By Ford Werness
*Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Oxford Stories
There’s a noise. It’s getting louder with each waking second. Is it the fans cheering my name? Maybe the final buzzer of last nights game? Is it my position coach screaming at me like a drill sergeant?
No, it’s just my alarm telling me to head to 6 a.m. workouts. The life of a Division 1 Southeastern Conference college football player – there’s nothing like it.
At times, you’ll believe you’re the most blessed person on Earth. Other times, you’ll feel like death is looming wondering why you’re puking your brains out on a field at 6 a.m. in the morning when you could be sound asleep.
The answer to that question is different for every player, but for me it’s simple. I’ve had a dream since I was 8 years old, and I won’t be denied it.
To endure what college athletes go through daily, we’re all a little crazy. But what walk-on-athletes go through daily can be seen as outright absurd.
As a walk-on, we don’t receive scholarship checks, nor do we usually see playing time on the field.
People around town often confuse you for a baseball or soccer player. In their minds it’s just how they perceive you, but there’s always a hint of disrespect in that, “Do you play soccer?” comment.
Without the sports jacket that lists your jersey number on the front, you may be another freshman business major walking around campus.
I’d love to write that walk-ons get equal respect for being teammates with future 1st round NFL draft picks, but that just isn’t the case.
Granted, it’s what we signed up for, and the job comes with its fair share of pros and cons. A regular day in season starts with a soothing 5:15 a.m. wake-up call from your alarm clock. You go to the Manning Facility and hop in your conditioning groups.
Coach Jackson (our head strength and conditioning coach) is an expert at his job, which is to get the absolute most out of each player within their limits. Every workout I come pretty darn close to my limits, which in the moment seems like a regretful decision, but slowly and surely the results come into factor leaving any negative thoughts behind.
Once conditioning wraps up at 7:30 a.m., grab your protein shakes and Gatorade. We’re headed to our 8 a.m. class.
You knock out freshman biology, then writing 102 at 9 a.m., intro to U.S. history at 10 a.m., and just as you head back to your dorm begging for an opportunity to lie down for a minute, you remember you’ve got a tutor at 11 a.m.
It’s now 10:57 a.m. and the inner teenager in you says, “Eh, I’ll be five minutes late. It’s no sweat.” Except the post-practice punishment for being late is not remotely close to being worth it, so you hit a smooth jog over to the tutoring center and feel slightly better about the 200 yards of rolling across the field that you didn’t have to endure.
High noon rolls around, and you’ve finally got a moment to relax. A walk over to the grill to grab some lunch signifies the first moment of day where you can just sit, eat your grilled chicken, and not stress about having to be somewhere.
You’re feeling like a champ with all that you’ve accomplished before 1 p.m., but those post-lunch dreary eyes start to kick in, and that 30-minute nap before practice looks very intriguing.
At that point, I weigh my options, and come to the conclusion that the nap might throw off my mid-day vibe, so I choose to cram in an episode of “One Tree Hill” in the back of my car before meetings.
At 2:15 p.m., you better have your practice pants on and notebook in hand. It’s time for position meetings. Three pages full of notes and an hour and a half later, you throw on your helmet and start tossing the ball around with your fellow quarterbacks. You look to throw with one of the other QBs hoping to maintain feeling in your hands for the rest of practice.
Walk-on quarterbacks are slightly more expendable than the ones on scholarship, so each practice you’ve got to be ready for any role you’re called to fill.
Sometimes they’ll throw you on kickoff and you’ve got to go tackle our starting kick returner. Other times, you’ll be asked to go block punts, which means having to get past some of the meanest dudes on our team before reaching the punter.
Each day is a struggle as unfamiliar obstacles pop up that you must learn to embrace. Though a new challenge is thrown at you every day, there is beauty in the struggle of adapting on the fly.
Every time I walk off the practice field, I feel a sense of pride knowing I’m not nearly the most gifted athlete out there, but wherever I am on the field I’m challenging my teammates to raise their game to a higher standard.
Once practice ends, you’ve got about 30 minutes to grab some dinner and get to study hall. The phrase, “It’s been a long day,” is an understatement by now, and the motivation for study hall has left your mind hours ago.
Though, when you walk in the classroom and see your teammates, you realize you’re all in the same boat together. We’re not supposed to talk during study hall, but the few short conversations we do manage to squeeze in I don’t know if I’ve laughed harder in my life.
Those moments are rewarding enough for me. Knowing that almost every hour of the day, a teammate will be right by your side is a satisfying feeling.
Yes, you’ve been awake since 5 a.m. Yes, you’ve gone through some intense physical labor. And yes, you’re still expected to be where you’re supposed to be on time, but when you’ve got your brothers by your side 18 hours out of the day, it makes the journey a little easier.
At times, the life of a student-athlete can be miserable, but I know when I look back on my college football days 10 years from now, I’ll wish I could get one more day of 6 a.m. workouts or one more practice with my brothers. Not for the work, but for those special moments in between.
Very few people have the opportunity to play sports in college, and even less get to play at the highest level of college football in the SEC.
It is truly a blessing to be a walk-on quarterback for the Ole Miss Rebels. Despite the pain, the work, and all the other obstacles thrown at me throughout my day, these moments I’m able to share with guys who used to be strangers but are now my brothers I wouldn’t trade it for the world.