Earlier this week, the South Carolina sports media was descending upon the Lowcountry to cover an important press conference. An instate 5-Star recruit was publicly announcing which college he would be attending later this year.
At the very same hour the media was awaiting word from this exceptional young man, I was the lone reporter covering the orientation meeting for enrolled students at USC interested in joining the football team as a walk-on. The irony in the timing of both events was not lost on me.
On the one hand, there is the sought after recruit, whose every move and spoken word has been fodder for the SC sports rumor mill, spilling into a frenzy, onto the fan message boards for a week. Will he choose College A or College B? On the other hand, there is a group of over fifty young men, currently enrolled in classes, eagerly anticipating the possibility of becoming a member of the Fighting Gamecocks of South Carolina football team.
When I arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium, I was escorted to the waiting area. I ascended the long stairway, beside some of the young men who were applying for a place on the team. Along the way, we passed the work-out facility, with current Gamecock players lifting weights and exercising to music blaring over the loudspeakers. I couldn't help but notice a wistful look from some of the students, who no doubt envisioned themselves working out in there as a potential member of the team in the coming days.
I was uncertain about how serious some students might be in the process of becoming a walk-on. I foolishly envisioned an "American Idol" type of mood, with some students just there for the experience of living in the moment. I could not have been more wrong. Each of these young men was serious about this opportunity. Some huddled in corners with friends and parents; others waited alone in quiet anticipation for the meeting to begin. All were focused and hopeful, keeping their eye on the prize: a coveted spot on the Carolina football team.
Billy Hardin served in the military before returning to college. He is a 25 year old sophomore from Oliver Springs, TN. He is married and currently living in South Carolina. "Having played football once before, I decided that I would take this opportunity to try out for the Gamecocks." Hardin said. "I feel so at home here. It's the Southern way of life that I love about Columbia and USC. And I always wanted to try out for this team. When I read the email from the director of football, it was an opportunity I could not ignore."
When asked about the possibility of playing on a Steve Spurrier football team, he had this to say: "When I was younger, I was a big Florida Gator fan. I believed then, as I do now, that Steve Spurrier is the best college football coach in the country. It would be such an honor to play for this man who has not only won a national championship and SEC championships at Florida, but will do the same here at USC. The Gamecocks are playing in the hardest conference in the country, and to be chosen as a member of the team under those circumstances would be quite a challenge, and one that I would consider an honor."
Garnet and Black Runs Deep
Dustin Riddle is a junior from Columbia, SC. He played wide receiver at Dutch Fork High School. He is a life long Gamecock fan and is proud to be here at this particular time. When asked why he is interested in trying out, he is quick to say: "It has been a dream of mine to run out of the tunnel as a Gamecock. I want to represent the university the best way I can, and being on the football team would be something I would be proud to do. I have been attending home games as long as I can remember, and have been a season ticket holder for years. My Grandad attended class part-time and took 10 years to get his degree from USC. He also received a Master's Degree in Marketing. You could say that Carolina runs through my blood."
Riddle adds: "The possibility of playing football at USC and under Coach Steve Spurrier means the world to me. I would play any position that I would be asked to play. I would work as hard as I could to make that happen. The coaches could depend upon me for anything they saw fit for me to do."
Channing Gaymon is a sophomore from Sumter, SC. He played in the cornerback position on his football team in high school and is currently a pre-med major at USC. He works as an EMT (Emergency Medical Team) in Columbia.
"I came to USC to pursue a medical career." he said. "I also love playing football. This is a perfect opportunity for me. I could contribute to the team in many ways. I would love to play on the defense. To play for this coaching staff would be not only tough, but very gratifying. It's a challenge, but I am up for that challenge."
Sparkle City Gamecock
James Nebo is an 18 year old freshman from Spartanburg, SC. He played the nose guard position in high school and looks forward to the opportunity of possible play for the Gamecocks. "I am a computer science major, and Carolina was the only college I considered attending. To play football as a Gamecock would be like a dream come true for me." Nebo said. "Especially with Coach Spurrier and all the other great coaches on staff. It is an historic time for USC right now. To be part of all of that would be amazing."
No Nonsense Approach
Jamie Speronis is the Director of Football Operations at USC. He has worked alongside head football coach, Steve Spurrier, for the past seventeen years. He was conducting the evening's meeting. One of his areas of concentration is directing the walk-on program at Carolina, as he had done for many years at the University of Florida. He is straightforward when describing the program he is so proud of running. "I've seen some programs for walk-ons saying a big ‘Hello,' and then putting the guys out on the field and running them ragged," he said. "What does that prove? This is not a ‘last man standing' kind of situation here. We don't work that way. In fact, the students selected to begin the process will be chosen long before they put on a team tee-shirt for practice sessions."
Speronis elaborated the above by adding that much would be determined by the application form the student filled out that evening. He would make himself available to each and every student, personally meeting with them after going over each application submitted. If the application did not meet certain standards, the student would not be asked to the next round of selection. Some items were NCAA compliance issues; others were USC mandated.
Speronis directed the following caveat to the students: "I am thrilled that you are all here and interested in becoming a member of the team. That being said, you must remember that you are here for one reason and one reason only. You are going to get a diploma from the University of South Carolina. The fact that you are enrolled is a start, but not enough. You must maintain academic progress in your major courses every semester and must keep up a 2.0 grade point average or better. If not, I will be shaking your hand and wishing you good luck, but not as a continuing member of this team."
He later added that the same academic standards also apply to recruited players.
Other important factors in determining eligibility were the most obvious. Each student applying for a position on the team must have current health insurance coverage, no conflict with classes during practice sessions and workouts, and must remember that academics always come before football.
Speronis went on to say that USC does not have a great need for walk-ons this year. There are currently 94 players on the team and an existing signing class of close to twenty-seven.
He addressed the students: "With these numbers, we are looking at a very few prospects. Do you need to have the best athletic ability to be chosen? No. If you had that ability, you would most likely have a scholarship and be playing at another college right now. We are looking for that something special you have to offer. What is that something special? That is up to you to show us. But it must include attitude, effort and muscle."
Speronis' words were not lost on these students. They were respectful and mindful of his every sentence. As the meeting came to a close, I was wondering how many of these great guys would make the cut. I wondered if they were conjuring memories of former USC standout wide receiver and special team's performer, Kris Clark. He walked on the team as both an athletic and academic achiever.
Perhaps the former All-American UF wide receiver and NFL player Chris Doering came to mind for some. He has played for some of the best professional teams in the country, and was given his first opportunity as a walk-on in college.
As I drove home, I heard the song Unwritten on the radio. As I sang along, I realized how true the words of the song were, and how they applied to the students I just met. I smiled as I sang, and wished that USC could possibly find a place for 50 additional young men on the football team….
Reaching for something in the distance
so close you can almost taste it…
Today is where your book begins, but the rest is still unwritten…
Walk-On, Young Men!
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