TEMPE – Frederick Gammage’s mind raced as he and his family drove home following a visit to Arizona State University. Gammage had a scholarship offer from an NCAA Division II program in New Mexico but the Brophy College Prep graduate really had his hopes set on playing at ASU.
“Dad, you know, I’m just gonna take this D-II offer and go out there and play,” Gammage told his father, believing that the family did not have the money for him to attend ASU.
Turning around, his father asked him, “Do you want to play in front of 1,000 people or do you want to play in front of 70,000 people?”
That was the moment that Gammage knew what he would do.
“He made me a deal,” he said. “He said he’ll find the money, he’ll work it out, however – take the loans, or whatever – and he’ll give me two years to get a scholarship.”
Gammage decided to pass on the scholarship offer from Western New Mexico and walked on as a wide receiver at ASU. A walk-on athlete is someone who is not on an athletic scholarship and tries out for a team.
At ASU, the football team has the largest number of walk-on athletes among all of the school’s official sports programs, according to Jeremy Hawkes, assistant director of media relations for Sun Devils football.
For Gammage, walking on turned out to be a wise choice.
He earned a scholarship in his second season with the Sun Devils and now is in his senior season with the team.
“We don’t get our school paid for, but we’re doing the same work as everyone else,” said Tyler McClure, a redshirt junior and backup center who walked on at ASU.
Of 113 current players on the ASU football team, 28 are walk-on players like McClure. Five former walk-on players on the roster are now under scholarship, including Gammage.
Because walk-ons are less likely to have been recruited or scouted by ASU’s coaching staff, McClure believes they need to work harder in order to stand out.
“It’s more hard mentally, I would say, because you’re doing the same work as everyone else,” McClure said. “And in all actuality, you need to be doing about twice the amount of work.
“If you don’t, you’re just going to get lost.”
Walk-ons arrive at ASU from many different backgrounds and are of all shapes and sizes, from the 5-foot-11-inch, 179-pound Gammage to the 6-foot-1-inch, 295-pound McClure.
Some received scholarship offers from smaller colleges. Some are athletes from other sports. Others were high school players who didn’t receive any scholarship offers but still want to play.
“I really didn’t have any scholarship offers and I figured, if I was going to go somewhere, I might as well stay home,” said McClure, who played at Chandler High. “I’ve always wanted to go to ASU. That was my dream school.”
The Sun Devils have a history of producing quality walk-ons over the years, such as linebacker Adam Archuleta, offensive tackle Levi Jones and linebacker Darren Woodson. All three went on to play in the NFL.
Jones became a first-round NFL draft pick after coming to ASU on an academic scholarship and walking onto the football team. He will be inducted into the ASU Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 7, where he joins Archuleta and Woodson.
Because of the school’s rich walk-on history, Gammage has branded ASU “Walk-On U.”
“I think it’s one of the best places to walk on at in the nation,” he said.
For that, credit an egalitarian attitude among ASU’s coaches toward walk-ons and scholarship players.
“We’re looking for guys who can help us win,” offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. “If a guy can do that, I don’t care if he’s on a scholarship or not.”
Some of the most successful players in the NFL started their college football careers as walk-ons, including four active players who have 13 Associated Press All-Pro awards between them: Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (four times), Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (three), Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (three) and New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski (three).
The large majority of walk-on players don’t have that level of stardom in their future. Most are simply hoping to contribute in any way they can.
“I think that’s the ultimate goal of a walk-on,” McClure said. “You want to earn a spot somewhere, in some way, so that you can leave your mark.”