By all accounts, Jared Abbrederis had every right to be upset. An all-state quarterback at Wautoma, he walked on at Wisconsin in 2009, redshirting that season as his family picked up his tuition bills. The deal was if he worked hard and improved to the point where he became a solid contributor, he could earn a full-ride athletic scholarship.
While redshirting his first year, he worked with the scout team, posing as the quarterback of opposing teams running the spread offense to prepare the Badgers' starting defense. He took "offensive scout team player of the week" honors before the Wofford game.
"Abby," as he's called by coaches and teammates, converted to wide receiver in 2010, his second year and first as an active player, and saw action in all 13 games, starting two. In his second college game, he caught five passes against San Jose State and was named the team's offensive player of the week. He also started returning punts and kickoffs. In a receiving corps with some heralded players - Nick Toon, David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson - Abbrederis was holding his own and was in line to receive a scholarship.
In the same boat as Abbrederis was Ethan Hemer, an all-state defensive end from Medford who walked on at Wisconsin in 2009. Like Abbrederis, Hemer played on the scout team while sitting out his redshirt freshman year and received a "defensive scout team player of the week" nod. He moved into the rotation on the defensive line in 2010, playing in all 13 games. After recording six tackles in his first start against Iowa, he was selected as the team's defensive player of the week.
Hemer was also set up to receive a scholarship during training camp a year ago.
And then Russell Wilson showed up. The transfer quarterback from North Carolina State who would help transform the team into a conference champion in 2011 was enticed with a scholarship, leaving Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema with just one left and two deserving players. Not wanting to choose between them, he picked neither.
Reporters learned that Abbrederis' dad worked two jobs to help pay for school, and Badgers fans took to talk radio and online message boards to praise the players and decry a system that had underachievers on scholarship while Abbrederis and Hemer went without. But Abbrederis is philosophical about the experience.
"Last year it was a little tough knowing I was supposed to be on scholarship but then wasn't," says Abbrederis with a shrug. "I'm a religious guy, and so I believe God's in control. That helps take it off my chest. I try not to worry about things I can't control."
Walk-on is the term used to describe college athletes who aren't on athletic scholarships. They pay their own way and, at some schools, show up at open tryouts to make the team. At Wisconsin, many walk-ons are given preferred status, which means they're on track to earn a scholarship down the road. But it's not a sure thing.
Some college athletic conferences, like the Ivy and Patriot leagues, have no athletic scholarships at all. The same goes for Division III programs like UW-Whitewater and Edgewood College. But scholarships are the lifeblood of big-time college sports, allowing schools like Wisconsin to attract talent by offering a full ride through school. Sometimes the talent comes in, hopeful, through the side door.
Both Abbrederis and Hemer started all 14 games in 2011 before finally securing full-ride scholarships in January. Instead of complaining about how long it took, Hemer insists that walk-on players at Wisconsin still have it much better than at other schools.
"I would say that Wisconsin is unique in that walk-ons get a legitimate shot to play," says Hemer. "At a certain point it's a matter of talent and ability to play. I know that at other schools, it's not like that. Walk-ons are there to fill a scout team role."
Hemer believes walk-ons might even have an edge in competing for playing time.
"I don't know if it's a mindset that scholarship players lack," he says. "But I think guys that come in as walk-ons maybe play with a little chip on their shoulder. They realize they have a little more to prove. If you talk to guys like Abby and myself, there's a lot of pride in being, one, an in-state guy and getting this opportunity. Two, in achieving the goal that we came here to get."
Is there a concern that getting the scholarship removes some of that edge? Not according to Bielema, who walked on at Iowa in 1989.
"From my personal experience, when I finally got my scholarship, it was now you kind of wanted to show even more why you did deserve it," says Bielema. "There might be even a little more of a motivation."
In 1975, the NCAA reduced the number of athletic scholarships college football teams could offer from 105 to 95. In 1990, that number was reduced to 85. Many believe that's the exact moment when college football became more competitive, unpredictable and exciting, with powerhouses like Michigan and Notre Dame no longer able to stockpile players.
It also happens to coincide with the date Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison. From the beginning of his run at the UW, Alvarez encouraged walk-ons by holding up the possibility of earning a scholarship in their third or fourth year. The idea originally came from Nebraska, where Alvarez played his college football.
"Almost everything we did at Wisconsin, we stole from Nebraska, including the fabled walk-on program," says Alvarez in a 2009 interview with Huskers.com, "For all the mistakes we make in recruiting, walk-ons are our erasers."
The walk-on program blended nicely with Alvarez's philosophy about aggressively recruiting Wisconsin kids - building a wall around the state, as he has famously put it. The more he did that and the more his teams succeeded on the field, the more it became the dream of great Wisconsin high school players to play for the Badgers, even if they had to pay their own way for a couple years.
It didn't hurt that Joe Panos, the leader of Wisconsin's 1994 Rose Bowl championship team, was a walk-on after transferring from UW-Whitewater. Following Panos was a list of players who didn't just crack the starting lineup, but were stars (see sidebar).
Bielema, who earned a scholarship at Iowa and was voted one of two captains his senior year, has continued the tradition.
"It's been a staple of this program," Bielema says. "I believe last year when we played Michigan State and into the Rose Bowl, there were six starters who had been walk-ons."
He's a big fan of a change in rules made by the NCAA four years ago that allows walk-ons to buy into the team's training-table meal program, which means there are no advantages scholarship players have over walk-ons except the lack of a tuition bill.
"Referencing back to when I was a walk-on player, scholarship players went one direction and had this meal," Bielema says. "It was probably a lot better than it really seemed, but in a certain dining area. And I had to go to a different area and eat with the regular students."
At the Badgers' media day, just a couple days before getting the good news that he is going on scholarship this fall, quarterback Joel Stave was more concerned about getting snaps than how his tuition was going to be paid.
"I don't think about being a walk-on very often," he says. "To a point, I'm proud of it because I'm an in-state guy, I've always loved this program, and I'm proud of being part of it."
Some of that pride is evident in an online video series produced by the UW athletic department called "The Camp." A behind-the-scenes look at training camp, one of the videos shows Bielema bringing Stave up in front of the team to announce he's receiving a scholarship. As the rest of the players hoot and holler, Stave clutches a Brewers hat and grins ear-to-ear.
The other fun-to-watch scene from "The Camp" occurs when Bielema announces linebacker Ethan Armstrong's scholarship. Hemer is on his feet immediately, yelling encouragement at "Army."
The bond between walk-ons - Donnel Thompson has called it a "secret society" - is evident at media day, an occasion where most of the cameras and microphones seek out the team's superstars like tailback Montee Ball and linebacker Chris Borland.
"Where's Ricky?" shouts Hemer, looking for Ricky Wagner, a former walk-on offensive tackle who has been named to the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy. Even though Wagner got his scholarship two years ago, he's still considered part of the fraternity.
"We need all the walk-on guys over here, Ricky!" Hemer continues, refusing to start without Wagner present. "Bring it in for a walk-on guy picture!"
They once were walk-ons
Linebacker Donnel Thompson (1996-99), a Madison West grad who sold soda at Camp Randall as a kid, was a two-year captain and went on to a three-year NFL career.
Safety Chris Maragos (2008-09), from Racine, transferred from Central Michigan and became a captain. Maragos is in his third NFL season, and his second playing for the Seattle Seahawks.
Defensive end J.J. Watt (2009-10), from Pewaukee, transferred from Central Michigan, and was named all-Big Ten and academic all-Big Ten in 2010. He's in his second year with the Houston Texans.
Mark Tauscher (1996-99), from Auburndale, didn't play until his junior year and didn't start until he was a senior, but went on to have a 10-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers.
Jim Leonhard (2002-04), from tiny Tony, didn't receive a scholarship until his senior year despite becoming a fan favorite. He's playing in his seventh NFL season after having signed with Denver this summer.