Walk this way

Last spring, the coaches of the men’s basketball team asked manager Josh Greenberg ’06 what jersey number he wanted. Greenberg thought the question was a joke. This year, he is on the Bulldog roster wearing No. 2.

Greenberg, who was cut during basketball tryouts his freshman year, took a more circuitous route to joining a varsity Yale sports team than most walk-ons. The real challenge for many walk-ons is not earning a place on the team roster or integrating socially, but earning a place on the field.

After he was cut, Greenberg said the coaches told him that if he managed the team he would have a spot on it after a few years. Expecting his managerial duty to last for two years, Greenberg was able to lift with the team and occasionally scrimmage with them when the coaches needed an extra body, but largely the experience was just “all right,” he said.

Managing for a year did have its benefits, however. The familiarity with the players he gained from managing made it easier for him to be accepted as a full-fledged member. Although Greenberg said the guys often joke about his stint as a manager, he said they mean it good-naturedly.

Other athletes also said they had little trouble integrating into their teams socially. James Higgins ’06, one of many walk-ons to the famously walk-on friendly lightweight crew team, had the added advantage of already knowing one of the recruits. The two teammates are now suitemates as well, but Higgins said he thought this acquaintance was nice but unnecessary because the coaches did a good job of integrating the walk-ons into the team.

But while it has been relatively easy for walk-ons like Greenberg and Higgins to assimilate themselves socially, many walk-ons complain of limited playing time.

Miriam Litt ’04 played soccer for her high school and club teams and said she had planned to continue playing in college. But then she switched schools during her junior year of high school, in the middle of prime recruiting season.

Though Litt did not have much difficulty getting a spot on the soccer team as a college freshman, she was still two weeks behind the recruits who had come to Yale in early August for preseason training. Litt said it was “a little awkward” at first because all the girls already knew each other and had begun to unite as a team, but said it was fine by halfway into the season.

Litt, however, quit the soccer team after her sophomore year because while there was no difference between teammates in the locker room or team bus, she did not think she would be able to overcome the distinction between walk-ons and recruits on the playing field. Litt said she had to make a choice between focusing on her Ethics, Politics and Economics major and going abroad or remaining on the team in New Haven.

“It’s really, really hard to be a varsity athlete at a D-I school and not feel like you’re really contributing much,” Litt said. “To know you’re sitting on the bench every game is a little tough, but some people do that all four years, and they’re fine with it.”

Litt said she stays in touch with her former teammates and one of her best friends is a senior who still plays for the team. But Litt said she does not regret her decision to walk-off. She has not considered playing either club or intramural soccer, but said she did play a few pickup games in Argentina, where she studied during the spring semester of her junior year, an opportunity she would not have been able to pursue had she still been at Yale, warming the bench.

While other athletes also recognize the difference between walk-ons and recruits regarding playing time, their distinctions are more subtle.

Most male ice hockey players entering a Division-I school like Yale have spent time playing prep-school hockey at schools like Choate Rosemary Hall or have taken a few years off to practice with midwestern teams. Though many of the friends he played with when he was younger followed one of these two paths, Nick Shalek ’05 did not pursue either. After playing for his high school team, Shalek came to Yale and skated onto the Eli ice.

During Shalek’s three years on the team, only two other hopefuls have tried out, but both were cut, he said.

Shalek downplayed the difference between the walk-ons and recruits on the hockey team. He said that if there was any distinction, it was simply that the coaches recruit athletes for very specific reasons, making the role of the walk-on less clearly defined.

“They invest a lot of time in recruiting kids, and they know them very well,” Shalek said. “Even if [head coach Tim Taylor] doesn’t think of me as a walk-on, he just knows the recruits better, but I have no complaints.”

Andrew Sullivan ’05, who walked onto the football team after spending time on the gridiron at his inner-city Minnesota high school, played no games his freshman year at Yale. As a kicker, a position usually filled by only one player per game, he said it was especially difficult to get time on the field. But after not seeing any action his freshman year, Sullivan was the 2002 special teams’ kicker and played in all 10 games that year. He said there may have initially been a difference between the walk-ons and recruits, but that it became negligible once the team started playing.

“Maybe we weren’t taken as seriously as the guys who were recruited, but once we started playing the distinction fell away,” Sullivan said. “Once you’ve gone out there and proved yourself on the field, people don’t look at you as a walk-on anymore: you’re just part of the team.”

Even after they are integrated into the team, some walk-ons offer an unjaded outlook.

“The newness of it all the first year is a good and a bad thing because while it is new and fresh, it is also intimidating to go into a big college program,” Higgins said.

Pascal Noel ’06, who walked onto the heavyweight crew team after being cut from the basketball team along with Greenberg, said he felt there was actually a benefit to being a walk-on that is often overlooked.

“We are doing this because we want to, while the other people feel like at some point they are possibly forced to do it because they were recruited, and they feel like they owe it to the program,” Noel said. “I know that I’m just doing it for me.”

Barefoot kicker and walk-on Andrew Sullivan ’05 rests his bandaged foot during a practice last season.
Smita Gopisetty
Barefoot kicker and walk-on Andrew Sullivan ’05 rests his bandaged foot during a practice last season.

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