Who Will Be the Next John Engelberger?
by Bryan Johnston and Mike Montoro
The San Francisco 49ers' second-round NFL draft selection this year of Virginia Tech defensive end John Engelberger completed another chapter in the success story of Tech's football walk-on program. Engelberger, a 1995 walk-on, followed in the footsteps of tight end John Burke, who graduated from Tech's walk-on program as a fourth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 1994.
Walk-on players are an important part of Virginia Tech football. With scholarship reductions, not all high school football players can earn scholarships to compete in college. But that doesn't mean there isn't an opportunity for those individuals, especially at Virginia Tech, where walk-on athletes have a history of contribution.
"The important thing for a walk-on is to know he's going to be given a chance," said Tech head coach Frank Beamer. "We're one of the top two or three programs in the country in awarding scholarships to walk-ons. So for a guy who's interested in walking on, there's not a better place than right here at Virginia Tech. We give people a chance, and we treat them the same as everybody else."
Five former Tech walk-ons started or saw playing time in the 1996 Orange Bowl against Nebraska: Engelberger, end Danny Wheel, tackle Kerwin Hairston, linebacker Steve Tate, and split end Michael Stuewe. All five earned scholarships and paid big dividends for Tech in the 1996 season.
"Our walk-on program is so successful for two reasons," said John Ballein, who directs the program. "First, our coaches work at it. When they're out on the road, they're looking for players who can fit into our program. Second, we have a head coach in Coach Beamer who is loyal to each player in this program."
Among this year's players, four former walk-ons have already earned scholarships, and that number could increase. Jarrett Ferguson, who started the final eight games two years ago, finished fourth in team rushing yards last season, and Browning Wynn became a key receiver during the second half of the season. This past spring, both earned the program's Elite Level of Performance distinction, based on tests in both strength and performance. Walk-ons Tee Butler and Benny Wolfe have also made valuable contributions to the program and are now scholarship players.
Other walk-ons headed in the same direction include Steve DeMasi, Billy Hardee, and Carter Warley, all competing for starting positions, and Doug Easlick and Ronald Moody, who should see plenty of action.
The success of Tech's walk-on program continues to grow along with the success of the football program. This year the Hokies welcomed another class of walk-ons, each one anxious to prove he can be the next John Engelberger.