Former walk-ons reflect on challenges of Missouri football

Thursday, February 24, 2011 | 7:31 p.m. CST; updated 8:02 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 24, 2011

COLUMBIA — The rewards and the highlights are different moments.

The rewards are the times when cleats hit turf, when they know that it’s all paid off. The highlights are watching and knowing they were a part of something, even in the smallest way. They’re the pride they feel when their teammates win games and get drafted. The highlights are anything but selfish.

These players are the walk-ons, the ones who arrive at Faurot Field each spring with a distant dream of taking the field on Saturdays in the fall. They’re the former high school standouts who take the risk of failure or of becoming a nobody on a team of stars. They come for many reasons. But for all of them, football becomes less of a right. It’s a privilege.

For some walk-ons, the lure of attending a school like Missouri is the name, the history, the chance to play in the national spotlight. For former walk-ons Kirk Lakebrink and Matt Davis, those were all factors, but the biggest attraction of Missouri was academic. Lakebrink wanted to attend the School of Journalism to study advertising, and Davis wanted to study in the MU’s biomedical engineering program. Between academics and athletics, the school was the perfect fit for the two athletes, but each knew that his decision to attend Missouri would be a challenge.

“Being a walk-on really made me push myself,” Lakebrink said. “You can’t just prove that you’re as good as a scholarship guy if you walk on. You have to prove that you’re 10 times better.”

Standing at 6 feet 6 inches and weighing in at about 300 pounds, Lakebrink doesn't look like he would be easily intimidated. But after transferring from Drake University, where he was a recruited scholarship athlete, the offensive lineman knew he was taking a gamble. He was unsure if he would even make the team, and he knew he would be sacrificing significant playing time. And Lakebrink wasn’t sure how impressive his size would be in a Big 12 Conference program.

“I’m a pretty big guy, but coming in I felt like I’d be the shrimp on the team,” Lakebrink said.

Davis, who played safety and tailback, began at Missouri as a freshman. He never had to deal with the transition from recruited player to walk-on, but he too knew how tenuous his position on the football team was. He remembers watching each March as crowds of potential walk-ons arrived for spring practices. He thinks he could name 100 men who tried to walk on and couldn’t meet the demands of the program.

“They can’t handle all the workouts, getting up at 6 a.m," Davis said. "A lot of them drop off.”

When he arrived in Columbia in January 2008, Lakebrink realized that his size wouldn't be a problem. His inexperience, adjusting to less playing time, trying to balance schoolwork with increased training — those were the issues. Neither he nor Davis was able to spend the extra time they needed on their schoolwork, and while their classmates were able to give all their energy to their assignments, Lakebrink and Davis didn’t have that luxury. At the same time, they still had to try to work just as hard as everyone else in their majors. They are competing for the same jobs.

Although Davis said that the academic support available to football players helps many of his teammates balance their schoolwork with training, he wasn’t able to take advantage of those resources for long. By the time Davis was a sophomore, his classes were too complicated. There weren’t tutors on the support staff who could help him use calculus to solve complex differential equations or apply the principles of thermodynamics. He was on his own.

For Lakebrink, it wasn’t a matter of needing a tutor. He understood the concepts, but his advertising assignment involved hours of solo research. He didn’t have the daytime hours like the rest of his classmates, so his extra work often cut into hours he wished he had been sleeping. It was a necessary sacrifice.

“I didn’t come here because I kind of wanted to do advertising,” Lakebrink said. “I came here because I knew I wanted to do it.”

Both Lakebrink and Davis have a clear picture of their future dreams, and those plans have little to do with football.

Davis, who has devoted hours in recent weeks perfecting his resume for the career fair, plans to apply for jobs and take the MCAT as well as professional engineering exams and the DAT (the Dental Admissions Test). Lakebrink is also organizing his portfolio and applying for jobs.

Lakebrink said not all of his teammates have such concrete post-football plans, and though it makes him sad to think that his career on the field is over, he is happy to be able to focus on his career.

“I know it’s been a huge help, putting my mind where it needs to be and not wandering into 'what ifs' and 'what could have beens,'” Lakebrink said.

However sure both players are of their futures, each still thinks often about his football career. Neither is quite able to put into words what he felt that night in Tempe, when the Tigers’ trip to the Insight Bowl ended in defeat. Lakebrink said that it all seemed surreal as he sat on the bench and watched as Iowa’s Micah Hyde intercepted Blaine Gabbert’s pass and ran it in for a touchdown. He was sad, he said, but less sad than he expected. The reality of the situation didn’t hit him until he took off his white, black and gold No. 74 jersey for the final time.

Davis felt the same. There were emotions, but they weren’t pronounced or dramatic. The unexpected loss almost overshadowed his individual milestone, and shock made the sadness a bit less stinging.

“Really, I can’t describe it,” Davis said. “In high school, when I finished I bawled my eyes out. This, this was kind of a shock. I wasn’t crying, but I was just kind of shocked. It was a weird feeling.”

It’s only been two months since the end of the season, but Lakebrink talks about it like it’s further in the past. It seems longer ago to him, probably because of all he is missing. It’s such a radical change — no more early-morning workouts, no more hours of bonding with teammates, no more lectures from coaches. If he weren’t so busy, he said, he would undoubtedly feel like something was missing. 

That’s not to say that their experiences don’t linger, that they don’t color their behavior each day. Both Davis and Lakebrink are making staying in shape a priority. Both spend time at the gym, and Davis took advantage of the recent warm weather to bike to the mall instead of drive. For Lakebrink, it's even less about staying in shape and more about getting in shape. He knows he doesn’t need to be as big as he is. Losing the football weight for him is both a continuation of the fitness program he learned as a player and a concrete way of moving on.

“I knew I didn’t want to sit back and wait for a couple months before moving on with everything,” Lakebrink said. “I’d be digging myself into a hole.”

Besides the habits, the rigorous schedule and training programs that have been drilled into their lives, the former players are also making an effort to hold onto their Missouri connection. One of the perks of playing for a school like Missouri, Lakebrink said, is getting to see your former teammates in the NFL. He is excited to follow Gabbert and Aldon Smith’s careers. He is proud to know that he took the field with players who could be NFL stars.

Davis said that those connections will never disappear in his mind. Even though he didn’t play often, he was still as much a part of the team as anyone else. He still has the memories.

“I’ll be able to tell my kids, ‘You know, I picked off a Heisman candidate, Chase Daniel, in practice,’” Davis said. “Whether or not they believe me, who knows? But I got to experience that stuff.”

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Antwan Floyd February 25, 2011 | 9:10 a.m.

Walk-on athletes are the salt of the earth! Their work-ethic and dedication are the foundation that this country was built on...

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