Thursday, January 1, 2009

Why walk-ons are cherished

Imagine trying to play D-1 college football as a 166-pound linebacker.

Now imagine trying to play LB at one of the premier college programs in the nation at that weight.

When Clay Matthews was coming out of high school in 2004, most college scouts told him he was he was "too skinny, too weak and too slow."

But he had a couple things going for him. First, he has good genes. His father was an All-America LB who played in the NFL for 19 years and his uncle is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman. His grandfather also played in the NFL.

Second, he was willing to work hard to get better.

"I thought it was intriguing," USC coach Pete Carroll says of Matthews' arrival. "He had that big family background here. So I thought, 'OK, is there some magic in here somehow?' And I didn't see it. He looked like just a good, hardworking kid who was undersized, just not physically ready to match up."

Matthews' USC teammates marvel at how far he's come, earning All-Pac 10 Second Team honors and being mentioned as a third- or fourth-round pick in the NFL draft. As one put it, "I just remember how little he was. But he was always in the weight room three times more than anybody else."

Says Matthews:

"I knew if I came to USC and they gave me a shot, that I could play. I also knew if I was going to hang with these guys, I'd have to work really hard and be really persistent. I just kept working and working and getting bigger and faster and better. I'm sure the coaches thought I was crazy," Matthews says. "Most walk-ons … they're just here to contribute to the scout team or maybe special teams. But I was aiming for much more."

According to Coach Carroll, walk-ons are a valued part of the Trojans football program:

"The guys who walk on here are cherished. We look after these guys and treat them just like everybody else and just keep rooting for them, because we know that there are success stories in there. You just don't know which ones they're going to be. Clay is the most famous guy to do that, because he's done so much and he's come so far. He's really transformed his whole makeup. It's a remarkable story, I think, because he was just a skinny kid who wanted to play football."