KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Walk-ons: They sign up to play college football without a scholarship and with hopes of eventually earning one.
At Western Michigan, walk-ons are an important part of the Broncos team that now leads the MAC West Division.
“The guys that constantly have that hard work mentality and that ‘hungry dog’s a dangerous dog’ mentality, that they might not be the biggest, fastest, strongest, they might be the king of the twos — they have that hunger every single day and that’s what this culture’s about,” Western Michigan head football coach P.J. Fleck said.
Senior linebacker Grant DePalma was the second leading tackler for the Broncos last year as a walk-on. He was also the first walk-on during the tenure of head coach P.J. Fleck to receive a scholarship with a unique surprise last Christmas. But he wasn’t the last.
Trevor Sweeney grew up in Mattawan and used to attend Western Michigan games as a kid.
“I remember the first day I showed up for training camp. There’s 100 guys just staring at you because no one knows who you are. So that’s a very humbling feeling,” the running back, now a junior, said.
So was another moment during fall camp this year. The Broncos coaching staff wanted to reward Sweeney for his grit and determination, and they did so in dramatic fashion.
During a routine on-side kick drill, the kicker was instructed to boot it to Sweeney. Taped to the ball was a letter offering him a full-ride scholarship.
YouTube video of Sweeney learning of his scholarship went viral.
“He’s the ultimate underdog,” Fleck said. “But I know exactly what it’s like to be Trevor Sweeney. And there’s a special place in your heart for those players because you know what they go through, you know the adversity they have. You know the doubt that creeps into their mind. And you want to be able to make sure that all their work’s rewarded.”
“I try to keep the perspective every day of where I came from and everything that it took to get to where I am now,” Sweeney said.
Like Sweeney, senior tight end Jeremiah Mullinax was also surprised with a scholarship.
“I came here just for schooling really and ended up walking on and ended up making it,” Mullinax said.
Just a week after losing his mother, he was playing paintball with his teammates. Then, on the back of a target he had hit, there was a note from Fleck offering him a scholarship.
“Coming in for free, you’re so grateful just to have the chance to play that any time you’re out there, you’re playing with your passion, heart, and you’re just going all out,” he said.
“Those guys, they deserve it. And they’re exactly what Row the Boat’s all about. They’re what being a Western Michigan Bronco is all about,” Fleck said. “They keep their oar in the water no matter the situation.”