Exceptional talent or fierce determination? Think about it.
Once in a while, a burning desire to succeed intersects with an opportunity and a remarkable development occurs. If you search, you can find this in real life. It is easier to spot in college football.
We have a handy label for those who defy long odds and go for the goal. They are walk-ons. Most show up uninvited. They pay their own way for just a chance to compete.
Of course, they played in high school and were pretty good – but recruiters never gave them a second look. They lacked something – size, speed, strength, agility. Friends accepted the facts and whispered guidance: Put away the dream, finish your education and get a job.
The conflicting message was inside out. Not yet. Give it a go. Impossible is just one step up from difficult.
The 1993 drama “Rudy” told the world the underdog story of college football walk-ons. Good movie. For most walk-ons, the results are bumps and bruises and the mere satisfaction of giving their best effort, just participating with the giants of the game, the fast and famous.
Once in a greater while, a walk-on does ascend far above expectations, earns a scholarship and wins a position.
The stage is set so this could happen at Tennessee this fall. Offensive left tackle has been a roster weakness. Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson divided the job last season but both transferred. Former walk-on Dayne Davis, 6-7 and 315, moved up.
Dayne never was a totally obscure walk-on. He was big enough to be noticed at Sullivan East. Tusculum, Austin Peay, Rhodes College, University of the Cumberlands, Culver-Stockton, Bethel and McPherson invited him to come play for them.
Tennessee Tech, Southeast Missouri, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin showed some interest.
Jeremy Pruitt saw potential. He offered “preferred” walk-on status at Tennessee. Dayne said that was too good to pass up.
“No-brainer. It has simply always been my and my family’s dream for me to play at Tennessee.”
UT says Dayne practiced but did not play in 2019 or 2020. Pruitt, who did several things right, awarded Davis a scholarship in December.
Josh Heupel, very perceptive, understands why.
“The guy has just been rock-solid since we’ve been here, in the way that he competes, his attention to detail.”
“As solid as can be,” said line coach Glen Elarbee.
Once in a while, a burning desire to succeed …
Mike LaSorsa was “discovered” by former Vols Jimmy Hahn and Moose Barbish while all three were in the military long, long ago. Mike listened closely and eventually decided to give college and football a whirl. He gave up a job in Providence, R.I., unloading 100-pound bags of cement from boxcars, caught a bus to Knoxville, arrived unannounced, located the university and discovered he was behind 150 ambitious Volunteers preparing for the championship season of 1956.
“Well now, what have I gotten myself into?” said LaSorsa.
Military money helped him hang in there. He demonstrated courage and toughness, moved up in the world, became one of the better ends in the SEC and ended up a captain, age 25. Mike smiled when he said football was relatively easy compared to his time in Korea.
Nick Reveiz was honored as all-Knoxville Interscholastic League after more than 130 tackles at Farragut High in 2005. Alas, he had an obvious weakness. He was two full inches short of six feet tall.
Reveiz chose to walk on at Tennessee rather than accept a scholarship at a smaller school. In time, he was awarded a scholarship. Four times he was academic all-SEC. He was twice elected a captain.
Twins Cory and Cody Sullins were rewarded for patience and persistence. They came as walk-ons from Cottonwood. They worked and waited. Four years later, they were 40 percent of the starting offensive line.
“Players grow up wanting to play for Tennessee,” coach Lane Kiffin said in explanation. “Unfortunately, there will be some we can’t take. But they will come here, prove us wrong and earn a scholarship.”
The famous punting Colquitts came as walk-ons.
J.J. McCleskey and Tim Townes are my prize examples. Neither was big enough but both achieved their version of greatness.
J.J. played at Karns High. He was determined to be a Vol but they didn’t know it. When nobody from UT acknowledged he was alive, his mother fired up the family Ford and took him to the athletics department. She told the receptionist they wanted to see a football coach. Assistant Kippy Brown drew the short straw.
“I never will forget it. She sat in my office with her son and said, ‘He’s going to do everything you tell him to do. You have any problem, you call me.’”
There was some question about size. The mother said J.J. was plenty big enough.
“He’s 5-6 and 135.”
McCleskey grew some. In November of his redshirt freshman season, he started as a defensive back. He helped as a receiver. He played special teams. He was part of two SEC championships and three bowl games. As a senior in 1992, he became one of three in Vol history to complete the remarkable rise from walk-on to captain.
OK, so he exceeded expectations. That was the end, right?
“Nobody could have imagined J.J. McCleskey playing professional football,” said Coach Brown.
J.J. played eight years in the NFL – New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals.
Tim Townes was a Tennessee fan in boyhood. He sold soft drinks at Neyland Stadium. He played for Jim Smelcher at Bearden High as a tough 5-9 and 160.
“I was too short and didn’t weigh enough and wasn’t fast enough and nobody offered me a scholarship,” Townes said. “But other than that, I thought I had a pretty good chance.”
He did not make an instant impact. He was fifth-team strong safety – on the 1969 freshman team.
“I remember praying that I’d do my best. If that was good enough, fantastic. If it wasn’t, at least I would know I tried. I just didn’t want to wonder 10 years later if I could have made it.”
He made it. He played in every game for three years. He made 168 tackles.
“Tim was one of the most dedicated football players I have ever seen, and one of the greatest human beings I have ever known,” said Philip Fulmer.
“Nice guy,” said others.
There were some no votes. He was a fearsome hitter. He made opposing wide receivers nervous.
After football, Townes went on to bigger and better things. He earned an undergraduate degree, a master’s in zoology and a doctorate in microbiology. At the University of Alabama-Birmingham, he became a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics. He chaired the department for 15 years. He founded the UAB Stem Cell Institute.
The heavyweight fight of his life has been against blood disorders such as sickle cell disease and severe immunodeficiency.
Townes compared his years of research to what he learned at UT.
“It’s just like football practice. It’s busting your tail.”
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org