Kenny Willekes has always been a State fan — a big enough fan that he was willing to forgo a college scholarship for a chance to be a walk-on player on the Spartans football team.
Willekes and other walk-on players get a variety of team benefits, including rehab and medical assistance, training, meals and gear. But they don’t get the tuition and financial aid packages reserved for scholarship athletes.
So if they’re able to turn a walk-on opportunity into a scholarship, it’s often a big deal. Over the past few years, football teams including Western Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, Minnesota, Indiana and Oregon made sports headlines when they did dramatic reveals of scholarships to their walk-ons.
“I received my scholarship this spring five practices in,” said Kenny Willekes, a redshirt sophomore who had scholarship offers from Division II colleges including Wayne State and Ferris State. “My experience as a walk-on was good. I had to come in and work hard each and every day, but I had a group of guys to push me daily.”
Willekes said he was both surprised and honored to receive a scholarship because he knew he gave his all for himself and for his teammates.
“Even though I was a walk-on, the coaches gave me an opportunity to play because of my work ethic and it motivates me now because the coaches trusted me enough to put me on scholarship and giving me a starting position,” Willekes said.
Michigan State has a number of walk-ons who are trying to earn a scholarship.
Reid Burton is a sophomore preferred walk-on at MSU. Smaller colleges had recruited him, but Burton said he wanted the opportunity to win championships.
A preferred walk-on is guaranteed a spot on the 105-man roster on the first day of camp. Preferred walk-ons can earn a scholarship later.
“As a walk-on you definitely have a chip on your shoulder. You work that much harder to get the scholarship,” Burton said. “In terms of being on the team, I feel the same as everyone else. Coach D really believes in equal opportunity and the best players play.”
Walk-ons often put on the practice squad to go against the starters of the defense and offense. They become the other team’s offense and defense and try to simulate the others teams play, sets and sequences.
“In that aspect we are all equal,” Burton said. “I just don’t get the checks that the scholarship dudes get, but it’s really just extra motivation for me to work harder and actually earn one.”