- Wayne Drehs
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Texas A&M junior Anthony Squillante has seen the movie "Rudy." And as much as he loves the inspirational story about achieving goals against all odds, it makes him sick.
Not because he doesn't like Notre Dame or is annoyed by actor Sean Astin. But because he's a walk-on, just like Rudy. And all the movie did was further perpetuate stereotypes that walk-ons are undersized, under skilled pieces of meat.
"By no means am I close to Rudy," Squillante said. "But the association with walk-ons is that they come out, give it a shot, but they're really not qualified," Squillante said. "They harp on it and make you out to be a lesser player when obviously, you're not. "
Perhaps no place is this myth more true than at A&M, where the student body worships the 60 walk-ons in the program. They constantly vie to take part in one of college football's greatest traditions, the 12th man, in which one walk-on, wearing jersey No. 12, is on the kickoff coverage team in each game. But the perception is that jersey No. 12 is some schmuck off the street. That it's some kid yanked out of his chemistry class to run down field and fire up the student section.
But nothing could be further from the case.
"You have to earn the trust of the coaches. They don't just put anybody out there," said Squillante, who's worn the No. 12 jersey three times in his career and has also seen time as a reserve strong safety. "You have to be able to run down there and make plays. You have to be accountable."
The tradition started in 1922, when the Aggies suffered an outbreak of injuries during the Dixie Classic. At halftime, coach Dana X. Bible sent for E. King Gill, a member of the basketball team in the stands, to suit up and be ready to play.
"There were no dressing rooms at the stadium in those days," Gill said, years later. "I put on the uniform of one of the injured players. We got under the stands and he put my clothes on and I put on his uniform. I was ready to play, but was never sent into the game."
Today, A&M students stand for the entire game, except when the visiting team's band is on the field. They do so to honor Gill and to illustrate their readiness to help the team if they're called up.
And two days before each game, head coach Dennis Franchione gathers everyone on the dress list and announces which walk-on is going to wear the famed No. 12 for that game. He then asks if they are ready to represent the student body. The player answers, "Yes sir."
Thursday night against Virginia Tech, junior Blake Kendrick from Willis, Texas will get the honors, his first time wearing the jersey.
"It's probably my favorite tradition here," said first-year A&M coach Franchione. "We have lots of them here, but that is such a pride thing."
Said Squillante: "It's so important -- you're representing something far bigger than yourself or your team. The Aggie Nation is so strong across Texas and across the world. And you know that entire student section is keying on you every time that No. 12 steps on the field."
For a time in the 1980s, then-coach Jackie Sherrill used 11 walk-ons specifically for the kickoff team and called them collectively the "12th man." Squillante said Franchione has talked about trying to bring that tradition back.
Perhaps then, when 11 walk-ons smothered a speedster from Texas or Nebraska on a kick return, would people get the message about walk-ons once and forever.
"It's an uphill battle," Squillante said. "It's tough, it's hard and there's a lot of work that goes into getting onto the field. But it's like somebody told me once -- you're only a walk-on one day. Once you're on the team, you're on the team."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The student body's support for Texas A&M football isn't merely emotional or spiritual -- it's physical.