Joe Davidson

Hey Twitter, ‘walk-on’ isn’t a dirty word. Area prep stars feel crush of expectations

“I didn’t sign a letter of intent,” Oak Ridge quarterback Marco Baldacchino said. “I signed a letter of commitment to go to Northern Arizona. Not only have people been asking me every day where I’m going, it’s been in the back of my mind.”
“I didn’t sign a letter of intent,” Oak Ridge quarterback Marco Baldacchino said. “I signed a letter of commitment to go to Northern Arizona. Not only have people been asking me every day where I’m going, it’s been in the back of my mind.” Sacramento Bee file

These three have faced varying degrees of football pressure for years, most of it internal.

 
Opinion

Marco Baldacchino, Josh Farr and Tanner Ward didn’t just make their high school teams at regional powerhouses Oak Ridge, Jesuit and Folsom. They became starters, and leaders, and Bee All-Metro stars worthy of college scholarship consideration.

That would be enough to satisfy many student-athletes, but not this trio. They have been driven to achieve, each hoping and pleading for a scholarship to further validate their efforts in a competition far from the playing field.

National signing day came and went, and these three signed papers on Wednesday with mixed emotions. But they did not ink scholarship packages. They pledged to join college programs as walk-ons, meaning more hurdles and challenges to clear. Walk-ons are granted a chance to make the roster, to be part of the team. Walk-ons do not receive tuition, books, room and board or even a dining card at the school cafeteria, nor do they make the travel team. But walk-ons do often emerge as scholarship players. All a walk-on craves is to be wanted.

This trio is up for the task.

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Baldacchino, a quarterback headed to Northern Arizona of the Big Sky Conference.

Farr is a receiver/defensive back going to Nevada and Ward is a safety headed to Sacramento State.

Added Baldacchino, “I didn’t sign a letter of intent. I signed a letter of commitment to go to Northern Arizona. Not only have people been asking me every day where I’m going, it’s been in the back of my mind: ‘I’m good enough to play in college. Is it coming? Where is it? Who’s going to pull the trigger?’ I was talking to a recruiter and he said that all kids want is a chance, and it’s true.”

What Baldacchino, Farr and Ward learned in recent months is that “walk-on” is not a bad word. College coaches want to fill rosters with as much talent as they can, right on down to the walk-ons who come in with plenty to prove.

Despite their skills, grades and good character, Baldacchino, Farr and Ward were each deemed a tad too short or too slow to warrant a full scholarship. That’s a tough pill for any star to stomach. These three represent the majority. For every Joseph Ngata of Folsom, he of the offers from every powerhouse in the land, there are dozens of Baldacchinos, Farrs and Wards.

This trio found out how the fun of high school ball quickly morphs into a business at the next level. Most college programs have between 14-24 scholarships to offer, and their recruiting net covers broad regions. Fewer than 2 percent of high school athletes receive scholarships.

“Walk-ons are great program builders,” Sac State coach Jody Sears said. “We’re very honest with walk-ons, including that some do wind up getting scholarship money. We watched Tanner Ward and thought, ‘Why wouldn’t we want this kid on our team?’ He’s dying to be here, and that’s really important to us.”

Social media brings attention to student-athletes, but it goes both ways. “Where you goin, bro?” tweets can wear thin.

“I can now go to sleep and not have to worry about where I’m going, and separating myself from high school is a huge relief,” Farr said. “I still have a chip on my shoulder and a lot to prove. Social media definitely heightens expectations. It can make or break you. That’s the sad thing. All you can do is keep working and know that adversity is part of it.”

IMG_20171124_Folsom_Jesu_2_1_U1CTLQQH_L357476148
Folsom’s Tanner Ward (22) fights for a pass intended for Jesuit’s Josh Farr during a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I third-round playoff game Nov. 24, 2017. Farr is walking on at Nevada, Ward at Sacramento State. Brian Baer Special to The Bee

The 5-foot-8 Ward, The Bee’s Defensive Player of the Year, said he can control only what he can control.

“The whole recruiting process was difficult,” he said. “I wasn’t born to be tall. I worked hard to get my bench up, my squat up, my 40 (yard dash) time down. I can control that. Height hindered me. What you can do is control those things and improve as a player, a student and a man.”

Ward said it is also important to be honest, especially with social media. Scores of high school athletes across the state were not clear in their social media posts of their college commitments, coming across as full-scholarship signees. Many avoided using “walk-on” as if it was a demotion, a slight.

“This whole façade of social media, kids saying they earned something they haven’t and then (flaunt) it, is a joke,” Ward said. “Walk-ons are not a bad thing. When you say you got a scholarship, it looks big to your peers. But when you finally walk on that college campus, it’s the real deal, so stop lying to yourselves.

“Be proud of what you’ve got. I had a good high school career, a great time, and I’m blessed to say that. My hard work put me in position to play in college. It’s been a long journey, and it’s not over yet.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

Other area walk-ons

  • Jamie Cousey, Sacramento safety, Sac State
  • Matt Frost, Folsom lineman, Texas
  • Jason Gallagher, Jesuit linebacker, UC Davis
  • Garren O’Keefe, Colfax tight end, UC Davis
  • Derek Shelton, Sacramento quarterback, Sac State
  • Justin Poerio, Oak Ridge athlete, UC Davis
  • Jack Powers, Granite Bay linebacker, Nevada
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