Most of these stories are worthy of the silver screen, while others have that element and Hall of Fame characteristics. They’re the kinds of stories that are easy to root for, whether the player is a preferred or “recruited” walk-on, or if they overcame a Rudy-like journey to scholarship as an upperclassmen.
The beauty is that each program has a story, or several, of players who went from no-name to scholarship or star.
Here is the top walk-on at every SEC school:
Alabama: All you need to know about Rashad Johnson is his foundation’s name, Walk On to Champion, to learn his life story. Johnson walked on from Sulligent High School in Sulligent, Ala. and earned his way to becoming a two-year starter at safety, and a two-time team captain, only the eighth player to do that in school history. Johnson started his career as a running back and made the switch to defense in 2005 after a redshirt season. He’s now a safety for the Tennessee Titans. He was a third-round draft pick in 2009 by the Arizona Cardinals. He spent his first seven seasons there.
Arkansas: A “recruited” walk-on, Brandon Burlsworth of Harrison, Ark., earned a scholarship his first year, and later was named an All-SEC offensive guard in 1997 and 1998, and first team All-American. Burlsworth was the first Arkansas football player to earn a master’s degree during his college career. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round of the draft. But at 22, he was killed in a car accident in 1999.
College football now awards The Bulsworth Trophy to the top walk-on in the country.
Auburn: A recent inductee in to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Kevin Greene said, “I am Auburn” at the ceremony. Greene didn’t walk on to the team until he was a fourth-year junior in 1983. The next season, he was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Greene went on to play eight seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, three each with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers, and one with the San Francisco 49ers. He is the NFL’s all-time linebacker sack king with 160 over 15 years, which is third on the all-time sacks list regardless of position, behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White.
Florida: With apologizes to Chris Doering, Louis Oliver, in the mid-1980s went from walk-on to a team captain before played eight seasons in the NFL. He was a first-round pick by the Miami Dolphins in 1989. Oliver redshirted his first season, then became the first Florida defensive back to become a two-time All-American.
Georgia: While Rodrigo Blankenship has drawn some support recently, Jimmy Orr is the choice for the Bulldogs. Orr grew up in Seneca, S.C., and after two broken collarbones, he first looked to play basketball at Clemson, then at Wake Forest. But he also wanted to play for Georgia coach Wallace Butts. He led the SEC in receiving, though Georgia struggled to win during his career. But in 1957, Georgia snapped an eight-game losing streak to Georgia Tech. Orr went on to play 13 seasons with the Colts and the Steelers, and was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1958 with the Steelers.
Kentucky: The Wildcats had several deserving players under Hal Mumme and Rich Brooks. Most notably, Mumme gave a scholarship to A.J. Simon in 2000, while Brooks did the same to center Marcus Davis in 2009. But J.D. Harmon gets the nod as the former Paducah Tilghman High School star started the last three games of his freshman season in 2012. But he shined in 2015 with a team-high three interceptions as he was a backup DB and special teams contributor where he had a team-high 32-yard kickoff return average.
LSU: Colby Delahoussaye was a walk-on who earned a one-year scholarship three years ago, then was the starting kicker for two seasons. He was 24-of-29 on field goal attempts including 14-of-16 from 30-yards or longer, and 7 of his 24 field goals were in the fourth quarter. But what’s most notable about Delahoussaye is he suffered second-degree burns in July in a fatal car crash that killed Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler in rural Wisconsin.
Mississippi State: Offensive lineman Ben Beckwith was a finalist in 2014 for the Bulsworth Trophy, given annually to the top walk-on player in the country. Beckwith developed from walk on to starter by the the 2013 campaign and was a first-team all-SEC and third-team All-American as a senior in 2014. Overall, he started the final 25 games of his career.
Missouri: Clayton Echard was among the 10 players in 2012 to assert themselves in a tryout process out of 50 players, according to the Columbia Missourian, and went on to contribute in 2014 and 2015 on offense, defense and special teams. Echard settled at tight end and had one start and two catches each against South Carolina and Florida. He signed in July as an undrafted free agent with Seattle.
Ole Miss: Offensive lineman Everett Lindsay played in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and became a two-time all-SEC and all-American selection. A member of the Ole Miss Team of the Centry, Lindsay was on teams that played in the Liberty Bowl twice and made an appearance in the 1990 Gator Bowl in 1990 against Michigan. He played 11 seasons in the NFL.
South Carolina: Offensive lineman Garrett Chisolm attended the school in 2008, but did not play football until he was a walk on in 2009, and later member of the scout team. His career saw a roller-coaster of emotions as he lost both parents to cancer, and then was one of the players who carried Steve Spurrier off the field after a win at Florida, the Charleston Post and Courier reported. He was also named second team All-SEC in 2010, but later tore his ACL in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn. He played three seasons in the NFL.
Tennessee: J.J McCleskey was a Horatio Alger-like story because of his 5-5 frame when he arrived on campus, only to become a team captain by 1992. McCleskey spent eight seasons in the NFL after he played cornerback, safety and receiver. In 1991 as a receiver, McCleskey caught 35 passes for 391 yards, and had one rushing touchdown.
Texas A&M: Though not a traditional walk-on, E. King Gill’s legacy with the Aggies cannot be told without the presence of walk-ons, even today. A sophomore in the 1921 season, Gill was a backup running back, but quit the team to focus on basketball. Gill was in the stands during A&M’s game against Centre College, and later called to action when Dana X. Bible called him from the press box. Gill’s “12th man” status is memorialized to this day on the facade of Kyle Field, and with a statue.
He became a physician after graduation in 1924. He died in 1974 in Rockport, Texas. He was 74. In 1983, Jackie Sherrill created a special teams unit of all walk-on players. In the first season with that alignment, the “12th Man kickoff team” allowed just 13.1 yards per return. In the next five seasons, the 12th Man kickoff team led the nation in yards per return twice, and finished in the top five in that category each year.
Vanderbilt: Marc Panu may be best known outside the SEC for the viral YouTube clip where he was awarded a scholarship by James Franklin. Panu stuck with the program for three years before he was given a scholarship before his senior season. Before that, he recorded playing time in 11 games in 2010 on special teams and at backup linebacker. The next season, he moved to fullback and played in eight games, mostly on special teams. In 2012, he played in 12 games as a backup fullback and made a tackle in the Music City bowl against N.C. State.