Some guys love football for the sake of football. The sport is so fun for a select few they don’t need anything out of it other than getting a chance to play. We know from Herm Edwards that you play to win the game, but you also play for the love of the game.
No one’s love for the game can be compared to a college football walk-on. These guys relish being on the scout team. Their mouths water at the opportunity to crack some skulls on special teams. They love the adrenaline-inducing smell of a post-practice locker room.
No matter how much these guys love the gridiron, they don’t see the field very often. However, there are some guys who started their NCAA football careers as walk-ons, earned athletic scholarships and ended as legends. The Burlsworth Trophy is the Heisman for these football players. Each year, the trophy is awarded to College football’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on.
Walk-ons are the lifeblood of the sport. Here are the five who stood above the rest in college football history.
5 Best Walk-Ons in College Football History
5. Stephen Gostkowski, Memphis
There’s no better way to start a walk-on list than with a kicker. Most people remember Gostkowski as the ace for the New England Patriots following the days of Adam Vinatieri. Before he excelled in Massachusetts, Gostkowski accepted a baseball scholarship to University of Memphis. He decided to try his leg at kicking, too.
It paid off. He set a school record of 369 career points and converted 70 of 92 field goals and 159 of 165 extra points.
4. Hunter Renfrow, Clemson
Renfrow arrived at Clemson University with a 5-foot-10, 155-pound frame. Not exactly the ideal measurements for a Division-I wide receiver. He spent his redshirt freshman season adding 26 pounds and a scholarship to go along with it.
Renfrow more than earned his place from there. In his four-year career, he hauled in 185 catches for 2,133 yards and 15 touchdowns. One of those scores was the game-winning catch from Deshaun Watson in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship game.
The former Tigers wideout is finding his stride in the NFL with the Las Vegas Raiders.
3. Clay Matthews, USC
It’s hard to believe Clay Matthews started his college career at USC as a walk on. The only thing he cared about other than growing out his locks was getting better. Matthews didn’t earn a scholarship until his redshirt sophomore season. He turned into a beast from there, totaling 97 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks during his career.
Matthews was also a force on special teams and remains the only player in Trojans history to win the football program’s Special Teams Player of the Year award three times.
He wasn’t too shabby on the Green Bay Packers, either.
2. J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
Central Michigan tight end J.J. Watt was a thing back in 2007. Not for long, though. CMU head coach Butch Jones suggested Watt — who was a two-star recruit out of high school — move to the offensive line. Instead, Watt moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and the other side of the ball. He took community college courses and worked as a pizza delivery man to save up money to attend Wisconsin.
As a walk-on for the Wisconsin Badgers, Watt was a dominant presence as a defensive lineman. Coaches wanted him on their football team. Girls wanted to date him. Guys wanted to listen to Fort Minor with him. Watt racked up 106 tackles, including 36.5 (!) for losses and 11.5 sacks in two Big Ten seasons before heading to the NFL, where the 2010 All-American blossomed into a three-time Defensive Player of the Year with the Houston Texans.
1. Baker Mayfield, Texas Tech & Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield turned down scholarships from Washington State, Rice, New Mexico and Florida Atlantic to walk-on at Texas Tech. Thanks to an injury to projected starter Michael Brewer, Mayfield was given the reigns to the offense and became the first walk-on true freshman in FBS history to start the first game of the regular season.
Scholarship or not, it didn’t matter. Mayfield tore up SMU for 413 yards and four touchdowns. He left Lubbock after the season for the University of Oklahoma. He only got better in Norman, throwing for 12,292 yards and 119 touchdowns against 21 interceptions in three seasons as the starter. Throw a Heisman Trophy and the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft after his senior season in there and you have the greatest walk-on story in college football history.
Jordy Nelson, Kansas State
Santana Moss, Miami Hurricanes
Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin Badgers
Brandon Burlsworth, Arkansas Razorbacks
Adam Archuleta, Arizona State Sun Devils
Carl Nassib, Penn State Nittany Lions
Rashad Johnson, Alabama Crimson Tide
Luke Falk, Washington State Cougars
Matt McGloin, Penn State Nittany Lions
Justin Hardy, East Carolina Pirates
Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia Bulldogs
Kenny Willekes, Michigan State Spartans
Jimmy Morrissey, Pittsburgh Panthers
Ziggy Ansah, BYU Cougars
TJ Ward, Oregon Ducks