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Football's Boot Camp : Walk-Ons Battle for the Opportunity to Play on Fields Where Coaches Are Developing Their Own Recruits and 'Everybody Else Has More Stripes'

September 03, 1987|ADAM MARTIN | Times Staff Writer

UCLA football Coach Terry Donahue might have enlisted in the military in 1965. Instead, he walked onto the Bruin football team. Back then, he said, one blended into the other.

"I would associate being a walk-on as a player to being in boot camp in the service," he said recently. "Everybody in the fort has stripes except you."

Donahue soon earned his stripes and a starting spot at defensive tackle and remained there for two years under Coach Tommy Prothro. He was talented and fortunate.

Many walk-ons aren't as lucky. They put in as much time as scholarship players, and sometimes more, but the walk-on accepts a monumental task when he says, "I want to play football here."

He must catch the eyes of coaches who spend hours developing players they recruited--and minutes giving unrecruited players an obligatory glance.

Faced with such odds, few walk-ons become starters. But at some schools they reach hero status by accomplishing more than anybody expected. Four years after walking on in 1981, Mike Sherrard became the leading receiver in UCLA history and the idol of many Bruin walk-ons.

"Mike had difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time," Donahue recalled. But Sherrard soon figured that out. Then he walked and chewed his way to the first round of the NFL draft and a job with the Dallas Cowboys.

Rick Neuheisel had a little luck too. Four years after walking on the playing field in Westwood, the 6-foot, 190-pound quarterback threw four touchdown passes in the Rose Bowl, leading the Bruins to 45-9 victory over Illinois. That was 1984.

Neuheisel is now competing for a job with the San Diego Chargers, but he won't soon forget playing at UCLA.

"It was a nightmare at first," he remembered. "You have to kind of pay dues when you are a walk-on, and the hardest thing is gaining peer respect."

What was true for Neuheisel isn't necessarily true for all walk-ons. But then, all walk-ons don't call signals in the Rose Bowl.

All players--scholarship or no scholarship--strive for acceptance from other players. Many find it, many don't.

"Some scholarship players may think something is different about you," said UCLA long-snapper Mark Selecky, a walk-on in line for a starting job, "and you may feel a little different, but it's mostly in your own mind."

"You can't explain the feeling," countered Brandon Bowlin, a walk-on from Blair High and USC's No. 2 free safety. "It's so hard to come as a walk-on and still not speak to anybody. No one talks. You throw and catch with the regular players, but you can never relax."

Three years into his football career, Bowlin, a 5-10, 190-pound sophomore, still can't relax. He and new Coach Larry Smith know he'll get plenty of playing time this season, but neither knows whether USC will pay for Bowlin's board, tuition and books anytime soon.

Bowlin said he could play one more season without a scholarship but that next spring he would have to think hard about continuing without financial help. Smith said Bowlin is a top candidate for a scholarship and may be the Trojans' best walk-on.

Bowlin probably will see more action on special teams than at safety this season, as he did last year. But, despite his attachment to Trojan football, questions about his future never leave his mind.

In July he wondered: "If they have that much faith in me to put me in the game and play me second string, why is it that I don't have a scholarship?"

The same question was put to Smith last spring. He said he couldn't afford a scholarship because so many newcomers had been recruited. Bowlin saw no malice in that answer, just politics. Now he intends to overcome the bureaucracy.

"I hope I beat it," he said. "If I do, if I get a scholarship and become a starter, it will be one of the major accomplishments of my life."

Like many walk-ons, Bowlin was relatively unknown when he left high school. The Times included him on its All San-Gabriel Valley first team, but major colleges weren't interested. And he was more concerned with getting into law school than making tackles.

At USC he is tackling school and split ends. The many days he spent on the scout team, preparing the first string for next week's foe, are long gone. So is the loneliness. But, like Neuheisel, he remembers.

"The people in admittance knew me and my situation more than the coaches," he said. "It was weird, frustrating."

The one Trojan coach who did know Bowlin was Art Gigantino, now with the Los Angeles Rams. John Robinson, Rams head coach and former USC coach, also knew Bowlin because Bowlin had played with Robinson's son, Chris, at Blair. Before he enrolled at USC, Bowlin asked Robinson for a letter of recommendation and Robinson convinced him to give football a try. Gigantino later gave Bowlin shoes and told him to visit USC for an informal workout in late July.

Bowlin's initiation soon followed. Former quarterback Sean Salisbury threw him a pass "and it knocked me over," Bowlin recalled.

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