No guarantees for those hoping to walk on to Missouri football team

Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 9:04 p.m. CDT; updated 10:53 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 14, 2012

COLUMBIA — Last fall, Clayton Echard sat and waited in the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. 

Then an incoming freshman at MU, Echard was stuck in a small meeting room filled with almost 50 other anxious athletes sitting on folding chairs.

By the numbers

According to Nick Otterbacher, the Missouri football team's director of recruiting, every year the Tigers have a roster of about 125 players. Two weeks before classes begin, the NCAA allows 105 players to participate in two-a-day practices, 85 of which are scholarship athletes. Although Missouri does not use this term, the 20 non-scholarship athletes at two-a-days are usually referred to as "preferred walk-ons." On the first day of the fall academic semester, the team accepts about 20 additional walk-ons. Generally, half of these athletes are former players who did not make the 105-man cut. The additional 10 accepted are new walk-ons. 

Brock Bondurant was the star on both sides of the ball at Scotland County High School. On offense, he scored 23 total touchdowns and gained more than 1,600 yards. As a safety, the position he plans to pursue at Missouri, he accounted for 92 tackles and four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

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After training all summer to increase his odds of making the Missouri football team, Echard’s hard work was done. However, in this distressingly silent room, each player hoped their summer training was not in vain.

Every year, Missouri’s football team accepts about 10 new walk-ons — athletes who have not received a scholarship offer but still hope to find a spot on the team’s roster. On the first day of each fall academic semester, somewhere between 40 and 50 football players sit in this same room and hope they are one of the few allowed to join the team.

Although they still will not receive scholarship money and generally end up on the practice squad, each player in the room has devoted his summer to earning a black and gold jersey.

While the prospective walk-ons waited in near silence, Nick Otterbacher, Missouri’s recruiting coordinator, oversaw the evaluation process. He analyzes each player’s film, which consists of the best plays from their high school careers.

"Overall athleticism, physical ability and size potential are the main things we look for," Otterbacher said.

After watching each player’s tape, he determines whether or not they should receive a roster spot.

As the coaches made decisions, Echard and the other Tiger hopefuls tried to make small talk to ease the tension. It wasn't easy given the situation.

"It was pretty quiet." Echard said. "We did not know each other, and everyone was a little on edge."

While he waited, Echard said he thought about what it would mean to play for Missouri and how far he had come.

Although he had played football since sixth grade, Echard did not make Eureka High School's varsity football team until his senior season. The 6-foot-5 lineman thought his size alone made him deserving of a starting role. 

"With my size, at my high school, I felt like I should have been given a starting spot," Echard said.

As a junior, his attitude kept him off the field. After changing from offensive to defensive line for his senior year, Echard changed his mindset and continuously worked to improve his game. Echard had a successful senior season, but did not receive any scholarship offers.

In March 2011, Echard decided he would try to walk on to the Missouri football team. With motivation from his parents, Echard devoted his summer to getting bigger and stronger. He trained for three hours a day, five days a week. Echard’s training paid off. In just five months, he gained 50 pounds.

After three seemingly endless hours at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex, the coaches addressed the players. They called about 10 names and led those who were selected into a separate room where the coaches welcomed each player to the Missouri football team.

One year later, Echard, now a redshirt freshman at Missouri, has a sense of pride about his journey as a walk-on. 

"It was such a great feeling to make my family and friends proud," Echard said.

While Echard looks forward to his future with the Tigers, other high school athletes are training hard to follow in his footsteps. 

Brock Bondurant, of Memphis, Mo., hopes to walk on to the team this fall. Bondurant said he understands the difficulty of jumping from high school football in a town of just over 1,800 people to NCAA football in the Southeastern Conference. However, this unlikelihood has not prevented him from pursuing his dream. Bondurant, who played quarterback and safety in high school, even passed up a guaranteed roster spot at the University of Memphis for an uncertain future at Missouri.

"Playing football at Mizzou has always been a dream of mine. I couldn't go on, not knowing whether I could have done it or not," Bondurant said.

Five days of every week, Bondurant devotes two hours to speed and agility training. His father and high school coach, Brent Bondurant, supervises his workouts, which include high incline running and resistance training with parachutes and bungee cords.

After coaching him for four seasons, Brent Bondurant said his son is prepared for the challenges ahead of him. He said his son’s "never-quit" attitude and desire to be a part of the team will help him find a spot.

"Brock is willing to take whatever bone is thrown his way and will work hard to become a Missouri football player," he said.

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Brent Bondurant July 13, 2012 | 11:17 p.m.

Thank you Nick for the informative article about the walk-on process. These young men have a deep passion for the game of football and the desire to be part of something special. Good luck to each and every one of them.

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