Dominique Whaley doesn't make sandwiches on Lindsey Street and Jenkins Avenue anymore, but that's only because he can't. Last year the Subway at that intersection in Norman, Okla.—just kitty-corner from the Sooners' practice facility—was razed to make room for new athletic housing, thereby terminating the quickest and most curious commute that an elite athlete at Oklahoma has ever had. During the spring of 2010, Whaley, a tailback, would often wake up in his on-campus dorm, go to class, head to the field, practice for three hours, put on his work-issued polo and khakis, cross the street and man the Subway counter until dusk. For months, surrounded by cold cuts, the power rusher starred in a Peyton Manning commercial (Cut! That! Meat!) turned upside down.
It all might have seemed embarrassing to Whaley, except that not even die-hard fans recognized the stocky 5'10" employee—an unrecruited walk-on—who was composing their footlong Italian B.M.T.'s. "Except for my coworkers who knew I was on the team, I went under the radar," says Whaley. "Nobody really knew who I was back then."
Last Saturday afternoon in Dallas his anonymity went the way of the bulldozed workplace. No less than 96,009 fans sold out the Cotton Bowl—bypassing the state fair's giant fiberglass cowboy, livestock auction and innumerable fried Twinkies—and watched No. 3 Oklahoma obliterate No. 11 Texas 55--17 in the 106th edition of the Red River Rivalry.
Yes, that was Whaley, starting in the Sooners' backfield two years after leaving NAIA Langston (Okla.) University, where he'd spent one season as a backup on full academic scholarship. That was Whaley, the junior whose photo isn't even in the 2011 team media guide, gaining 132 yards and a touchdown on 18 touches to help keep Oklahoma on track for the BCS title game. And that was Whaley—ostensibly an ancillary weapon in quarterback Landry Jones's relentless air attack (367 yards, three scores)—padding his team-high rushing total to 462 yards and tying for the Big 12 lead with his eighth TD. "People are like, Oh, he's just a walk-on," junior defensive tackle Casey Walker says. "Noooo. He keeps surprising us. That dude is one of a kind."
Or so it would seem. Says Brett Manning, Whaley's offensive coordinator at Lawton (Okla.) MacArthur High and a former quarterback at Division II Central Oklahoma, "A lot of freshmen I went to college with came in their first year, thought they were Division I and left to go walk on somewhere. It never, ever worked out."
But now, somehow, it has—and not only for Whaley at Oklahoma but also for dozens of other players across college football this season. "Whaley's smart, had the grades, had everything you needed, and he's on top of the world," says Mickey Joseph, the interim coach at Langston and an erstwhile starting quarterback at Nebraska. "So everybody keeps asking me the same thing: How'd y'all lose Whaley? I mean, shoot... . The real question is, How'd he even get to Langston University?"
To visualize a walk-on is to imagine Notre Dame's Daniel (Rudy) Ruettiger: a terrier of a man—five-foot-nothin', a hundred-and-nothin'—whose life's highlight is a single, entirely symbolic play in his final home game. He is a dreamer willing to be scout-team fodder, stuck so far down the depth chart that a start would induce the bends. While plenty of walk-ons still call Rudy to mind, a growing collection of skill players is updating that image. "It used to be, you had as many walk-ons as you had locker space for and wanted to put up with," says Merv Johnson, Oklahoma's director of football operations and the offensive coordinator in South Bend during Ruettiger's fateful senior season (1975). "There were really good guys who couldn't play dead, but you'd try to help them stick around. Now you have to be much more selective."
With suppressed roster sizes (legislated gender-equity ratios have helped cut the average FBS team from 126.4 players in 1984--85 to 119.3 players in 2009--10) and a shrinking NCAA scholarship limit (from unlimited as late as 1976, to 95 in '77, to 85 since '94), coaches need walk-ons who can develop into impact players, not Rudy-type dreamers. With this in mind, many high school seniors are shunning a free ride in the lower divisions for an increasingly high-stakes shot at the top. "Really, a walk-on is a mistake," explains Hawaii coach Greg McMackin, a former defensive coordinator at Miami and assistant at seven other FBS schools. "Everyone made a mistake and didn't offer him a scholarship. And if he develops, then he might be better than the four-star [recruits] out there."
McMackin would know. Last season Hawaii started seven players who had begun as walk-ons. This year all four captains—quarterback Bryant Moniz, linebacker Corey Paredes, safety Richard Torres and receiver Royce Pollard—are former walk-ons, going from ramen noodles for dinner to the head of the training table. (By NCAA decree, only scholarship players are permitted to eat team meals.) In Moniz's case, he was busy delivering pizzas for Papa John's in late 2008 when coaches caught wind of the then unenrolled quarterback's bio and invited him to try out. One year earlier Moniz threw for 2,268 yards and 18 touchdowns as the starting quarterback at Fresno City College, but the birth of his daughter had sent him back home to Hawaii after just a semester. In 2009, his first season with the Warriors, he rose from seventh string to starter. This year Moniz has passed for 1,578 yards with 15 touchdowns against only one interception this season. (He happily quit the pizza biz when he got his scholarship in January 2010.)
The mainland is rife with stories too. At Stanford, wideout Ryan Whalen, a captain, went from walk-on to being the Bengals' sixth-round draft pick last April. He left behind still another walk-on receiver named Whalen, Griff (no relation)—a quarterback at Southview High in Sylvania, Ohio, who has since become Heisman candidate Andrew Luck's roommate and a go-to target for the seventh-ranked Cardinal, gaining 92 yards and a TD in a 48--7 win over Colorado last week. (Griff's top alternative? "I'd been talking to Toledo a little bit, but I don't know if they ever officially offered me a scholarship," recalls the senior, who has tutored, worked in a sporting goods store and interned at a private equity firm to help with expenses. The annual tuition in Palo Alto is $40,050, but Whalen is on scholarship now.) Stanford's starting long snapper, meanwhile, is Andrew Fowler, an art history major—the football program's first—who walked on after transferring from Division III Williams College. As Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton sums it up, "Productivity on game day. That trumps everything else."