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Topics: Athletics

Walk-on nation

By James David Dickson
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John Paciorek was a football walk-on in the '80s. (Photo: U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

John Paciorek was a football walk-on in the ’80s. (Photo: U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

You’ve never seen a guy walk down South State Street so happy after quitting the Michigan football team.Happy may not be the right word. Perhaps “validated” is better: the validation that only a respected football coach can give.John Paciorek’s decision had been made. The scout team quarterback, a rising senior, had added up the dollars and cents and decided that his last year at Michigan, 1984-85, would be better spent working at a paying job and sending money back home to his family than preparing the Michigan defense for the offenses it would face each week. Such were the demands of real life.Doesn’t mean he was going to tell his coaches the full story. Why burden them? Everybody has problems and Paciorek was at peace with how he would handle his. He sent word to head coach Bo Schembechler that he was simply doing what he had to do, what any young man in his situation would.He was prepared to leave it at that, but Schembechler demanded to see him. “No one leaves this program without talking to me first,” Schembechler growled.
Jordan Kovacs (32), who went from failed walk-on to defensive superhero, is the exception that proves the rule: most walk-ons rarely get to play, much less star, on Saturdays. (Photo: Eric Bronson, U-M Photo Services.)

Jordan Kovacs (32), who went from failed walk-on to defensive superhero, is the exception that proves the rule: most walk-ons rarely get to play, much less star, on Saturdays. (Photo: Eric Bronson, U-M Photo Services.)

In the end, the coach gave his blessing to Paciorek’s decision. But those precious few moments in Schembechler’s office, the gesture of the coach checking in with a young man who would never throw a game day pass or travel with the team to a regular season game taught Paciorek that he’d finally earned what every walk-on fights for: respect. In being allowed to leave the team, Paciorek came to realize just how much a part of the team he really was.”That Bo would even take the time out for a guy like me means more than you could ever imagine,” Paciorek said.Who is “a guy like me”? Walk-ons are the students who come off the street to try out for the team. They lift the same weights and run the same stadium steps as everyone else, and do so without scholarships, without complaint, and certainly without NFL prospects. Former Michigan assistant coach Jerry Hanlon, 1969-1991, called walk-ons the unsung heroes of college football and said that Michigan’s success wouldn’t be possible without them. They practice every day but almost never play in real games and don’t even make the travel squad. They contribute by giving the starting offense and defense a good look at the opponent they’ll face that week, but their names are rarely mentioned in postgame press conferences or discussed on talk radio.Walk-ons populate every sport, but they’re especially important in football, given its violence. “You can never have enough bodies as the season goes on,” Hanlon said. But walk-ons are more than just bodies, he added, they’re often the energy guys. Their appreciation of the game and encouragement of their teammates is responsible for what you see in the house that Yost built.What keeps them coming back? Practices certainly aren’t any easier for walk-ons and scout team players, and might actually be tougher, given the disparities between their talents and those of the starters.No one does it for the scholarships, obviously, because only the rarest of talents, guys like Donny Warner (1971-73), who played his way from walk-on to scholarship middle guard under Schembechler, earn those—and then only after slogging it out for a year or more. Ditto for the playing time, because only the rarest of walk-ons earn any, even though some could have had bigger opportunities at other schools. Paciorek, for instance, turned down Harvard and Stanford to come to Michigan. He wanted to wear the same jersey and winged helmet that QB Rick Leach, his idol, wore, even if it meant he’d never be able to lead the team the way Leach did—on Saturdays, at the Big House and on the road.
This run, a six yard dash during garbage time, was Jack Kennedy's career highlight so far. But the QB, like all walk-ons, plays an essential role behind the scenes for the team. (Photo: Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.)

This run, a six yard dash during garbage time, was Jack Kennedy’s career highlight so far. But the QB, like all walk-ons, plays an essential role behind the scenes for the team. (Photo: Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.)

Every once in a while, a walk-on does rise to prominence. Redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs is one of them. Michigan’s highest-profile walk-on in years, he got his chance to play in the Michigan secondary when a teammate, safety Mike Williams, went down with cramps during the 2009 Notre Dame game. It was Williams’s Wally Pipp moment, as Kovacs held on to and grew at the position over the next two seasons, eventually earning a scholarship.Michigan fans imagined—perhaps even hoped—that the overachiever, cerebral as he was, and as close to the ball as he always seemed to be, would be displaced from his starting job by someone bigger, faster, better-known. But two recruiting classes later, Kovacs has held on to the job, and then some. Before the start of the season, the redshirt junior was named to the Ronnie Lott IMPACT Award Watch List. The safety’s journey from walk-on to being associated with one of the greatest defensive backs of all time has made Kovacs the undisputed leader of walk-on nation, as the team’s current walk-ons call it. (Kovacs told Michigan Today that his on-field overachieving would end at Michigan: he won’t pursue an NFL career, but he would like to get into coaching.)Players like Kovacs and Donny Warner make for great stories, said Hanlon, whose son, Mickey, was a walk-on wide receiver. Most walk-ons will leave without ever playing a snap, much less being featured on ESPN.com, as Kovacs recently was. In short, Kovacs is the exception that proves the rule.Scholarship players and high school All Americans typically aren’t looking to help out the scout team. But as Michigan fans know, practice injuries to front-line players can compromise an entire season. Without a sizable and serviceable group of walk-ons ready to serve as the proverbial Next Man Up when someone goes down, Michigan wouldn’t have the depth to compete on a week-in, week-out basis in the Big Ten.Despite those contributions, it can take years for the lines between the great college players and the washouts and walk-ons to disintegrate and for mutual respect to take hold, Paciorek said. Distinctions that seemed crucially important at age 22 fade away with time.”Now, I think they realize we all fought and bled together,” Paciorek said of the teammates who never understood at the time why anyone would pay to endure the punishment walk-ons take. And now that kinship not only extends to former teammates like WR Anthony Carter and RB Gerald White, who both went on to NFL careers, but also to players who came later, such as QB John Navarre, Michigan’s all-time passing leader.The work is so hard, and the rewards so elusive, that even the most devoted walk-on must question his commitment. Paciorek’s decision to leave the team in order to earn money meant that he was not one of “those who stayed.” He does not have an M Ring, much like players who leave early for the NFL don’t have M Rings; it is one of the few honors to have eluded Heisman winner, All-Pro and Super Bowl champion cornerback Charles Woodson. The one distinction that doesn’t blur over time is that between those who stayed and those who left, teammates and brothers they may be.That part of it doesn’t bother Paciorek. “My goal was always to get a Rose Bowl ring anyway,” he said, and he did, after Michigan’s participation in the 14-24 loss to UCLA in the 1983 Rose Bowl. What bothers him is what he missed by leaving.Michigan wasn’t going to win the 1984 Big Ten championship even if the scout team quarterback had stayed. But Paciorek might’ve gotten a chance to compete for playing time after QB Jim Harbaugh broke his arm during Michigan’s 7-19 loss to Michigan State. He visited with coaches and discussed the possibility of returning, but it was not to be.Turns out the team could’ve used the help. Michigan closed the season with a 17-24 loss to Brigham Young University in the 1984 Holiday Bowl. That loss dropped Michigan to 6-6, the worst finish of any Schembechler team, and would propel BYU to be named the national champion—the first mid-major program in the modern era to be so recognized.The Cougars rang up 483 yards of offense, and 32 first downs, on the Michigan defense en route to victory. “If I’m on that team, maybe I help give the defense a good look (at the BYU offense) and we don’t end up losing that game,” he said.”Do I regret my decision to leave early?” asks Paciorek, now a financial professional for Allstate in Chicago. “Every freaking day.”Quarterback Jack Kennedy’s career stat line is nothing that will be mentioned on tours of the campus. His jersey, first no. 20, then 25, now 14, won’t be immortalized in Schembechler Hall. But Kennedy’s six-yard scamper on the final play of a 63-6 romp against Delaware State on Oct. 17, 2009 represented a career’s worth of validation for most walk-ons.One trait former coach Rich Rodriguez shared with Bo was an affinity for walk-ons. Having been one himself at West Virginia University, Rodriguez knew that walk-ons could add a competitive fire to the team.Kennedy and Kovacs actually trained together when they were trying to walk on. Both were recovering from injuries—Kovacs from a bum knee, Kennedy from a bad back—and they pushed each other to make the team for the 2009 season.While Kovacs became a full-time starter, Kennedy has been parked on the depth chart behind Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson and now Devin Gardner. Kennedy, like Paciorek three decades before him, has found his niche running the scout team offense.If Kennedy had been a Notre Dame walk-on, his 6-yard scramble might have been the stuff of cinema, Michigan’s own “Rudy” moment.Instead it was a moment that few fans noticed, but one the Kennedy family will always hold dear. Kennedy’s father, Jim, turned 60 the day of Jack’s scramble. Like many Michigan football parents who live nearby, Jim and his wife, Jean, attend every home game.Jim and Jean don’t come for the remote possibility Jack will play, they come because they want Jack to know that at least two of the 100,000-plus fans at Michigan Stadium are there to cheer him on.

What about you? Do you remember walk-ons who “made it”? Did you walk on yourself to a sport? Share your stories in the comments section.

James David Dickson

James David Dickson

JAMES DAVID DICKSON is op-ed editor of The Detroit News. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesddetroit.