MANHATTAN, Kan. -- As an all-state quarterback at a small-town Kansas high school, Jordy Nelson had exactly two offers to play college football.
One was from Emporia State. The other, Washburn University.
But before he made up his mind, Nelson called up another player who also went to Riley County High to see about a third option. Jon McGraw had no Division I scholarship offers, either. But he walked-on a few miles down the road at Kansas State. Proved himself. And, eventually, became an impact player.
Soon, Nelson would follow McGraw’s footsteps. Many others, too.
Tonight, when fifth-ranked Auburn takes the field in Manhattan with its gaggle of former 5-star recruits, “Walk-On U." will counter with a team loaded with players who never had anything given to them.
And had to earn everything they got.
“There’s a lot of pride in being a walk-on,” said Nelson, who after an All-American as a wide receiver at Kansas State has gone on to star for the Green Bay Packers. “A certain spirit inside.”
That spirit overflows with this K-State club, which has 16 current and former walk-ons on its two-deep alone, not including special teams. That’s almost half the depth chart.
Many of the Wildcats’ best players are former walk-ons, too, with the back stories that embody the “Manhattan Miracle” program coach Bill Snyder built out of little tradition, rusty facilities and thin air.
“Coach Snyder knows how to get the best out of everyone,” said Ian Campbell, who arrived at K-State as a walk-on in 2004 and left as an All-Big 12 defensive end in 2008. “That helps create diamonds in the rough.”
The Wildcats have plenty of diamonds in the rough on this team.
B.J. Finney had only one scholarship offer coming out of Andale High near Wichita, except that offer from Ohio University evaporated before he had a chance to even visit the school. Finney, a state champion wrestler, could go wrestle in college, or take a scholarship at Pittsburg (Kansas) State. Despite the potential financial stress on his mom, he walked on at K-State, where he quickly earned a scholarship and has become a three-time All-Big 12 center.
Ryan Mueller ended up at a Kansas State camp by accident. He thought the camp being held near his hometown of Leawood, Kansas was for little kids. He was just looking to volunteer as a counselor. Instead, he discovered it was a recruiting camp for budding college talent. He seemed out of his league. But his motor caught the eye of the coaching staff, which encouraged him to walk-on. He did, and last fall, he tied the K-State season sack record with 11 1/2.
Jonathan Truman, from Kechi, Kansas was praying he’d get an offer from the Jayhawks. But when assistant Joe Bob Clements, who had been recruiting him, left to join the staff at K-State, the calls from Lawrence stopped coming. Clements didn’t have a scholarship to give Truman. But he encouraged the undersized inside linebacker to walk-on in Manhattan instead of attending junior college. Thirty pounds and four years later, Truman is one of the strongest players on the K-State football team. And this season, he leads the Wildcats in tackles.
“That just shows the type of program we have here,” Truman said. “Everybody here is treated as if they were on scholarship, even if they’re not.
“There’s a blue-collar, hard-working mentality.”
It’s a mentality that has defined K-State football for more than two decades.
“We have good, responsible people, who work hard, are unselfish and are great teammates,” said Snyder, who estimates he’s awarded 200 scholarships to walk-ons in 23 seasons at K-State. “They have a never-give-up mentality, and a real investment in trying to improve on and off the field. And they know that when they get here, if they perform well and meet the criteria, they have an excellent chance to at some point go on scholarship.”
McGraw was one of the first players to meet that criteria. He grew up near Manhattan going to K-State games in the pre-Snyder era when the Wildcats rarely won games or had the stadium half-full. Once he arrived as a walk-on in 1997, he saw the mentality that Snyder was instilling with every player, on scholarship or not.
“I remember watching a scrimmage my first year there during two-a-days and thinking, ‘There’s no way I can play with these guys. They’re too fast, too strong,” McGraw recalled. “But Coach Snyder has a process that develops football players. And when you combine that with guys that really have a heart and passion with game, it turns into something really special.”
Gradually, McGraw turned into something. By 2000, he was a starting safety on a team that won 11 games and beat Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl. Two years later, McGraw was in the NFL, blazing a path for future K-State walk-ons like Nelson.
"When you see someone you know like that make it, you know it's possible," Nelson said. "That's a big part of it."
The snowball has continued to roll to this generation of Wildcats with Finney, Mueller and Truman, who together have won eight of their past nine games heading into tonight.
"When you’ve got guys [who] have faced some adversity, overcome some obstacles, made believers out of doubters, it creates a powerful team that can play at a level higher than its talent," McGraw said. "And it can equalize the playing the field against a team with maybe more talent.”
Tonight, the Wildcats will face a team with more talent.
Year after year, Auburn reels in recruiting classes that are the envy of college football. K-State, meanwhile, hasn’t produced a ballyhooed recruiting class since Snyder arrived as coach.
According to ESPN RecruitingNation, Auburn has 49 former 4- and 5-star recruits on its roster. Kansas State has one: junior-college defensive tackle Terrell Clinkscales, who has yet to play a down for the Wildcats this season.
But even though Auburn won the mighty SEC in 2013 and played in the national championship game, “Walk-On U.” won’t be an easy out. It never is.
"When you’ve had to prove yourself like that," McGraw said, "it makes for an extremely physically and mentally tough football player."
One tough team, too.