Walk-ons were generally very competetive guys, pretty decent in high school, maybe were recruited by Div II or III schools. They had the same perspective as navy recruits who wonder if they can be SEALS, or the guy from community college who wants to go to Harvard Law. The appeal of being a walk-on lies in the challenge. It 's the same thing the Marine Corps appeals to with its "the Few, the Proud" campaign. So after a high school career that usually includes some success, but in the setting of being relatively small or slow or not quick, they'll send a letter to the head coach expressing interest in walking on.
A couple of months later they'll get a letter in return, usually from an assistant with boilerplate about how the walk-ons are a valued part of the team, and many have made contributions, etc., and relaying where and when tryouts will be held. In 1979, Dan devine also ran an ad in the Observer asking people to try-out; "you'll be treated like any other member of the team," he assured.
The tryouts consisted of a forty yard dash time, a shuttle run and a strength test. The forty yard dash time and body habitus usually determined if you were kept around or not. If your forty time was acceptable, a coach would ask you if you had ever played this position or that, and if you said "no" he'd say, well that's what you have to be.
A few days after tryouts, a list would be posted outside the door to the football office, at the time just inside the entrance to the ACC. If you found your name on the list, (usually with about eight other guys) you thought you had made it all. When you'd hear the band practicing the Victory March, you thought they were playing it for you. You felt a new bond to guys like Theismann, and Duranko, like you were now part of some secret and exclusive club that conferred special meaning to those childhood memories of Linsay Nelson replays. You couldn't wait to tell your die-hard fan dad, and old high school coach. You were never more sure in your life that Notre Dame was the place for you.
Then you showed up for your first day as a member of the team. You had to get a cursory physical at St. Joseph Hospital, and even though the University paid for the exam, you had to find your own transportation. The next day, you showed up for actual practice. You told a manager that you were a walk-on, sincerely expecting him to care. He dismissively sent you to the equipment manager, who made it clear that you were putting him out, and why couldn't you wear your high school cleats? Then you parked your stuff in a locker and were told to get taped, probably a new experience if your high school was some podunk outfit in the middle of nowhere. The trainers were surly, seething with exasperation if you didn't hold your foot just so, or sit back the proper distance on the table. You had your ankles taped, and for about ten minutes they hurt like hell.
Then you suited up, headed out to the field, where the manager sitting at the gate asked you who you were, and stared back without obvious evidence of cognitive functioning for a few seconds when you told him. Once on the field, you tracked down the assistant coach who you first met at tryouts. He then sent you the one scout team or another, where you introduced yourself to the coach in charge of the unit, who generally didn't have time to acknowledge your arrival.
For the first few practices, you learned the ropes from other walk-ons and some of the friendlier scholarship players on the scout team. They explained the hole numbering system, what stances were used, and the base plays that ND ran, that would be modified as much as possible to simulate the upcoming opponent's plays. It was usually left to the scout team players themselves to determine the rotation, so your participation on the scout team usually didn't depend on whether or not the coaches noticed you.
After a couple of weeks, you noticed that a lot of the walk-ons determined that it wasn't worth the effort, and you'd bump into them in class or on campus where they'd explain that they had to focus on their pre-med studies, or that being on the team wasn't what they thought it was. You'd also notice a certain population of scholarship players, on whom it had dawned that they would never play meaningful minutes. Some got shuffled around in postion changes, some developed very low injury thresholds, and others found themselves on the "Sorin Scholarship," which usually meant their playing days were over and they spent their time as student coaches. Some of the scholarship prima donnas would take a passive-aggressive approach to the scout team, and would only participate in a particular play if specifically told by the coaches. They knew that they would be given repeated opportunities to impress the head coach working with the first and second team against the scouts, and so saw no urgency to impress scout team coaches against the starters from the opposite unit, behind a line of shaky abilities.
The walk-ons that stayed beyond the first couple of weeks did so because they thought they measured up. They believed that they were making a contribution to the team's success, even if they never made it onto the field or, what was even more of an accomplishment, traveled. First however there were various challenges to be met. It was a minor victory when someone other than a grad assistant coach knew your name. It was an intrinsic victory when the starters had to repeat a play because a walk-on made a spectacular catch, or broke a long run, or intercepted a pass. These feats were almost never acknowledged by the coaches working with the first and second teams, but jogging back to repeat the plays everyone knew: No, you might never make it on the field on Saturdays, but these guys have to respect you.
Walk-ons usually set the tone for the more spirited practices around mid-season because they weren't biding their time waiting for the "look" that a Division I scholarship implied. They also had to take their satifaction from the small victories in practice. One week during Faust's first year walk-ons knocked two members of the two deep unconscious with fair hits. This often gave rise to another fact of life for walk-ons: cheap shots. A walk-on who made a starter look foolish knew that for the remainder of that practice and beyond, he needed to be wary of spearing, being thrown to the ground after the whistle or be blindsided away from the play. Frustrated starters and backups would often vent with illegal contact, like facemasking, punching or late hits out of bounds. Sometimes these would result in injuries to those on the receiving end, but almost never drew rebukes from the coaching staff. The consolation came when you were back among the scout team members and coaches, who would ridicule the petulant offender, and acknowledge that you had certainly come off better while play was fair.
On occasion, walk-ons would get to suit up for games. Running out the tunnel was an experience not to be forgotten, and despite the abuse and Sisyphus-like exertions of the practice field, you felt justified in thinking that some of those cheers from 59,000 people were for you. When the game started you usually coudn't see anything because players were stacked three deep on the sidelines. If you stood on the bench to get a better view, ancient and desiccated fans in the first row would throw ice at you and tell you to sit down.
As the season wore on, walk-ons with demonstrated talents would have their value implicitly recognized by being asked to perform certain tasks on the scout team. The highest honor that Notre Dame football could give a scout team player, scholarship or walk-on, was the jersey number of the up-coming opponent's best rusher, receiver or pass-rusher. Players who could simulate the quarterback in an option offense were particularly valued.
At the time, Notre Dame played a JV schedule. From 1979 to 1982 we played Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Cincinatti and something called the Tennessee Military Institute. These games usually featured mixtures of upper-class walk-ons and younger scholarship players, but you usually couldn't tell which was which by the performance on the field. Walk-ons scored several touchdowns, picked off passes and made Division I level blocks and tackles. Some walk-ons would advance from these games and make it onto the field on Saturdays. Tom Monaghan, Bob Burger and Jim O'Hara come to mind.
Walk-ons stuck with it for all four years for a number of reasons, most prominently because they felt they had earned the right to do so, and they felt that they were contributing to the team. Usually by their junior or senior year, the more capable walk-ons, even if still limited to the scout team, had earned respect from coaches and the two-deep. Many stayed, even though there was no prospect of any meaningful playing time, because going through the challenges and tribulations built strong friendships. A lot of the walk-ons, and football players in general, were really good guys, the kind that make lifelong friendships a treasure. Their time on the Notre Dame fotball team was a huge part of their college experience, and entailed a form of comradeship that really couldn't be replicated by the shared experience of say, chem lab.
At the end of four years, walk-ons got a monogram. They got to go out on the field on Senior day, and the got to leave campus knowing that they did something that a lot of people think they could do, but that they actually did. They got the satisfaction of knowing that they measured themselves against the best, that they earned every bit of pride for feeling that they gave thier best honorably and did not settle for something less.