There are many versions of the classic “Would You Rather” game out there in the world, but the real life dilemma of deciding between whether to walk on at an athletic program at a bigger school, or accepting a scholarship at a smaller school is not a question to answer frivolously.
While the path to glory is much more challenging as a walk on in a bigger school, there have been several professional athletes who started their college career at the very bottom of the proverbial food chain. Cleveland Browns starting QB Baker Mayfield wrestled with this very decision coming out of high school, weighing whether he should take a scholarship from Florida Atlantic’s football program, or try to cut his teeth in the Big 12 at Texas Tech.
Mayfield was a Texas high school football star, which normally lends itself to plentiful attention from larger universities. He won 25 out of his 27 career games in high school, and expected to be recruited with scholarship offers by the likes of the University of Oklahoma. The confident young man was in for a rude awakening, however, when the powerhouse FBS football schools were not lined up at his door.
His father, James Mayfield, recalled his son’s frustration during the process.
“He was insulted. He thought he was better than that.” Via Bleacher Report
Baker chose to pass on his scholarship offers, and walk on at Texas Tech. He won his first five games as a starter there before going down with injury, and after a rocky back and forth with the Red Raiders’ coaching staff, decided to transfer to the Oklahoma Sooners’ program.
He walked on there as well, but ascended up the depth chart in eye-popping fashion. His college career was highlighted by winning the Heisman trophy in 2017.
While Mayfield’s story is about the best case scenario that any walk-on could hope for in any sport, his emotions at the time could have easily swayed him in a different direction. Had he not been up for the challenge, or had the family not been able to pay their way for his education for a few years, Mayfield could have accepted the scholarship at Florida Atlantic, started right away, and maybe would have led the Owls to a few Conference USA regular season titles. But he had bigger dreams for his football career, and the combination of factors relevant to his life made this the right decision for him.
Others have made the opposite decision, and have decided to take the scholarship and the leading role from a smaller program, becoming essentially the big fish in a small pond. Golden State Warriors NBA champion point guard Stephen Curry ended up making this decision, and what ensued was a ride that he likely never envisioned.
Like Mayfield, the slightly built Curry did not have big time basketball schools calling every day to ask him what they could do to help him make a decision on where he’d play his college ball. The closest thing he got to an offer from a power conference school was when the Virginia Tech Hokies told Curry he would get the chance to walk on, without any other promises.
Although Steph could have probably accepted the challenge and gone on to great things at Virginia Tech, he wanted to play a leading role right away, and the place where he would get a chance to do that would be at Davidson. The Wildcats, who played in the Southern Conference during Curry’s tenure, allowed the star guard to play 30 minutes a night from the moment he set foot on campus. While his conference games weren’t routinely on ESPN or CBS, his lethal sharpshooting from almost anywhere on the court caught fans’ attention from all over the country.
Curry’s high school coach, Shonn Brown, remembered the determination with which Davidson men’s head basketball coach Bob McKillop recruited the future NBA star.
“Coach McKillop did an unbelievable job recruiting him, saying ‘We’re going to build this around you. He(Curry) pretty much committed at the in-home visit.” Via Yahoo.com
In an alternate universe, it’s possible Curry would have led the Hokies to the top of the ACC, competing night in and night out with the likes of Duke and North Carolina. It’s also possible the program never would have let him see the light of day on the court, if the slender guard get pushed around in practice.
When it comes down to it, each athlete’s decision should come down to what situation makes the most sense for them, and what their dreams have been in middle school and high school. There are no easy answers, or wrong ways to play it as long as kids and their families carefully consider all of the circumstances that go along with their decision.