Walk-ons are a rich part of college football lore. For decades, overlooked athletes have paid their way into school in search of opportunity, beaten the odds and made the team.
Perhaps nowhere is that time-honored tradition better observed than at Towson University, where coach Gordy Combs has added a twist.
Since the Tigers started handing out NCAA Division I-AA athletic scholarships in 2003, they have had four walk-ons who played not only well enough to earn a scholarship, but also well enough to become co-captains.
This season, they start three former walk-ons:
• Wide receiver Demetrius Harrison, who walked on at Towson in 2004 after giving up a full scholarship from Virginia Military Institute after one season.
• Free safety Kenny Scott, who rejected financial aid at a Division II school in West Virginia for the chance to play at the next level in 2003.
• Defensive end Richard Lee, who developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma as a senior at Old Mill in 2005 and joined the Tigers after three months of chemotherapy.
Combs decided there was enough to this phenomenon that he asked the sports information department this year to include a page about walk-ons in the team's media guide, which it did. Altogether, the Tigers have some 30 walk-ons on their roster this season.
"I think it's something we have to utilize all the time in terms of awarding scholarships," Combs said. "We can say [to a recruit] we've done this before, and rewarded guys who came into the program who hadn't gotten a dime."
While successful walk-ons at the Division I-A level have dwindled over the years - Nebraska, for example, used to be a haven for them - the former Division I-AA, with a limit of 63 scholarships, has attracted more.
"A guy may want to go to Division I but doesn't feel he can make it," Combs said. "So he goes to I-AA because he says, 'I want to play eventually.'"
In varying degrees, that's what Harrison, Scott and Lee said when they went to Towson. Here are their stories:
Demetrius HarrisonGoing into his senior year at Old Mill in 2002, Harrison was to be the featured receiver. Then he broke his hand in the first quarter of the first game and everything changed.
He played defensive back most of the year - well enough that several I-AA schools were interested in his defense. But he wanted to play receiver and he wanted to go to a big-time campus like Maryland.
"It's a dream you have as a young kid to think about playing big-time football," he said. "At the time, Maryland was definitely a program on the rise. You aim high."
The dream went unfulfilled. Harrison accepted a late offer from VMI, but military life didn't suit him, even though his father, Willie Harrison, had been a lieutenant colonel in the Army.
His high school coach, Mike Marcus, helped steer him to Towson, bypassing a chance to walk on at Maryland - as a defensive back.
"It's definitely a humbling experience," Harrison said. "I had to start from the bottom. That wears on you and you start questioning whether you really want to play football. At times, I felt like I wanted to quit."
Harrison persevered, and a work ethic that helped him excel at Old Mill helped him survive at Towson. After the team's star receiver, Andrae Brown, was hurt in 2006, Harrison caught 49 passes, four for touchdowns.
He met Towson's criteria for winning a scholarship as a walk-on by starting and being productive.
"You could see he was a very good player," Combs said. "He just needed an opportunity."
Kenny ScottScott arrived as an invited walk-on in 2003, following Winslow Township (N.J.) teammate John Webb to Towson. Because of the financial demands on his family - he had a younger brother about to enter college - he nearly transferred to Rowan University after his second year.
"When you're a walk-on, you're at the bottom of the totem pole," Scott said. "The odds are stacked against you in the amount of [practice] reps you get, how much coaching you get. And I felt it was hurting my family by being here."
But teammates persuaded him to stay, and he devoted himself to learning Towson's defense like a coach. He earned a scholarship in his redshirt sophomore season, when he started every game.
"Coming into the program, I was labeled as a guy who didn't work hard," he said. "Into my second summer, I lost 10-15 pounds and developed a work ethic in the weight room. I turned my body around."
Scott will graduate in December with a grade point average of better than 3.0 as a marketing major and no regrets.
"This season didn't work out the way I wanted, but when I look back, I achieved a lot. At the NCAA level, there's not a lot of walk-ons who earn scholarships," he said.
Richard LeeBecause of his bout with cancer, Lee had the most difficult road of all the walk-ons.
"Physically and mentally, he had to overcome a lot," Combs said.
After learning of his cancer in midseason 2005, Lee was hospitalized from October to January. He was already focusing on his Division I-A options - which included Cincinnati - when the illness was discovered.
"I knew it was cancer, but I didn't just sit down and think 'I could die,'" he said. "It was there, but it was almost not real. I didn't take in the severity of the situation until after I was out of the hospital and had so many people supporting me."
His opportunity for a Division I-A scholarship gone, he took the advice of Marcus, who was also his high school coach at Old Mill, and went to Towson. Like Harrison, Lee impressed Marcus with his dedication.
"I talked to Richard through the whole process," Marcus said. "At the end, he said, 'I beat this and I want to play bad.'"
Towson moved Lee from tight end to defensive line, and after a solid freshman season he had his scholarship. He has started every game this year.
By his senior year, he might even be ready for the captaincy.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun