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CAA Walk-ons, the Soul of Sports!

By Ed Sheahin, Editor  Published: 31st October 2011



“A man can be as great as he wants to be. If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done.”

– Vince Lombardi


Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion whether college athletes should receive payment for their time and commitment as well as, the revenue they provide for their respective schools.

That’s an entirely different direction this article is headed, and is best left for another day.

With that said, the heart of the CAA are the student athletes who are committed beyond the sports team they represent.  Athletics to them represents a building block.  A block that becomes part of a foundation which helps form the structure of their lives, now and forever.

If the student athlete is the heart, the walk-on student athletes are the soul.  They represent the true spirit and values of college athletics.  Without them, conferences like the CAA (with limited scholarships) would not exist.

They are student athletes just like those who receive scholarships.  They are a unique fraternity of athletes who typically come out of high school with a label; undersized, too slow, late bloomers, or having limited athletic potential.  Sometimes they just happen to be over-looked in the recruiting wars.

Whatever the case may be their desire to compete at a high level in sports while receiving a valuable education, brings them to a conference like the CAA.

Think about it, it takes a special person who in their teen years believes enough in their own abilities – after they were bypassed by hundreds of D1/D2 programs – to try-out as a walk-on with a CAA athletic team.  This is a conference that has dominated FCS football for the last decade and has had two basketball teams reach the NCAA Final Four in recent years, not to mention the success women’s athletics has had in a variety of sports.

The point being, they’ll pay the tuition to attend the college or university of their choice for the opportunity to represent the school’s athletic program.  For those who beat the odds and make the team, they are now paying for a commitment that will test the rigors of every fiber within them.

A strenuous academic work load combined with the highest level of amateur athletic competition, all with the likelihood of minimal playing time, only makes the strong stronger.

While a walk-on player for four seasons at Northeastern, Brian McDonald inspired teammates with his work ethic.

Brian McDonald, a Graduate Manager and a former four year walk-on men’s basketball player for Bill Coen at Northeastern, and junior Matt Grogan who plays basketball for Mo Cassara at Hofstra, are two examples of walk-on success in the CAA.

McDonald arrived on the Northeastern campus the same year Coen was hired as the men’s basketball coach, arriving from Boston College where he was an assistant.  Leaving Connecticut to attend the Boston school in pursuit of a valuable education, McDonald still had a passion for basketball despite receiving very little interest from college programs after his high school career.

To fill an open roster spot, Coen held a tryout open to all male students on the Northeastern campus in the fall of 2006.

“It was always a dream of mine to play college basketball,” McDonald explained, adding, “I knew I was a long shot to make the team, but I hustled and gave it my best effort.”

He must of done something right to impress the new coach.  Coen kept him and never looked back.

“Brian gave me everything.  He hustled, listened, led by example, setting a standard for work effort at practice.  He raised the level of competition.”

Four years later, McDonald was part of a Huskies team that would reach the NIT post season tournament.

“You definitely have to make sacrifices (as a walk-on).  I have no regrets.  Coach (Coen) gave me the best four years of my life.”

Upon graduating with a degree in venture management and finance, McDonald put his education to work when he co-founded an internet company called Virtual Investments, LLC.

But his passion keeps calling.  Still a member of the Northeastern basketball team as a Graduate Manager – a non-paying position with no education benefits – he handles the team’s game film, statistics, travel planning, and more as he works toward his masters.

“I love the game.  I always want to be a part of it.”

Whether he ends up becoming a coach or a Director of Basketball Operations, he will follow the path where opportunity presents itself.

For Matt Grogan (Pictured on the link page), he enters his junior season at Hofstra in his second year under Coach Cassara.  Cassara, who also was an assistant at Boston College, inherited Grogan as a walk-on player.

“Matt’s the ultimate team guy.  He doesn’t play much, but it doesn’t keep him from working hard,” Cassara said.

The management major with plans to become a financial analyst or stockbroker upon graduation had an opportunity to attend the Naval Academy or receive partial scholarships from smaller schools.  But Grogan thought beyond his basketball days and the funds needed to attend the Hempstead, NY school.

He invested in himself.

Staying close to home, he opted to play basketball and attend Hofstra as a walk-on because of the reputation of their business school.

“It meant more to me to attend Hofstra and play basketball as a walk-on then attend another school on scholarship,” Grogan proudly boasts in his Queens accent.”

Grogan gets it!  He understands the opportunities Hofstra will provide for him in the business capital of the world.

“I have met so many influential people by attending Hofstra and playing basketball.  People I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Winning people over is something Grogan has done since his arrival at Hofstra.  His boisterous bellows throughout practice allows him to push teammates in a half taunt, half motivational-gesture.  So much so, Coach Cassara is now facing a dilemma.

““They (players) are always coming up to me saying, “Coach you have to give Matt a scholarship.  He works so hard.”  I have to laugh them off a bit, but he has certainly paid his dues.  He was given a commitment by the previous coach that he would receive some sort of financial help.  We will have to see.””

Grogan pushes forward, continuing to attend school on his dime.  “I understand it’s a business.  If I get a scholarship the last year and half great, but my future here doesn’t ride on it.”

The long-range shooting specialist will see more time this season.  The days of one minute mop-up duty in blowouts are likely behind him.  He has a role on this team, he’ll contribute in games as much he does in practice.

McDonald and Grogan have a great deal in common having been walk-on student athletes in the CAA.  Their commitment to a sport, to their education, and their ability to persevere when faced with obstacles.  There’s no “Blind Side” story here.  There are no hardships involved.  Just two hard-working young men who try to lead by example, that centers around basketball, all while preparing for the future.

Although this article focused on McDonald and Grogan, there are hundreds of others like them in the CAA participating in nearly every sport, providing leadership, commitment, and a work ethic that allows the conference to thrive.

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