At Kansas State, the path to football stardom often starts in unusual places.
Want proof? Look at the current roster.
Six active starters — B.J. Finney, Jack Cantele, Mark Krause, Jonathan Truman, Randall Evans and Ryan Mueller — began their college careers as walk-ons. Today they are all key contributors on one of the Big 12’s hottest teams.
Each of them came to K-State because few, if any, Division I teams recruited them, and Bill Snyder was the only coach that offered a chance to play in the Big 12. They knew they were in for long and difficult journeys, but they embraced the challenge and thrived.
Mueller, from St. Thomas Aquinas, ranks fifth nationally with 10 1/2 sacks and is a contender for Big 12 defensive player of the year. Finney is the leader of K-State’s offensive line and a two-time captain. Truman ranks second on the team with 69 tackles. Evans is right behind with 54. Krause averages nearly 43 yards a punt. And Cantele made four field goals, including a game-winner from 41 yards, against TCU last week.
Now they all have scholarships.
If that story sounds familiar, it should. The Wildcats have a long history of walk-on success stories. They are simply writing a new chapter this season.
“It makes me proud that Kansas State gives players like me a chance,” said Truman, a junior linebacker from Wichita. “Really, you can make your own future. If you come here and you work hard and you do things right and you are good enough, you are going to play. It doesn’t matter if you come here with a scholarship or not.”
That isn’t the case at all programs. With 85 scholarships, coaches rarely look beyond those players for contributors.
Snyder is different. He takes pride in K-State’s walk-on program, and looks for ways to reward his hardest workers. That’s why the seeds of K-State’s current success can be traced back to its 2010 scout team.
What a group that must have been. Finney received strong reviews on offense while Mueller, Evans and Truman quietly made names for themselves on defense. All four were sitting out the season with redshirts and paying their way through college, unsure if they would ever play in a real game.
But Snyder knew he had up-and-coming talent. He always does.
Snyder asks his assistants to passionately search for future walk-ons and scholarship players alike. His philosophy is not to sign the highest-rated players. He wants players who have both talent and desire.
“It takes a special person to make those kinds of sacrifices for the love of the sport,” Snyder said. “When you get those kinds of guys, by and large, they have those types of values that we talk about all the time. They are so special and you know what you are going to get out of those guys. You know you are going to get tremendous effort, and a great want-to. Nobody will work harder, nobody will care more and nobody will be more disciplined.”
For those reasons, Snyder tries to keep scholarships open so he can reward players like Mueller, a junior defensive end, and Evans, a senior defensive back, every year. He suggests the Wildcats promote walk-ons to scholarship status on a more regular basis than any other team.
Those rewards help send a message: If you pledge to walk-on at K-State, your potential isn’t limited to practice.
“The great thing about Coach Snyder is he gives people a shot,” said Finney, a junior center. “If you tell him you want to walk-on he will let you, but now it’s time to see how good you really are. Those of us who are playing together now, we wanted to chase our dream. He helped us. When you have that vision you are going to give it your all until you reach it.”
Sometimes you reach even further.
Jordy Nelson joined the Wildcats as an unknown defensive back and turned into one of the best receivers in the NFL. Jon McGraw, William Powell and Rock Cartwright also went from K-State walk-ons to NFL players. Joe Bob Clements, Blake Seiler and Sean Snyder went from K-State walk-ons to Big 12 assistant coaches.
That tradition has made walk-on success a staple at K-State.
“Knowing I would have a shot to join one of the best, if not the best, walk-on programs in the nation made the opportunity that much better for me,” Finney said. “To come in and play well and earn a scholarship is a great sense of pride. Looking back at the greats who did it … obviously we aren’t in the same presence, but we are associated with those guys. We went down the same road.”
None of them were five-star recruits. Few of them had prototypical bodies. All of them entered college without scholarships.
They didn’t need them to find a home at K-State.
“Being a walk-on might be the best thing that has ever happened to me,” said Cantele, a sophomore and former Kapaun kicker. “I was too immature to realize that at the time, but I’ve grown up a lot. It was all earned. Nothing was given. Being a walk-on, especially a walk-on kicker where you are at the bottom of the barrel, I used that as motivation until I got to where I wanted to be.”