We were doing a kick-off drill. One of the players was missing. I was looking for an opportunity so when coached yelled for someone to jump in; I ran out there.
University of Southern California
Football Defensive Back Walk-on
2010: Walk-on played in all thirteen games
2011: Awarded Scholarship
Track Jumper and Sprinter
“Hey, excuse me, pardon me, do you run track?” “Yes.” “What events?” “Long jump, triple jump, 100 and 200 meter dash.” “Have you ever played football?” “Four years of varsity at Mayfair High School and played one year at Los Angeles Southwest Junior College.” “You ever think about playing for the Trojans?” “Yes.” “I’m Coach O, I’d like to introduce you to our defensive backs Coach…”
The above fictional conversation is a depiction of the conversation that changed Tony Burnett’s career at USC; and his life forever.
Tony had been a three sport athlete in high school. He competed in football, track, and wrestling. Tony’s senior year a few colleges expressed some interest in him, but none of them excited him. He decided to enroll in Junior College. After a year of competition he transferred to USC for track.
One day Tony was walking through Heritage Hall when Coach “O”, Ed Orgeron, from the USC football team saw him and in a friendly manner yelled, “Hey!” and began a friendly chat with Tony. Coach “O” liked Tony’s demeanor and size and convinced him to visit Coach Garza, the Defensive Back coach. Coach Garza also saw potential in Tony. Last summer Tony started working out with the football team. During the fall he joined the team as a walk-on. He got to play in the first game on special teams. He played special teams in all thirteen games and in the defensive backfield the last two games; starting against UCLA.
WillofaChampion: What was one of your greatest challenges as a walk-on?
Tony: Feeling welcomed. When you come in and you’re not a five star recruit; people wonder who you are. It is a different type of feeling when you’re in a locker-room and the coaches and players don’t know you and you’re not on a first-name basis with anyone. The challenge was just getting settled and feeling familiar with the team and the coaches.
WillofaChampion: You started playing the first game, how did you attract the coaches’ attention so quickly?
Tony: We were doing a kick-off drill. One of the players was missing. I was looking for an opportunity so when coached yelled for someone to jump in; I ran out there. During the drill I ran past the whole kick-off return team. I got to do it a second time and the same thing happened. I started getting more looks not only on the kick-off team but also on the kick-off return team. The coaches were pleased with my performance and decided to play me in game one.
WillofaChampion: Did you have to put in more time working-out and running compared to the scholarship players?
Tony: I did everything I was supposed to and I tried to be early to meetings. But I didn’t do anything extra to make myself stand-out. I am kind of quiet by nature. I just kept working hard on the field and training hard and eventually the coaches noticed me.
WillofaChampion: Do you have to be more mentally tough as a walk-on compared to a scholarship player?
Tony: Yes you do. It may not seem fair, but your mistakes as a walk-on are more costly. If you make a mistake the coaches may think you don’t have the skills to do it right because they don’t know you. They may think you can’t play. When you have the opportunity you have to prove you can do it.
WillofaChampion: How did your teammates receive you?
Tony: At first the guys would pick at me in fun; nothing degrading. But when they saw I had a skill set, they encouraged me to work on it and make it better.
WillofaChampion: How did your coaches receive you?
Tony: For the first few weeks they didn’t know me. When I first met with Coach Garza he welcomed me to the team. He stayed in contact with me. Once the other coaches knew me they started speaking to me as well. They saw me working hard and performing well. Once they knew me it was great.
WillofaChampion: What was it like the day you were offered a scholarship?
Tony: We were having dinner with recruits our last weekend hosting them. Coach pulled me aside and told me I deserved a scholarship. He said I had earned it. A week later he called me to his office and gave it to me. I called my mom and we were very excited. To earn a scholarship to USC is special.
WillofaChampion: Why do you think you’ve made it when other walk-ons don’t?
Tony: The whole recruiting thing is a hit and miss situation. It is hard to tell if a player will succeed until he is on the field. Guys will have great highlight films and terrific stats from high school, but when you get to the college level those things don’t matter. The athletes at this level are much better. I just think the whole recruiting thing isn’t real effective. I didn’t even start getting looks until my senior year. I was fortunate our football coaches were looking on campus. If they hadn’t I might not be here.
WillofaChampion: Was it a dream of yours to play football for USC?
Tony: Yes. I came to a performance camp here during high school and since then I’ve wanted to be here.
WillofaChampion: What impact has earning your dream up to this point had on the rest of your life?
Tony: It keeps me going every day. It makes me humble because, though I’ve come a long way, I have a long way to go. It keeps me on the straight path God has given me. God has blessed me with many great opportunities. Even in the classroom, I persevere through challenging assignments because I want a degree from USC. Earning my dream up to this point has enabled me to believe I can do new and different things.
WillofaChampion: Do you have a support system such as family or friends to help you with challenging days?
Tony: Yes, my immediate family. My mom sends me a text every morning; bible verses, words of wisdom or advice, or a wish for a good practice. I also have friends and people in the community that support me and keep me going. Sometimes when I feel down I keep working for all of them.
WillofaChampion: What advice do you have for other athletes considering walking-on?
Tony: To work hard. If there is one thing that is universally respected, it is work. If you just keep working hard and efficiently it will get noticed. If worst comes to worst, you may not be the fastest, strongest or the best, but as long as you work hard people will respect you. You can also respect yourself and the job that you’re doing, as long as you’re working hard.
Interview: April, 2011