The Walk-On Experience: Part II

ROLLTIDEDOTCOM
ROLLTIDEDOTCOM

ROLLTIDEDOTCOM
By Scott Latta
UA Media Relations
 
Note: The following is the second in a three-part series.
 
Darren Mustin was on his way to the bank to renew his financial aid paperwork for another year, a non-scholarship transfer player from Middle Tennessee State University. The 2007 academic year was about to begin and Mustin, one of 13 children, needed to renew the application before the fall semester got underway.
 
He had redshirted the 2005 season after transferring to Tuscaloosa from MTSU and then played moderately as a junior. But he hadn't left his family, his teammates and, perhaps most importantly, his scholarship, for a shot at playing moderately. He wanted on the field and felt he was proving it in practice.
 
But on this day, all dreams of starting and contributing were put on hold for an item on a to-do list – he had to get to the bank, had to renew the paperwork for another year of financial aid.
 
As he was preparing to leave, first-year head coach Nick Saban called Mustin into his office. Over his lunch, he told Mustin to forget about the bank. He was going on scholarship.
 
Getting the News
 
It's a moment walk-on players live for. The understood cliché is that every player on the football team dreams of running out of the tunnel, the sun shining off his helmet, to 92,000 screaming the lyrics of "Yea, Alabama"; of having the coach grab them by the collar and yell at them to get in the game; of making a play.
 
But for the contingency of players paying their own way or using government aid to get through school, the moment most dreamed about may not be in a game, but may instead be a moment like Mustin's, when their dedication to the team is rewarded not necessarily with playing time, but with a scholarship.
 
Rashad Johnson got the moment. After finishing his high school career with a small stack of offers from Division-II schools, Johnson and his family talked it over and decided his best shot was walking on to a big-time school instead. They had watched Alabama on TV and thought maybe he could play there.
 
"I didn't have any D-I offers, just some D-II schools," Johnson said. "I figured if I was going to walk on I might as well go where I want to go and see what I can do."
 
So the kid from Sulligent made his way 70 miles south and east onto the campus of the University of Alabama by himself, not knowing anyone on the team, and redshirted the 2004 season before playing in all 12 games as a freshman in 2005 on special teams.
 
Then the moment came. Former defensive backs coach Chris Ball told him one day to be relieved – he just wanted to let him know he was being put on scholarship, and to enjoy it, that he earned it.
 
Like Mustin, one of the first people he called was his father, Randy.
 
"I was excited," Johnson said. "The first thing I did was call my dad and he was so excited he couldn't wait. He was asking me when I was going to sign, when I was going to do this or this, and it was just a real exciting time for me and my family."
 
Randy Johnson's reaction shows, too that it may not be just the players who rejoice over a scholarship. Darren Mustin's parents, Diann and William Mustin, were the same way.
 
"They were really happy because they got to keep a lot more of their money," he said.
 
Something to Prove
 
Going from non-scholarship walk-on to scholarship football player at the University of Alabama is a big leap, and Mustin and Johnson each took it two steps further: both became starters before the 2007 season on defense, and both have since become two of the defense's top leaders. Johnson is first on the team in tackles, with 55, and leads the team with four interceptions. Mustin is sixth on the team, with 40 tackles and an interception.
 
Starting out as a walk-on, however, provides a player with a different perspective. It gives a glimpse to the other side of the team, puts one or two more obstacles between the player and the field. It gives you something to prove, Johnson said, to both your coaches and the other guys on the team.
 
"I definitely think you have something to prove," he said. "Maybe when you walk on maybe a guy's on scholarship and he doesn't expect you to compete every day because you're not on scholarship and underestimates your athletic ability. You have to prove something every day when you go out there, but also you have to do it when you go on scholarship."
 
The promotion also goes a long way in terms of perspective for the players: it shows the players going on scholarship that their dedication on the field has not gone unnoticed, but maybe more importantly, it shows the walk-ons that it's not impossible to make the leap up.
 
For Johnson, it gave him more respect for the guys paying their own way.
 
"It gives you a lot more respect for them," he said. "When you walk on somewhere you have to go through a lot to get on the field, and I respect them a lot for it."
 
And for Mustin, coming to Alabama reaffirmed a trust in God, gave him confidence in a leap of faith that gets rewarded each time he steps on the field.
 
"It was kind of weird because coming down here I only knew one person," he said. "At MTSU it was right by my home, right down the street, I was on scholarship, but I just took that leap of faith, and three hours later I'm down here in Alabama and I'm glad I made the choice."