Clark Lea's route to the Vanderbilt football team was a circuitous one. After graduation from local Montgomery Bell Academy-- where along with Dominique Morris and Moses Osemwegie, he had helped the Big Red to two state football championships-- Lea chose to enter Birmingham Southern College to play baseball. There in his freshman year he helped lead the Panthers to a national NAIA title.
For his sophomore year Lea transferred to Belmont University, where he played another season of baseball. But something was missing from his life-- the pop of shoulder pads. Lea made a curious decision-- he would transfer to Vanderbilt for his junior year, where he would study political science, as well as attempt to walk on to the football team.
Lea had played fullback at MBA, and it didn't take Bobby Johnson's staff long to notice that the stocky 6-0, 230-pounder had lost none of his fearlessness when it came to throwing a block. They quickly found a spot for him on the kickoff return team. He would become part of the five-man "back wedge"-- a ragtag collection of the team's most fearless blockers. Their mission: to lock arms on kickoff returns and hurl themselves forward in kamikaze fashion, in order to spring the return man for a big gain.
It was an inglorious job, but somebody had to do it. The happy-go-lucky Lea was happy just to be back on the field again. At first, against Georgia Tech, the back wedge as a unit looked disorganized and ineffective. But gradually, with practice and improved execution, the wedge helped freshman Kwane Doster develop into one of the SEC's most effective kickoff return men. Lea had found his niche, and he was helping the team.
Though Lea had carried the ball often at MBA, he had not touched the ball in a game in three years. But unexpectedly, in the first quarter of the Alabama game, he got his chance when the Tide's Michael Ziifle kicked one high and short. The nimble blocking back fielded the kick at the 15.
"Every week we practice on returning side kicks," said Lea. "I line up on the 15-yard line, and that's the kick that I've got a possibility to return. It was the first day someone had actually come out with it a couple of times. I just caught it and started forward."
He advanced the ball 11 yards upfield. In the third quarter it happened again. Lea caught another short Ziifle kickoff at the 14, and this time returned it 24 yards, setting up Vanderbilt's offense with great field position at the 38. As he jumped up from the tackle, his teammates pounded him on the back.
"I'm not supposed to back up on the ball, so I actually got in a little trouble with the coaches for that," laughed Lea afterwards. "I kind of took it away from the return man [Lorenzo Parker]. It was tough for me to see where he was. I had to make a split-second decision. I decided to stay under it.
"I was lucky to hold onto it. I had great blocking up front, and I made a play out of it. It was exciting just to get my hands back on the ball."
Perseverance and hard work paid off for Lea-- the walk-on had two exhilarating moments in one afternoon. But afterwards, it was hard for Lea to enjoy the moment-- the Commodores lost a 30-8 decision to the Crimson Tide that day.
"I'm really more worried about winning some games," said Lea. "I'm going to keep working hard. It all starts again tomorrow.
"Every week is a new chance."
Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-6 SEC) travels to Lexington, Ky. Saturday to take on the Kentucky Wildcats (6-4, 2-4). Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. CST, 1:30 EST (no television).
They are the walk-ons. They dot the special teams and scout teams. Except for a few rare moments like Lea's against Alabama, they go mostly unnoticed. They are subject to the same rigorous physical conditioning regimen as the scholarship players. They are asked to do everything the scholarship players do, and one thing the scholarship players don't do... pay their own way.
Besides Clark Lea, a number of walk-ons have found their way onto Bobby Johnson's 2002 Commodore team and seen action, some a considerable amount. Here are a few:
Bara Cola, a senior from Pensacola, Fla., won the starting fullback job early in the 2002 season. A fifth-year man, Cola has become an integral part of the Commodore offense in this his senior year. He was awarded a scholarship by the coaching staff for this school year so that he could attend Vanderbilt's Graduate School of Engineering.
Jason Bourque, a running back from Lafayette, La., has played in every game on special teams. With injuries, Bourque has worked his way up to third on the depth chart at tailback behind Kwane Doster and Matthew Tant. In mop-up duty,