*In the printed version of this article, Chole Bradford was misidentified as Chloe Thompson. We apologize for this mistake.
There they sit at the end of the bench, cheering their teammates on. They work tirelessly in practice and in the classroom with little chance of seeing meaningful participation in competitions, but they love their sport too much to ever give it up.
They are the walk-ons.
Walk-ons are student-athletes who don’t receive a scholarship for their athletic talents. They choose to continue their athletic careers despite the lack of financial opportunity. They’re passionate individuals who appreciate the opportunity to call themselves Division I athletes.
While passion runs deep for the walk-ons, playing time tends to run thin. Chloe Bradford is a walk-on on SUU’s Women’s Basketball team, and so far this season she’s seen only seven minutes of on-court action. Her role on the team has changed her perspective on basketball and on life.
“It has made me play the sport I play for different reasons because walk-ons have a shorter leash,” Bradford said. “We have to play a perfect game to get the playing time we want.”
Walk-ons work harder than anyone in practice and travel with the team only to become spectators come game time. When they do make an appearance in-competition, it’s often with a tentative clumsiness that comes from the short leash they wear. If they don’t perform, it could be their last appearance for a while.
“Before it was, ‘If you work hard in practice you get the reward of playing.’ But now I work hard in practice to get the reward of seeing teammates succeed,” Bradford continued.
It can be hard to watch others succeed without harboring jealousy, but their biggest contribution often comes in morale management. A walk-on can encourage a sullen teammate, set the tone in practice and set an example for younger players. They’re the glue that holds a team together.
Chemistry is an important element of success across any sport. Many of the sporting worlds’ most promising teams have been undone by selfish stars and miscommunication. Walk-ons act as catalysts for team cohesion. The energy of a selfless player can inspire confidence and a spirit of teamwork.
That energy doesn’t come easy.
Most walk-ons dedicate 20 hours or more a week to their sport. The heavy schedule leaves no room for a part time job, so these individuals must rely on family, loans and other scholarships to pay for tuition.
“[Walking on to the team] is different because there are financial stresses,” Bradford said. “I don’t have the luxury of showing up and playing and going home knowing everything is taken care of. I need to make sure my ducks are in a row and that I make enough money during the summer.”
The added stress motivates these athletes to learn skills that extend far beyond the field of play.
“I’m learning how to use my money wisely,” said walk-on gymnast Stephanie Tervort. “I don’t have money to go out to eat or do whatever I want… I’ve learned how to budget.”
SUU gymnast Maddie Loomis left San Jose State University where she had a scholarship to pay for her schooling and joined the Flippin’ Birds. She cites her decision to come to Cedar City on her own dime as a large factor in her adjustment to adulthood.
“We put in so much work that it would be nice to have a little something else to make it worthwhile but the experience, maturity and life lessons you get from [being a walk-on] can’t be learned anywhere else,” Loomis said.
The romance and glamour of college athletics doesn’t usually reach the end of the bench. There is no fame, no accolades and no financial benefit. These student athletes continue because they love to play.
“In the athlete world it’s like, ‘You do all these hours, how are you not getting paid?’ But we, as walk-ons do it because our love for gymnastics is so strong,” Loomis said.
“It’s the drive and the love for the sport that keeps us going,” said SUU Gymnastics walk-on Emma Wissman.
Despite the perceived disadvantages of walk-on life, it’s hard to find an ungrateful one at SUU. There may be a pressure to prove themselves, but most feel that there is no difference in the treatment between themselves and their scholarship bearing teammates.
“It’s hard to look at the team and pick out who’s a walk-on and who’s a scholarship girl. We’re all treated the same,” Wissman said.
Equal footing is important because if a coach allows for one of these selfless morale managers to feel underappreciated, the glue that holds the locker room together might lose its hold. There are no walk-on stars but the stars could never shine without the contributions made behind the scenes.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: SUU Athletics Strategic Communication