September 18, 2008
What motivates a walk-on? Clemson University's role players speak
By Scott Keepfer
CLEMSON -- Behind every James Davis, there’s a Ronald Watson.
Behind every Michael Hamlin, there’s a Kantrell Brown.
Behind every Thomas Austin, there’s a Ben Ramsey.
But while their well-known counterparts steal the headlines, Watson, Brown and Ramsey roam the sidelines.
They’re the walk-ons on the Clemson football team -- players who endure the practices, the hits, the pain and the long hours without benefit of an athletic scholarship.
Some do it for love of the game, others for love of the school, and still others for both reasons, but they’re certainly not doing it for the money.
“I’m here because I want to be here, not because they’re paying me (with a scholarship),” Ramsey said.
Try as they might, most walk-ons are far removed from Saturday afternoon glory, often only visible under the heading “Tiger Reserves” in your Clemson football program. But each has a story.
Walk-ons were good high school players, but probably not blue-chippers. Some suffered injuries, which tends to bring a premature end to the recruiting process.
Almost all had offers from smaller schools, but opted for Clemson because they felt some connection to the school or sought the challenge of playing at the Division I level.
“I can remember coming to games when I was in high school and watching them run down the hill and the hair would stand up on my neck,” Ramsey said. “I thought, ‘Just give me any chance in the world to do that once or twice.’ ”
As a reserve behind starting center Thomas Austin, Ramsey has gotten that chance several times in the past two seasons.
A redshirt sophomore out of Greensboro, N.C., Ramsey is a top-tier walk-on, if you will, having played about 50 snaps last season and 20 in the Tigers’ recent victory against The Citadel.
And he actually played last season on scholarship before losing it due to a high number of incoming recruits.
“It’s a year-to-year thing,” said Ramsey, who broke his leg three games into his senior season at Greensboro’s Grimsley High School. “That’s just the way it goes. I looked at it as they paid for a year of my school, and that’s a year my mom and dad didn’t have to pay for, so I was nothing but appreciative and thankful.”
Ramsey’s father and sister both attended Clemson, so when assistant coach Brad Scott promised him a shot -- even as a walk-on -- he was quick to jump at the chance.
“A lot of people would give their right arm to be on the team and to travel and to play,” Ramsey said. “It’s a heckuva ride, just being a part of it.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Watson, a walk-on who has never been on scholarship and never been on the field during a game.
He’s been a running back at Clemson for three years, but his playing time has been confined to toting the ball on the scout team, where he’s counted on to mimic the opposing team’s running back on a weekly basis.
Watson, whose father, Ronald Sr., was a letter-winner as a freshman on Clemson’s national championship team in 1981 and later a starting defensive back, played at South Florence High, where he was team captain as a senior.
In addition to his father, Watson’s mother graduated with degrees in microbiology and nursing at Clemson, so the younger Watson’s choice was obvious.
“I figured I didn’t have a choice,” Watson said, laughing. “Clemson was the only school I applied to.”
Like many of his fellow walk-ons, Watson says he regularly hears comments from students who want to know why he remains with the team. His answer is simple.
“I don’t quit -- I’ve never quite anything in my life,” Watson said.
So what satisfaction does he derive from being a Tiger?
“Just being around my friends,” Watson said. “Everybody on the team has this relationship I just can’t describe, a bond. I love these boys. They keep me going.”
Watson’s perseverance on the field also has paid dividends in the classroom -- he’ll graduate next fall with a degree in civil engineering.
Kantrell Brown falls somewhere in between. He’s a redshirt freshman from Saint Matthews and Calhoun County High, where he was an all-area receiver and safety.
“I had offers from Howard and S.C. State, but I just wanted to play at the D1 level,” Brown said. “I knew it was going to be a process -- it’s still a process -- but I’m still working. You’ve got to keep fighting. That’s what I’m aiming for, a scholarship. That’s the biggest goal.”
Walk-on success stories aren’t common, but there have been some notable ones, including Steve Ryan, who came to Clemson as a walk-on and left as an All-Atlantic Coast Conference defensive back in the late 1970s.
Brown dreams of as much.
Working at third-team safety and keeping an eye on Michael Hamlin in hopes of gleaning some skills, Brown got in for two plays a couple Saturdays ago against The Citadel and came up big with two special teams tackles.
“It was pretty fun,” Brown said. “I got a couple of handshakes, a couple of people saying, ‘Good job.’ ”