Freshman Kevin O’Brien took a huge leap of faith when he decided CSU was the best fit for him.
O’Brien, a native of Katy, Texas, came to Fort Collins in pursuit of a dream—a chance to play Division-I football. He traveled 1,176 miles with no scholarship, no guarantees and no certainty.
That’s the life of a walk-on football player. Nobody knows who you are, where you came from, and frankly, they don’t care.
“It’s a big risk. It’s definitely a big risk,” O’Brien said. “I would have been heartbroken (to not play football). This is what I love, I played for seven, eight years. You got to take it. If you really want something so bad you got to take a risk, take the leap.”
After playing high school football in Katy, a suburb of Houston, O’Brien enrolled at the University of Incarnate Word, a small Catholic school in San Antonio.
UIW’s football program was created in 2009, and was smaller than O’Brien’s high school. He was going to play football, but playing for a small program left a hole he felt needed filling.
“(UIW) wasn’t what I was looking for. Coming from a Texas high school, it just wasn’t a real college experience,” O’Brien said.
On the advice of a friend he chose to transfer to CSU, which offered a rebuilding program with a new, open coaching staff and an engineering school.
New football coach Jim McElwain emphasized a desire for size along both the offensive and defensive lines after being hired the previous December. At 6-foot-3, 268 pounds O’Brien fit the mold.
“If you look back, Sonny (Lubick) built his teams on walk-ons,” McElwain said. “They are an important part of any program.”
O’Brien was one of several walk-on players invited to join the team, which he attributes to putting above and beyond effort into everything he does on the field.
“I committed myself and that’s what got me on this team,” he said. “I was blessed with size, but it helps to show the coaches you really want to be here, this is the place you want to be and you want to play for this team.
But making the team was hardly the end. It was just the beginning. There’s a playbook to learn, getting to know teammates and everyday overcoming the fact that as a walk-on the future is never certain.
It’s a day-to-day process, but during fall camp O’Brien has earned the respect of his teammates.
“You got a lot of respect for these guys because you’re not getting free school to do it, you got to pay for everything,” center and team leader Weston Richburg said. “There’s definitely a lot of respect from me for Kevin for what he does especially playing offensive line because this is a tough position.
“I got all the respect in the world for that kid because I don’t know if I would do that if I was him.”
Earning respect from fellow players is one thing, but impressing the coaches is another.
O’Brien benefits from being familiar with the offense as he ran a similar style in high school, with the biggest differences coming from a terminology standpoint.
“There’s no difference in how the walk-on guys are treated from anyone else,” McElwain said. “Kevin comes out here every day and works his tail off applying his craft.”
While the end goal of every walk-on is to eventually earn a scholarship, O’Brien has a more immediate objective, one shared by his teammates and a testament to the solidarity of mind—help the team win in whatever way possible.
“Personally I’m just looking to better this team, whether that be I get on scholarship or I don’t, whatever I can do to make this team better,” O’Brien said. “I’m just trying to work my way up, get myself better as an offensive lineman and hopefully four years down the road I’m there at the top (of the depth chart).”
Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at email@example.com.