They were not deemed good enough to warrant athletic scholarships as incoming freshmen. Often, a walk-on candidate is told by the coach that he will get a fair shake. But that is usually lip service, and the vast majority of walk-ons become walk-outs.
"When you try out as a walk-on, you have to realize you're going to take a back seat to the scholarship guys," Penn State's Jim Coates said yesterday. ''And you're always worried you're not going to get a good look because, let's face it, they have a lot of money invested in the scholarship guys. It's tough."
Nobody waved a football scholarship under Jim Coates' nose when he was a senior at Kennedy High in Warren, Ohio, even though he ran for 1,500 yards, returned punts and kickoffs with dazzling results and kicked extra points and field goals.
Coates, it seemed, had this large problem. At 5 feet, 7 1/2 inches, he was too small, the recruiters told him. Akron didn't want him. Neither did Bowling Green, let alone the Division I programs.
"It was pretty disappointing," he recalled.
Now, though, you can see Coates returning punts and kickoffs and, on occasion, catching a pass for one of the nation's most heralded teams. He's easy to identify, because he's the smallest guy on the team.
Now, Coates doesn't have to stand at the end of the line to show his wares,
because in this, his junior year, he has finally become a scholarship player. And since he is one of eight children (Coates has seven sisters), his scholarship has certainly alleviated the strain on the family till.
"It's pretty gratifying to earn a scholarship on this level," the business major said. "It's funny, but I've talked to some older people who think that this is the way it should be done, that a player should have to earn a scholarship by proving he can play in college. Sometimes, they give scholarships to guys out of high school, and those guys don't pan out. Meanwhile, a guy who doesn't get recruited gets lost in the shuffle, because they have to give the scholarship guys the first chance.
"This way, I find it a little more gratifying. I had to earn it, and that's the way it is with anything good that comes out of life."
The irony of Coates' rise to scholarship status is that he wanted to leave Penn State during his freshman year. He was homesick, he missed his girlfriend back in Niles, Ohio, and he was intimidated by other Penn State players, who seemed to be twice his size and just as fast.
"My first practice," he recalled, "I looked around at all these big guys and said to myself, 'Oh man, what am I doing here?' I called my father and told him I wanted to come home."
But Jim Coates Sr. wouldn't hear of it. He told his son to give Penn State a chance, and maybe he'd get one in return.
Coates got that chance through some nifty pantomime. The week before Penn State played West Virginia in 1984, Coates was asked to play the part of the Mountaineers' Willie Drewrey in practice. Drewrey, the former Northern Burlington High star now with the Houston Oilers, was merely one of the most dangerous punt and kickoff returners in the nation.
But Coates did such a good imitation of Drewrey that he was told to be ready to return punts and kickoffs against West Virginia.
"I remember I was a nervous wreck on the sideline," he said. "And I never even got in the game."
The following week, against Boston College, he did, and he ran the opening kickoff of the second half 59 yards to set up a Penn State touchdown. Last year, Coates returned the opening kickoff against Syracuse 78 yards to set up another TD, and he went on to average 23 yards in kickoff returns and 6.6 in punt returns.
Still, there was no scholarship available for him.
"I had to wait until some scholarship guys left after last year until there was one available for me," Coates said.
The grant came before this season, and Coates sent a thank-you card to coach Joe Paterno in the form of a 23-yard punt return and a 31-yard kickoff return in State's opener against Temple.
He has moved to second on the depth chart behind Eric Hamilton at flanker, while heralded sophomore Michael Timpson recovers from a pulled hamstring. Coates has caught two passes for 30 yards while averaging 20 yards on two punt returns and 26.3 on four kickoff returns.
"There's a kid who ran 4.7 (in the 40) when he came here and now he's running 4.5," Paterno said of Coates. "There are a lot of kids who are good players that you miss when you're recruiting. Yet, they want to take on a challenge and try out as walk-ons. It takes a lot of moxie just to want to do that."
So, in his own modest way, Jim Coates has made it in the big-time, a once- faceless walk-on carrying on with his career.
"Sometimes, I lay around in bed and all this crosses my mind," he said. ''I think about my freshman year and how badly I wanted to go home. If my dad had said OK, I wouldn't be here. Now he's always telling me, 'I told you so.' "