Washington State Cougars linebacker Nate DeRider, a fifth-year senior who came to the school as a walk-on, got the gift of a lifetime last night when he was officially awarded a scholarship for the upcoming season.
That hasn’t always been newsworthy, given that walk-ons have been earning their way onto scholarship for as long as there have been walk-ons and scholarships. But lately, teams have taken to planning elaborate announcements to celebrate the occasion — and then recording the fun.
On this night, DeRider got up in front of the team, said a few words about himself, then went to sit down — but Leach wanted more.
“Tell us a little bit about what it’s like being a walk-on here,” he said.
“Walk-on is about playing with heart,” DeRider said. “You start low on the totem pole, you’re not recruited very highly ...”
“Well, you’re not a walk-on anymore.”
Cue the explosion, complete with silly string:
DeRider certainly earned it. After working his way up to special teams contributor as a sophomore in 2015, he was thrust into defensive action against Cal last season. He came up with a memorable interception of Davis Webb in the end zone to thwart the Golden Bears’ attempt to cut into the Cougs’ lead, and would later add a sack.
“It was exciting, he’s been with me a long time, he’s worked his butt off around here,” linebackers coach Ken Wilson said, via Cougfan.com. “He’s played on special teams, he’s done everything we’ve asked. I don’t know if he’s missed too many practices in his whole career.”
As you might have expected from the response, a few players knew it was coming.
“Some of his best friends, some of his seniors knew,” Wilson said. “We kind of gave them the silly string and kind of gave them a clue but most of the team didn’t know. Nate didn’t know, for sure, he was talking and the screens popped up and the players saw it before Nate did. And when Coach (Leach) said it, it went crazy in there.”
DeRider finished last season with 12 tackles, mostly on special teams. As you might expect, he was sort of on cloud nine last night.
“It was really special,” DeRider said. “I kinda got a little thought in my mind (when Leach asked the question) right there, I was telling him what it was, and I kind of got a little choked up because I was like, ‘Could this be it right here?’ And then he said it, and all the emotion came out.”
What does it mean to him?
“I worked my butt off, and for this to happen, it’s just ... it’s just ...,” DeRider said, pausing to try and find the right words, which eventually eluded him. “I’m still living in the moment right now. It happened right before the scrimmage, so, we played the scrimmage and I’m kind of letting it set in right now. I called my parents right after and told them they don’t have to pay for school anymore — that the weight of dues for college can be lifted off their shoulders.”
Without a doubt, a gift worth five figures is certainly cause for celebration. But football scholarships — particularly for upperclassmen who have spend multiple years paying their own way — are uniquely special.
“You know, it’s not easy — not everybody can play college football. Especially as a walk-on, it’s definitely not easy being a walk-on,” DeRider said. “You definitely have to prove yourself. I’m just happy to be around this whole team and the coaches. We’ve got something special going on here this year.”
What DeRider didn’t talk about is just why it’s so damn hard to be a walk-on. The student population at large at a university tends to think of athletics participation as fairly glamourous. The full rides for tuition, room and board; the adoring crowds on gameday; the free swag; etc.
It’s not that glamorous for a walk-on, particularly in a physically demanding sport such as football. When DeRider says it’s “about playing with heart,” that often means spending years as a sacrificial lamb to the bigger stronger and more athletic guys on the team. They don’t have a scholarship. Most don’t travel with the team to away games. Most never get into a game, period.
And yet, they attend every meeting, every workout, every practice — generally getting the crap beat of them on some scout team — all with the sole benefit of receiving some gear and being able to say, “I’m on the team,” always knowing in the back of their minds that there’s this generally unspoken dividing line between them and most of the guys around them, who are getting a full ride.
Maybe — MAYBE — a walk-on can get a scholarship eventually, if they can work their way up the depth chart and if one becomes available because some hot-shot freshman neglects to show up to campus or someone unexpectedly transfers.
It usually doesn’t happen. Many, many football walk-ons quit long before their eligibility is exhausted because the job is so demanding.
Guys such as DeRider, who pay for school for four years, are uncommon. Even more uncommon is for those guys to finally get their full measure. That’s why, whenever I see one of these videos where a guy who has given so much of himself to the program gets celebrated by his coaches and teammates ... well, it gets a little dusty in my home.
They have not gotten old, and I hope they never do.
Congrats, Nate. Go Cougs!