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Coaches and players say the old stereotype of walk-ons as tackling dummies used to help their more highly recruited teammates prepare for games is far from reality.
Walk-ons like Ohio State's Kosta Karageorge — who was found dead Sunday after complaining about concussions — are often treated just as well as players on scholarship.
"Those (walk-on) kids love every second of it or they wouldn't do it," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. "To say every scholarship (player loves it), there are some scholarship guys in this program that don't like it at all. They're doing it because they get their school paid for. You try not to have too many of those or you could lose a bunch of games. But the walk-on guy, if they don't like it, they're not playing."
Meyer said he had dinner with Karageorge a couple of times and got the sense the player enjoyed the walk-on experience.
But a former walk-on who wrote a book about his experiences says there's a caste system in place with walk-ons treated like second-class citizens.
Tim Lavin wrote a book last year titled "Walk-On U: The Shocking Truth Behind Football's Unsung Underdogs." He also has a Web site (www.walk-onu.com) with news stories on walk-ons and recently circulated a petition calling for better treatment of walk-ons. Lavin said he drew on his own experiences plus conversations with hundreds of current and former walk-ons throughout the country.
"Five years ago, I started poking around and investigating this stuff and I realized that nothing had really changed," said Lavin, who played for Southern California from 1988-91 and was on scholarship his final two years. "The walk-ons I spoke to were still suffering two decades later the same stuff that I went through."
Walk-ons spend weekdays working on scout teams preparing their more celebrated teammates for upcoming games. That's the role Karageorge filled this season after spending three years on the Buckeyes' wrestling team. During the week, he practiced against starters such as offensive tackle Taylor Decker.
"Practice isn't something that a lot of guys like, honestly," Decker said. "But he loved coming to practice. He liked the physical sports, he liked hitting and things like that."
Karageorge's mother said he'd had several concussions. Ohio State hasn't released his medical records, and an autopsy is being conducted that includes a detailed brain exam.
Although they often line up against bigger and faster teammates, walk-ons don't necessarily fit the image of "Rudy," which chronicled how the undersized Rudy Ruettiger walked on at Notre Dame in the 1970s and was physically overwhelmed in practice before finally getting onto the field in his final game.
"It was a beautiful movie," Lavin said. "I cried like everybody else when he got carried off the field, but Rudy did not have those capabilities to play at this level."
Meyer and Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, both former walk-ons, believe things have gotten better for walk-ons since their own playing careers. Andersen said he tries to make sure walk-ons are treated the same as his scholarship players.
"My goal (is) if I was to poll 115 kids in a room and said 'OK, mark every (player) that's on scholarship, or tell me who the walk-ons are,' I don't want them to know," Andersen said.
Meyer and Andersen cited the NCAA rule change permitting schools to give walk-ons unlimited meals and snacks. Before the change this year, walk-ons eating at the training table had to pay the rate deducted from a scholarship player's board allowance for each meal. Meyer said Ohio State walk-on linebacker Joe Burger told him the rule change was saving him $3,000 per semester.
"There were some tough times there where I was scraping change together for some dollar-menu items," said Brock Collier, a walk-on offensive lineman at Tennessee from 2010-12. "That was all part of it then. Now that they've got the rule that you can feed walk-ons, that's awesome. It's something that's well deserved for those guys."
Colleges still can decide whether to provide those meals and snacks to walk-ons for free. Lavin said he knows of at least four major programs that still require walk-ons to pay for training-table privileges.
His petition calls for all student-athletes to have free training-table rights and asks that schools cover the medical insurance for all athletes. He also wants walk-ons to be allowed to transfer without sitting out a year of competition.
Lavin can't remember how many concussions he had as a player, but he wouldn't complain because he didn't want to look bad to coaches.
"We hear about the NFL guys, we hear about the star players committing suicide and they find out their brains suffered so many concussions," Lavin said, "but I can tell you nobody's reporting on the thousands of concussions that walk-ons suffer every year because it's not a story. You're just a walk-on."
NCAA spokesperson Michelle Hosick said walk-ons have the same access to academic and medical support as scholarship players.
Baylor defensive back Collin Brence is a former walk-on who has since earned a scholarship and won a starting job. Brence said he doesn't believe Baylor treats him any differently now that he's on scholarship.
"I tore my ACL when I was a walk-on, and (I got) the same treatment," Brence said. "Especially the training staff, they try not even to distinguish whether you're a walk-on or a scholarship player."
Players say their teammates respect the work of walk-ons. Collier recalls Tennessee offensive linemen Carson Anderson and Darin Gooch taking themselves out of the final series in a season-ending victory over Kentucky two years ago so Collier and fellow walk-on Jacob Gilliam could play. Gilliam has since earned a scholarship and now is a starting lineman.
"They told us they felt we deserved it and had earned it," Collier said. "That was probably the biggest moment of my career, not just for getting to play at Neyland (Stadium) in an actual game, but just for the respect I felt from those scholarship guys."
AP Sports Writers Genaro Armas in Madison, Wisconsin, Stephen Hawkins in Waco, Texas, Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.