Nov. 3, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
In a time when high school football prospects are ranked nationally, in order, as if by some mystical scientific formula, from 1 to 5,000, it's always refreshing when a Kyler Elsworth comes along and proves the so-called recruiting gurus wrong.
Elsworth joined the Michigan State football team because he wanted to study zoology at MSU more than any other school, wanted to play football more than wrestle, and was promised a shot at making the 105-man roster by head coach Mark Dantonio.
Nothing more, nothing less.
With Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner sidelined with injuries, Elsworth saw considerable playing time last Saturday at Nebraska, and he responded by recording a career-best 10 tackles and forcing a fumble.
Two weeks ago, Elsworth turned in one of the biggest plays of the season when he blocked a Wisconsin punt that Bennie Fowler recovered in the end zone for the touchdown that gave the Spartans a 23-14 lead just before halftime.
Elsworth then made the tackle on the ensuing kickoff.
Earlier in the second quarter, Elsworth made the initial hit on a third-and-2 that led to a blocked field goal which the Spartans converted into the touchdown that gave them a 16-14 lead.
"If everything ended right now, I'd be a happy man," said Elsworth, who was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for his contributions in MSU's 37-31 victory against the fourth-ranked Badgers.
Of course, the end is nowhere in sight for the sophomore linebacker from Goodrich. It's just that when you join a team, especially one in a power conference, as a preferred walk-on, your dreams may be big but your expectations are realistic.
"When you come to a program like this, you just hope you can get on the field and be part of the team, really," Elsworth said.
Walk-ons are integral to the success of any program. For the most part, it's a thankless job. Most never rise above the status of human-blocking dummy as part of the scout team, which prepares the regulars for the next opponent. Their primary reward is getting to wear the uniform during home games and possibly get into the game for mop-up duty.
They don't even get to eat at training table.
Elsworth, a fine athlete in his own right, has already exceeded his own expectations and is reaching for more, a lot more.
A two-time Division 3 state high school champion in the 189-pound class and holder of a 134-1 record over his final two seasons at Goodrich High, Elsworth had wrestling scholarship offers from North Carolina, Indiana and MSU. He also could have played football on scholarship for Division II schools.
"The decision was, do I follow my heart and do my first love, which is football, or do I take the scholarship in wrestling?" said Elsworth, whose father got his undergraduate degree from MSU before going to med school. "My family stood behind me and basically said, `Do what makes you happy, and we know that's football. We know you can earn it.'
"When Coach Dantonio presented me with the opportunity, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime situation and I knew I couldn't pass that up."
Elsworth's belief in himself and his trust in Dantonio paid off after the final practice before the Friday-night season opener against Youngstown State. Dantonio gathered the team at the 50-yard line in Spartan Stadium and announced that Elsworth and fellow walk-on Brad Sonntag, the No. 1 holder on placekicks and a fifth-year senior back-up receiver, would be awarded scholarships.
"I found out that Thursday," Elsworth said. "Going into the first game, you're already excited, and then finding out all your hard work throughout the summer, and all the years before, paid off with what you've been working for made it even more exciting.
"The cool thing was, I had all my teammates coming up to me and shaking my hand and giving me a hug. No one else really sees it, but when the guys on the team, who are basically your family, say you earned it and you deserve it and are has happy as you are about it, it's special."
It's fitting that Elsworth, Sonntag and fellow former walk-ons Todd Anderson (starting fullback) and Johnathan Strayhorn (second-team defensive tackle), along with current walk-on Matt Giampapa (long snapper), continue to playing meaningful roles down the stretch, as the Spartans continue to reap benefits from their walk-on program.
Elsworth is listed as the No. 3 strong-side linebacker, is a situational starter on the short-yardage "Spartan Defense" and plays on the kickoff and punt coverage teams as well as punt return.
"He's a gamer..., a very committed young man," Dantonio said of Elsworth. "He had two huge plays in the Wisconsin game. He's one of our top players on special teams in all phases and he plays about 25-30 plays a game. He's going to make a number of plays here for a lot of years.
"(Walk-ons) are very important to our program. We've probably put eight to 10 on scholarship since we've been here. (Former defensive back) Travis Key was a walk-on and ended up being a captain. The thing people need to realize is you can have 85 guys on scholarship, so those 20 (walk-ons) you bring in are very, very good football players. They could play at the Division-I level at a lot of places throughout this country. They're guys who have made a difference for this program."
Recent walk-on success stories at MSU include wide receiver Blair White, who's a member of the Indianapolis Colts and former starting offensive tackle D.J. Young, who's currently on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad.
Today's walk-ons aren't just cannon fodder for the first-team offenses and defenses anymore. The Spartans' scout team might even be able to win a game or two in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"I know for a fact that (freshman offensive linemen) Connor Kruse and Kyle Lints had offers from Division-I (in-state) schools and they turned those down, I would say, just for the program here," Elsworth said. "A big thing for me to come here was meeting with Coach Dantonio and him being honest and saying you're going to have to work hard, and it's not going to be easy, but if you're the guy who's best at it, you'll be the guy who does it.
"Our scout team has multiple guys who could play not only D-II but D-I somewhere else, but turned down offers to play here."