Ann Arbor — There is something about their grind and their grit, the way walk-ons push themselves under the radar to nudge their teammates in practice to be better and improve.
Their effort rarely goes unnoticed, at least not by those whose opinions matter most. Sometimes walk-ons become highly regarded starters and others who never get much public recognition, which is why the awarding of scholarships to those who toil for a football team is so immensely heartwarming.
Michigan senior offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis and junior Jess Speight, an offensive lineman who converted to defensive lineman before preseason camp, recently were awarded scholarships by coach Jim Harbaugh. There are no viral videos of the announcement and no well-planned surprises, but that didn’t matter.
The message was all that mattered.
“A lot of yelling. A lot of congrats,” Vastardis said smiling when asked the reaction of their teammates. “Usually just the volume echoes how everyone’s feeling. So whenever we get loud, everyone’s feeling better. Everyone was feeling pretty good when that happened for both of us.”
Then he called his parents and listened over speakerphone.
“And someone was walking by and gave me a funny look,” Vastardis said. “Heard the yelling. It was really emotional. I’m a little bit of an emotional guy. Teared up. Amazing feeling.”
Players who are walk-ons and their teammates know the sacrifices they make to play the game they love, but they’re also fully aware of the sacrifices their families make, as well. Part of the emotion in making these calls is sharing the relief that wallets will be a bit less depleted this year.
“I was glad that I could kinda do that for them,” said Speight, the younger brother of former Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight. “I’m glad they were so supportive all those years and paid my tuition the first two years.”
Speight has had an interesting journey with the Wolverines. He spent his first two seasons playing at center and guard but a week before camp started in August, he got a call from Harbaugh.
“It was pretty unexpected,” Speight said. “It made me a little nervous because I was out to lunch with my dad and I missed it and I didn’t get a call back for about an hour, so I was just sitting there, mind scrambling.”
With depth issues on the defensive line, specifically at nose tackle, Harbaugh asked Speight if he’d consider the switch. His mind was still racing, uncertain what to think of the opportunity. He called Wilton for advice.
“(I was) confused what to think,” Speight said. “I didn’t know if I had been wasting time playing offensive line. (Wilton) was immediately ecstatic, enthusiastic, saying this might be one of the best moves I’ve ever made while I’ve played football. Constantly texted me during camp. He was very encouraging. He’s always seen me as a strong, fast individual and just thought those traits could show on the defensive line.”
Two games into the season and after seeing the field in the opener, Speight is enjoying the position change.
“I just like coming off the ball, just attacking someone, trying to run through them, being the aggressor,” he said. “Just a little bit different than offensive line. It’s a little less thinking in my opinion than offensive line. I played center and some guard and sometimes I feel like it would slow me down a little bit. On defense, you have your gap, you have your key, find your gap, find your key and just try to run through the person in front of you.”
Vastardis had a philosophical response to describing what it means to earn a scholarship. He went through that first season of scout team going up against guys who now play professionally, like Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst.
“At first it kind of hit me in the face,” Vastardis said. “I was a freshman. The way I took it when I got in, just take advantage of it because it all becomes what your attitude is to the topic. If you’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m getting walloped every day,’ you’re going to stay there.”
Vastardis chose, instead, to improve every day. Even if it was a small improvement, it was something. The point was he wasn’t going to stay down.
Vastardis also altered his approach to earn a scholarship. Of course he wanted one when he arrived as a preferred walk-on. That was the goal. But he wasn’t granted a scholarship his first year and didn’t get it the second. But he already had learned early on that the experience he was receiving was far more valuable.
“After the first camp, it really wasn’t about that,” Vastardis said. “It was just like, I’m a part of something way bigger than myself. It was very eye-opening. It was always on the back of my mind when the scholarship time came around in camp. I always wanted it, always was working for it, but in the grand scheme of things, I never let not getting it get me down because what we were working for as a collective was way more important than what I was looking for as an individual. I had to make sure I kept doing my individual best to keep the team going forward in whatever I had to do.”
It had all been worth it, but the scholarship has taken the experience to a heightened level.
“Everybody puts in a lot of time here,” Vastardis said. “It really comes down to do just where you’re put and what opportunities you get and taking advantage of those opportunities. Whatever opportunity I found myself in, I would try to make the most of it no matter the circumstances. (Offensive line) Coach (Ed) Warinner was very encouraging ever since he’s been here. He’s a guy I want to play hard for, so does everyone else around me on this team.
“It’s easy to work when you’re around guys you love. That’s how I feel about it. It’s been a cool ride traveling with all these guys.”
Published at Wed, 11 Sep 2019 23:52:15 +0000