prefer run or pass blocking?: "I really don't even have a preference. I like them both. It depends on the situation. I like the 4th and 1, 3rd and 1 – just firing off and going. It is fun."