College football is one of America’s most prized past times. There is something unique that separates it from the NFL.Maybe it’s the eagerness of the young athletes who are looking to make it to the NFL; perhaps it’s the high-scoring games (oh wait, those happen in the NFL too (Saints 52-Giants 49)). We often hear about the five-star high school recruits that have loads of offers laying on their doorstep who go on to play at one of the nation’s elite football schools. But what about the players with a dream who aren’t offered a scholarship? What about the college walk-on?

Kyle Buckner, a soon-to-be sophomore in college from Eastvale, California knows what it’s like to be a walk-on. Born on April 30, 1997, Kyle’s love of football was developed at an early age. His dad, Kevin, is a passionate Eagles fan; naturally, Kyle grew to love the Eagles as well. Ex-Eagles safety Brian Dawkins inspired a young Kyle to start playing football; Kyle recalled a play where, “[Dawkins] dove to make a tackle on the sideline and looked like a superhuman.” From that point forward, Kyle wanted to be the superhuman. “I began playing football when I was very young in the street with all of my neighbors,” he said. On the street, he was dominant; Kyle was often the first kid picked when choosing teams.

Brian Dawkins

Brian Dawkins making a diving tackle along the sideline against the Giants.

Despite his son’s love for football, Kevin, Kyle’s dad, was apprehensive about letting Kyle put the pads on and lace up. At the age of ten, Kyle was finally allowed to play tackle football. He played for the recreational league until his high school years.

Kyle attended Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a school located in Eastvale, California. Approximately 4,000 students attend the high school. Despite the astounding number of students, Roosevelt wasn’t able to develop into a football powerhouse in the school’s early years. Local rival Centennial High School, a national powerhouse, continued to dominate in football. Wide receiver was Kyle’s first position. In his sophomore season, he played both safety and quarterback. After his sophomore season, he quit football to focus on baseball–the sport he thought would earn him a college scholarship.

When it became time to start looking at colleges, Kyle knew where he wanted to go right away–the University of Oregon. His dad, who grew up in Oregon, and his cousin, Nicole, who attended Oregon were his influences to go to the university. Kyle grew up watching the Ducks game every Saturday with his dad. The University of Oregon, located in Eugene, Oregon, has been one of the most successful college football programs in recent years. The school has a history of pumping out quality NFL talent such as Marcus Mariota, Arik Armstead, and Jonathan Stewart. In fact, the Saints’ very own Max Unger and Jairus Byrd played football at Oregon.

Kyle and his dad, Kevin.

Kyle and his dad, Kevin.

Kyle spent his first year in college as a fan. Towards the end of the school year, there was an announcement for a tryout for any potential walk-ons. Needing to get in shape, Kyle began working out everyday; throughout the year, he played football with friends at the recreational field several nights a week. His nights spent at the recreational field gave him confidence going into the tryout.

In every person’s life, there are always a few opportunities that they simply can’t miss. For Kyle, the tryout was one of those opportunities. The dream of becoming a football player at Oregon was sparked yet again. The night before the tryout, five alarms were set for the next morning. “… if I missed the opportunity to make this team, I would never let it go.” Luckily for Kyle, he didn’t miss the opportunity to make the team.

Kyle woke up early that morning and headed off to the practice facility. After measurements were taken and 40-yard dashes were ran, the coaches kept eight guys for additional work. About 40 guys had tried out. Sure enough, Kyle’s name was called.

The skill position players ran routes and competed against each other in one-on-ones. Because of NCAA restrictions, the guys were not able to use a football. If the receivers and defensive backs were to impress the coaches, it would have to be done without displaying ball skills. A coach told Kyle he would be a good fit for wide receiver. After giving the coaches his contact information, the long wait began. Kyle recalls, “…shaking with joy” after the tryout. He wasn’t sure if he had made the team or not, but he was ecstatic with the way the tryout went.

His parents were some of the first to know of the news. Kyle described the wait as, “… the longest six hours of my life.” That night, Kyle was told he had made the Oregon football team. “I wish I could explain the feeling… it was the highest of highs… nothing has ever felt better.” Kyle’s path to a Division I football team was much different than that of many other’s.

For Kyle, his story is not yet finished. His new goal is simple: earn playing time. As of now, Kyle is focused on working hard and listening to the coaches. He often works after practice with some of the older, more experienced players. Standing at 6’3″, it is important for Kyle to put on more weight.  He currently weighs 185 lbs, but world-class strength training and dietary experts should help him add the needed muscle quickly. His goals are to become faster, stronger, and a better receiver. “I know I am most likely not going to get play time this year, but I want to in the future and that’s my goal.”

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Life is by no means easy for student-athletes. Practices in the morning and meetings in the evening make it difficult to keep up with the classwork and studying. Not being a morning person, Kyle also struggles with waking up at 5 AM on a daily basis. He has said, “I would give up all of my sleep and free time to be on this team.”

In our world, we have a tendency to admire and praise athletes. They are the ultimate celebrity. Kyle spent his freshman year as a fan in the stands, looking up to the Oregon football players; in a day’s time, he became one of them. Although Kyle isn’t the ultimate football star yet, he has noticed that many people look at him different and some even look up to him. Currently, Kyle enjoys some of the perks that come along with being a student-athlete such as priority registration.

Kyle’s story is unique and inspiring. Very few people who don’t play football at the varsity level in high school could even imagine playing at one of the top schools in the nation. Despite not playing football all four years, some of Kyle’s work in baseball carried over to football. Being an outfielder, Kyle learned how to track a baseball with ease. It is imperative that wide receivers learn how to track the football in air. Furthermore, Kyle’s experience in volleyball bettered his jumping ability. A wide receiver who is able to out-jump the defensive back is more likely to succeed in making the catch.

When I asked Kyle what advice he’d give to someone looking to play football at the college level, one of the things he said was, “Don’t let size make you think you are not good enough.” Kyle didn’t let his lack of weight stop him from achieving his goal of becoming a football player at the University of Oregon. Darren Sproles, an ex-Saint and current Eagle, has proven that size is just a number. He is currently one of the NFL’s best pass-catching backs and punt returners despite only being 5’6″. Kyle’s last piece of advice was, “… if you work hard enough, you can achieve your dreams… believe in yourself.” Kyle is no stranger to adversity, and he has proven that when you truly want something, there is nothing that can stop you…

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