By Scott Latta, UA Media Relations
Note: The following is the first in a three-part series.
Forress Rayford remembers the 6 a.m. workouts. He remembers dragging himself out of bed, his limbs too numb to hardly move, and making his way to the Alabama football workout facility, where he would join the other freshman walk-ons for off-season workouts.
It's how they weeded them out. It's how they could tell who really wanted to be a part of Alabama football, who still had the dream of running through the tunnel, of changing into the uniform, of someday maybe seeing the field.
He remembers the laps and the heat. They would run you, he says, until you about dropped, and then they'd do it again. For most, the running stopped when the whistle blew. For others, it didn't stop until they reached their car after breaking from the group in the middle of practice, heading out the practice gate, and never returning.
One by one, as the workouts drug on, the morning practice group would get smaller and smaller. Guys quit showing up. Guys kept leaving. The coaches weren't making their players better, he says, they were trying to make them quit.
"They were trying to see who wanted to stay, who had the desire to stay and who would fold and quit," Rayford said. "It takes a lot out of you. It's one thing if all you have to do is football. It's another thing if you're just getting to school and are adapting to all the changes of being a college student, let alone having to be at practice every morning at 6 to show these guys you really do want to play football here.
"When you're a freshman walk-on, you really have to have the mindset that no matter what they do, they can't make me quit, because that's what they're trying to do. They're trying to make you quit."
Heading to Tuscaloosa
Layne Rinks was the top offensive lineman at Bradshaw High School in Florence, a three-year starter and team captain. He was voted best offensive lineman his senior year, was a High School Heisman nominee, All-Area, All-Region and a lifetime Alabama fan. When recruiting didn't pan out like he had planned, he found himself with a stack of scholarship offers from a bunch of schools he had never heard of.
Then, Mama called with an offer of her own: not a scholarship, but an invitation to walk on in Tuscaloosa. He agreed.
"I always wanted to come to Alabama," he said. "I've been an Alabama fan my whole life, and there's just no better place to come to play football than Alabama."
Rayford's high school résumé reads like that of a blue-chip recruiting sensation: he was a three-year starter at UMS-Wright in Mobile and played in back-to-back state championship games at cornerback and receiver as the only player on the team to play both ways. He recorded 10 interceptions in two years and was All-State his senior year, team captain, and MVP of the 2002 state championship game.
He was also captain of the basketball and track teams, being named All-County on the court and earning three individual state titles and three team state titles on the track.
When it came time to make his college decision, the offers came from the West TCU wanted him for football and track. SMU in Dallas wanted the same.
But it was big-time football Rayford wanted to play, so he turned them down, like Rinks, for a shot at hitting it big in Tuscaloosa.
"I grew up in Mobile," he said. "My mom went here. My sister went here. My dad was an athlete at Tennessee and I always wanted to play football at the next level. Alabama was where I wanted to be, where I always wanted to play football."
Rayford and Rinks are two of a number of players on the Alabama football team who have joined in on their own, with no scholarship, after a grueling tryout process to be non-scholarship walk-ons. They are used on the scout team, on the practice team. They log the same hours in the gym as Alabama's scholarship players maybe more, in some cases but most never see the field.
Rayford arrived on the Alabama campus thinking he would be battling the 20 or so other walk-on candidates for spots on the team. But when he got to Tuscaloosa in 2003, Alabama was going through a Title IX shift, and was cutting between 20 and 30 players who were already on the team. They would be battling, too.
Rayford made it through tryouts with the help of Will Denniston, another Alabama walk-on and Rayford's friend and teammate from UMS-Wright. They were tested in conditioning and agility and were subjected to the dreaded 6 a.m. workouts. They made the team as non-scholarship walk-ons.
Rinks, who got to Alabama one year after Rayford, went through the same. Making the cut, he said, made it all worthwhile.
"Every semester since I've been here, just being able to come back is a real blessing," he said. "They're always making cuts and always evaluating you. That first semester of getting on the team and practicing and playing with everybody felt really, really good. Just really good."
A Day in the Life
Instead of taking their first semester on campus to get used to college life, Rayford and Rinks spent it logging 13 and 14-hour-per-day jobs as college football players. They began with the 6 a.m. workouts, then class from 8 a.m. to 12. Afternoons were spent back at the practice facility for full practice as part of the scout team. Evenings were spent studying.
Eventually, the days began to take their toll on some. One morning, Rayford got to the practice facility for the 6 a.m. workout and saw a teammate sitting in his car in the parking lot. He tapped on the window.
"Come on, man," he said. "We've got 10 minutes."
"I can't do it anymore," the teammate said. "I'm leaving."
He drove out of the parking lot and didn't return.
"You know you have to pay the price," Rayford said. "My worst day was with [former strength and conditioning coach Tank] Johnson, we were off-season conditioning at six in the morning. I've never been one that can't get through a workout, but I honestly thought I was going to die. I honestly thought, there's a chance I could die. But when you're done and you get through it you get that much more satisfaction in it."
For the majority of players walking on to the football team, the countless hours logged in workouts and practices goes unnoticed by any fans it's practicing for practice, as many of the players are preparing simply as scout-team players, simulating the next week's opponent for those who will see the field.
There are success stories among the walk-ons; a number of college football players around the country gaining notoriety began as walk ons Alabama linebacker Darren Mustin and safety Rashad Johnson are two but the stories are not widespread.
Rinks, who is a senior, stands on the sidelines for each Alabama home game but has yet to see varsity action.
"I feel like I have an important job," he said. "I'd like to contribute more, of course. I'd love to be on the travel squad. But I think I contribute. I'm in my fourth year here and I'm still just as happy to be here."
Rayford and Denniston were sitting by each other on the sidelines of Alabama's 52-0 blowout win over Western Carolina in 2004, the clock waning, when Denniston elbowed Rayford in the ribs.
"What would it be like if one of us got to go out there?" he said with a laugh.
Almost immediately, Alabama scored. Special teams coach Dave Ungerer grabbed Rayford and told him to get in on the kickoff team. Do it like you do in practice, he told him.
"It was an unbelievable feeling," Rayford said. "Out of nowhere. I'd never experienced anything like it. I'd played in a bunch of big games in high school and nothing can compare with that. You can't take anything for granted. It always sends chills down your spine."
Rayford's one-game debut in 2004 turned into two when he saw action the next season on special teams against Utah State. In 2006, when he logged 62 snaps for Alabama in 10 games, he did something on the field he did 11 times in high school when he broke through to block a punt against Florida-International his best day, he says, since coming to Alabama.
Rinks' best day in an Alabama uniform came in the 2007 A-Day game, when he got a heavy load of playing time on defensive line in front of more than 92,000 people. It looked like a real game. It felt like a real game. It wouldn't go down as varsity action, but it's something he'll always keep with him as a great experience.
But what they both think about during the off-season, what kept them coming back semester after semester, was the thought of running through the tunnel, 92,000 on their feet, through the band and onto the sidelines. Rayford wrote it down after his first time to remember it.
"You're running out of the tunnel between the 12 national championship flags, the people look like ants, and you can't imagine that the people are cheering because you're running out there," he said. "It's something I think about every time. I think about it in the off-season, I think about it during the season. It never gets old."
Rinks thinks about it, too. Only, the first time he did it, he was thinking of something else.
"Don't trip," he said.
Rayford, who is majoring in real estate finance, is anxious to get into the business. Rinks, a business major, will try his hand in insurance when he is done at Alabama and wants to one day go to graduate school.
Until then, he'll keep getting up early, keep dragging himself to the practice field, keep holding out hope of seeing the field in an Alabama uniform.
"You can't ever give up your hope," he said. "The day you give up is the day they beat you. I still feel like I can get on the field. It doesn't matter what I think, but I think I should be on the field. There's always going to be stuff that gets in the way.
"But every day we get to run out of the tunnel is a great day. We wouldn't trade those days for anything."