When Edgar Castaneda's kick split the uprights at Colorado last Saturday, he not only earned a 30-28 upset victory for Sacramento State, he earned the right to remove the label "walk-on" and call himself a true scholarship athlete.
Minutes after Castaneda's 30-yard field goal lifted the Hornets past the Buffaloes of the Pacific-12 Conference, his teammates lifted him onto their shoulders in a boisterous visitors' locker room to hear Hornets head coach Marshall Sperbeck tell him, "You've got some money waiting for you," when they returned to Sacramento.
Rosa and Martin Castaneda Edgar's parents no doubt loved hearing those words, too. Before Saturday's game, their son was one of 26 Hornets who were not receiving any type of football-related scholarship money. They are designated as walk-ons.
The Hornets have 32 players receiving full scholarships. That full ride equates to approximately $18,000 a year for room, board, tuition, fees and books, Sac State media relations director Brian Berger said. Another 36 players divide up the remaining scholarship dollars, and most combine that with other forms of financial aid, such as Pell Grants, etc.
"My parents were paying out of pocket," said Castaneda, who transferred this year after graduating from City College of San Francisco with an associate of arts degree in liberal arts. "They're happy that I got the opportunity to play for Sac State. They're proud of me for the game winner, but they're also proud of me because I got a scholarship."
At UC Davis, the football program has 100 athletes. Of those, 42 are on full-ride scholarships, 38 receive partial scholarships and 20 are walk-ons who may or may not be getting other forms of financial aid to attend the university. Aggies coach Bob Biggs, who is responsible for awarding and keeping track of the scholarship dollars, said a full ride at UC Davis is worth $27,200 a year.
Castaneda was actually considered a "priority walk-on." The difference is he was recruited by the Hornets but was not offered a scholarship. The Hornets' coaching staff knew he was coming but did not promise him scholarship money or a spot on the roster.
Hornets starting quarterback Garrett Safron had the same designation three seasons ago before earning a full scholarship. Both were named Big Sky Conference Players of the Week for their efforts against Colorado.
Safron was 25 of 37 for 312 yards and two touchdowns at Colorado and became the first Hornets quarterback to post consecutive 300-yard games since Ryan Leadingham against Weber State (305 yards) and Humboldt State (324) in 2002.
Safron's efforts came against two NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
"He was certainly on our radar, as he was for a lot of other schools," Hornets recruiting coordinator Aaron Ingram said of Castaneda. "We had a real need for a kicker, and that was a tough spot for us last season. But it's unusual to give a full ride to a kicker right away."
Sac State kicked a grand total of three field goals last season. Castaneda already has made 5 of 6 attempts in two games this season.
Ingram said the recruiting office gets between 75 and 100 emails a week from coaches and players trying to get his attention and schedule a recruiting visit.
After the upset win at Colorado, Ingram said that number has easily tripled.
When a high school or community college athlete makes an official visit to Sac State, he's paired with a couple of players who usually play on the same side of the ball. Their task is to represent the program and try to woo the athlete to either sign a letter of intent or walk on and compete for a roster spot. Ingram said one of his best player-recruiters has been junior wide receiver Morris Norrise.
"(Norrise) is as competitive when recruiting as he is on the field," Ingram said. "He met Safron when he first came on a visit and got him to come here. I think every kid but one that I've paired with Norrise has decided to come here. I think he's something like 13-1."
Football Championship Subdivision schools such as Sac State and UC Davis can hand out a total of 63 full rides. NCAA rules forbid FBS colleges, such as Alabama and USC, to break up scholarships and give partials to their student athletes, Ingram said. That's why most players at major colleges are on full-ride scholarships.
Ingram said there's a fine line between offering a full ride, a half or a partial scholarship. It's a business decision, he said, and one that can be stressful because the amount of money offered always figures into a recruit's decision to sign a letter of intent or not.
"It used to devastate me when guys, even the blue chippers, turned us down," Ingram said. "If the offers the kids are getting are 80 percent from FBS schools, then we're just not going to get him."
Since UC Davis started offering scholarships in 1997, the Aggies and the Hornets have been competing for many of the same student-athletes.
It is more difficult, academically, to get into UC Davis, though, and that could factor into a player's decision, Ingram said. It also factors in how Ingram approaches recruiting.
"If he wants to be a doctor, I tell him to go to UC Davis," Ingram said. "For anything else, come to Sac State because there are a lot of similarities in academic programs."
Biggs said despite his ability to grant full rides he still gets quite a few players to walk on and later become stars. Starting junior running back Marquis Nicolis appeared on the Davis campus seemingly out of thin air. The 2008 Fairfax High School graduate was maybe 150 pounds soaking wet, Biggs said, when he showed up at the Aggies' winter workouts. That's when the UCD coaching staff typically evaluates potential walk-ons. Nicolis was a three-time MVP as a wide receiver at his Southern California school but didn't pass the "eyeball test," as Biggs calls it, meaning his small physical size didn't measure up.
But the human development major had the grades to get into UC Davis and arrived with a goal of making the team and then making an impact.
"We tried him out at defensive back, but he couldn't backpedal," Biggs recalled. "So we tried him out at running back, and he was fast. He made the team and he's put on about 30 pounds of muscle and still has the speed."
Starting offensive guard and co-captain Sean Davies is another Aggies walk-on success story, Biggs said. Other former walk-ons who earned some scholarship money include starters Dalton Turay, a fullback, and team captain Kevyn Lewis, a strong safety and 2008 graduate of Sacramento's Foothill High.
"Sometimes walk-ons have a bit of a chip on their shoulders and something to prove," Biggs said. "Not so much just to us coaches (who overlooked them in high school) but to everyone else."