Deon Butler passed on several Division I-AA scholarship offers to try to make it onto the Penn State football team as a walk-on.
He left University Park with several Nittany Lion receiving records - including most career receptions - and became a top-100 NFL draft pick.
"I loved it. I wouldn't change a thing about it," Butler said between practice sessions for the Seattle Seahawks last week.
Photo courtesy of Nate Wilson, Lock Haven Express
Central Mountain’s Von Walker (21) and State College’s Evan Galimberti (75) will run on at Penn State next fall.
Butler is far from alone when it comes from non-scholarship players coming to Penn State and making it big. Josh Hull, Matt McGloin, Troy Drayton, Gregg Garrity and Rich Gardner are just a few of the names that spring to mind; the Lions have fared very well, in that regard.
Garrity's son, Gregg Jr., is considering following in his father's footsteps as the new Nittany Lion coaches will put even greater emphasis on that part of the program - Coach Bill O'Brien prefers to call them "run-ons" instead of walk-ons. Because of the NCAA sanctions that will limit Penn State to 65 scholarships beginning in 2014, the Lions will be bolstering their roster numbers with 40-to-50 players they hope to entice to come to Happy Valley in hopes of being the next Butler.
The opportunity to play certainly will be there like never before.
So far, four prospects have announced their intentions to run on at Penn State: Central Mountain athlete Von Walker, State College defensive lineman Evan Galimberti, Massachusetts quarterback D.J. Crook and New Jersey place-kicker/punter Chris Gulla. There have been reports that quarterback Austin Whipple - son of Cleveland Browns quarterback coach Mark Whipple - and Mifflin County 300-pound lineman Derek Yoder also are part of the group, but that has yet to be confirmed by the Mirror.
"I knew I wanted to be there. It was my dream during this whole process. I wanted to be at Penn State," Walker said to the Lock Haven Express when he announced his decision a week ago. "I had opportunities that I could have taken. They weren't right for me. I am relieved, but it all came in good time. I am glad I waited and it is such a great feeling."
The 6-foot, 195-pound Walker, like Butler, had several smaller colleges courting him and offering scholarship money, but passed to join the Lions. He could wind up at a number of positions: Walker recently made Class AAAA all-state in spite of playing on a team with a losing record, and he set or tied 13 of his high school's rushing records.
"They have a great program there," Walker said. "When I went to visit, you could tell they are a huge family. We went on a visit and the guys on the team would sit and talk to me. You can just tell when you go there, you are all together, as a team. They do a great job of bringing you into that family. I think it is great.
"With all the things going on and all the new opportunities, it is going to be a great experience for me," he said. "I don't think it has set in yet. I am sure in June or July it will hit me. It is such a big weight off my shoulders."
Walker set or tied 13 of his high school's rushing records, but that actually pales in comparison to Crook's scholastic feats. The 6-2, 200-pound signal-caller set a Massachusetts state record with 8,126 career passing yards, threw for 77 touchdowns - even playing half of the 2011 season with a broken thumb - and helped Barnstable High School end a decade-long playoff drought.
He spent the 2012 as a post-graduate student at Worcester Academy and will enroll at Penn State next week.
"I chose Penn State for many reasons, but there is one reason why and that is because Coach O'Brien," Crook said. "The way the team overcame all that was against them made me want to go there. Along with that, I've always wanted to go, because of how great the campus is, the football tradition, and the education. But football-wise, I want to play for him and his whole coaching staff."
Gulla made 17-of-22 career field goals - including a 45-yarder that allowed his team to upset an eventual state finalist - while playing at Toms River North for Nittany Lion alum Chip LaBarca. As a senior, he averaged 42 yards per punt and had 33 of his kickoffs go for touchbacks.
He's hoping to challenge to get onto the field immediately.
"I had preferred walk-on offers from South Carolina, Maryland and Rutgers," Gulla said. "I chose Penn State due to great education, coaching staff, and opportunities I will have next year."
Galimberti was a multi-year starter at State College, a rarity, especially on the line, for Coach Al Wolski.
Some of the other players to keep an eye on in the coming weeks are Garrity, Camp Hill Trinity receiver Ryan Herr, Central Dauphin scatback Drew Scales, 300-pound Warrior Run lineman Austin Fiedler, Red Land linebacker Kyle Searfoss, Lewisburg linebacker Brandon Smith, Cathedral Prep linebacker Jake Plonski and the Milford Prep tandem of defensive back Sterling Parks and athlete Aris Scott.
Butler said there's no reason at least some of them can't succeed. In fact, he said attributed at least some of his success to the motivation walking on gave him.
"It let me have a chip on my shoulder, and it let me know that I had something to prove every day in practice," Butler said. "When you're a walk-on, you don't have a scholarship and you're earning your way, everything has more of a sense of urgency. In hindsight, it helped me in practice. I took practice more seriously because one of my ultimate goals was to play, but, before that, to earn a scholarship. By taking practice seriously, I got so much better.
"I was going so hard in practice that the game became easy."
With Penn State limited to 15 scholarships per year starting this season, at least five walk-ons should eventually pick up scholarships. Butler said taking this route also provides incentive off the field.
"I knew I was paying for those classes. I don't want to bring home a C or a D and not pass a class and then have to pay again to take it," Butler said. "I thought I had to put my best foot forward, because, look, I am not paying for this class again, whereas, maybe if I was on scholarship, I'd be lazy. 'Oh, I'm on scholarship. I'll just take it over in the summer again.' But when it's your own money, it definitely changes things."