Wyoming football rewards worthy walk-ons with scholarships
LARAMIE, Wyo. -- By definition, the walk-on's life is an anonymous one.
Whereas each college football team needs its stars, it also requires the silent, hard-working, invisible masses. The walk-ons do much, and ask little. They are the voluntary foot soldiers, willing to sacrifice time and health to wear a jersey and represent a school -- if only in grueling early morning practices.
The walk-on expects no reward, and usually, he isn't granted one.
But every once in a while, the tireless work pays off.
Tanner Simpson is an example.
The Lander native walked on at Wyoming two years ago, after completing a decorated three-sport prep career in 2011. Though basketball was his passion, a knee injury late in his senior season led him to look for something else.
That something turned out to be football, and the University of Wyoming.
"I didn't have the idea that I was going to play football in college," Simpson said. "But once I got here, I never looked back. I knew this was the place for me and that I wanted to be here."
During two seasons, the 6-foot-2, 188-pound wide receiver with the flowing mane of brown hair has devoted himself to the team he grew up watching. His contributions were private, as Simpson redshirted in 2012 and failed to receive any game action last season.
Still, he kept showing up. And he continued to believe that if he outworked his competition, a scholarship would inevitably follow.
"I always thought it was realistic," he said. "Through the last couple years, there's been ups and downs. But I always thought it was going to happen at some point."
"Some point" was last Wednesday, just before the start of Wyoming's second practice. As Simpson walked out to the field, new head coach Craig Bohl pulled him into the weight room.
Bohl told Simpson something he had personally never heard when he was a walk-on defensive back at Nebraska decades earlier.
The walk-on, after more than two years of sweat and perseverance, was not a walk-on anymore.
"First of all, any time there's a Wyoming athlete out there that has come in and joined our squad, we want to send a message out to the rest of the guys in the state that there's opportunities here," Bohl said.
"As coaches, we're going to value all of our players. I was a walk-on player at the University of Nebraska. And I think in college football, it's important to reward guys that come out and do a good job. He's [Simpson] a solid guy. He's not one of our top receivers, but he has certainly come in to play."
And for Simpson, the gesture shows that a kid from Lander who didn't always consider himself a football player can come in, work hard and accomplish something on the FBS level.
"It's a huge deal for me, just to show kids from around the state that if you want something, you can go and get it," Simpson said. "Put in the work and the opportunities are going to come.
"Even though I did get put on scholarship, the work doesn't end here. I've still got three more years and a lot to prove."
Drew Van Maanen didn't understand why everyone was staring at him.
Walking into the Indoor Practice Facility last week, the redshirt freshman fullback was greeted by the focused, unwavering stares of the team's assistant coaches.
To borrow a term from the 1983 film "A Christmas Story," they looked at him as if he had lobsters crawling out of his ears.
"I didn't understand why they were looking at me," Van Maanen said Friday. "As I walked by them, I was thinking, 'Why are you looking at me?' I didn't know what to say, so I just kept on walking."
After a few more steps, Bohl called him over and delivered the magic words:
"I want to put you on full academic scholarship, starting today."
The coaches approached and mobbed him, as did a few of his closest friends on the team. The secret was out, and Van Maanen never saw it coming.
"When he told me, it was complete shock. I was completely lost for words," Van Maanen said. "All I could keep doing was thanking him. It was the biggest surprise of my life."
The next few hours whizzed over Van Maanen's elated head, as the converted tight end struggled to keep his focus and concentrate on the play in front of him.
How do you keep calm in the wake of such gratifying news?
In Van Maanen's case, you don't.
"The rest of practice I was shaking," he said with a big grin. "I didn't know how to think at the time. I didn't truly know how to process it. It was so overwhelming."
After practice mercifully ended, the 6-foot-1, 222-pound redshirt freshman headed to dinner before returning to War Memorial Stadium. He climbed into the far reaches of the bleachers, facing the green, brown and gold turf of Jonah Field, and made a phone call.
"It was probably the best call I had ever made to my parents, honestly," Van Maanen said.
When Shiela Van Maanen picked up, he told her to find his dad, Andrew, and put them both on speaker phone. His flimsy excuse was that he wanted to talk to them both simultaneously about the day's practice.
After a few moments of stalling, Van Maanen could wait no longer, and excitedly broke the news.
"I just heard my dad in the background clapping. My mom was running around the house," Van Maanen said. "I heard the dog barking in the background. It was an amazing experience."
Like Simpson, Van Maanen emphasized that a scholarship means little if he doesn't continue working to validate Bohl's trust. After playing tight end last year, he returned to his childhood position -- fullback -- this season, and will likely enter the team's opener against Montana as the starter.
While one dream has been achieved, the effort is ongoing.
"I talked to my dad about it, and he said, 'Now that you finally got here, don't let up.' I completely agree with him," Van Maanen said. "I worked so hard to get here, but I have to keep that mentality. Now that I got on scholarship, I can't go out and practice lackadaisically.
"I'm still pushing myself as hard as I can go. I'm still pushing the other fullbacks. I'm still on them every day like I was before. Nothing has really changed for me.
"If anything, it has motivated me more to keep working."
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