FAU walk-ons excel at starting roles

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

BOCA RATON When Florida Atlantic linebacker Cergile Sincere was a senior at Glades Central High School, he could only watch as many of his teammates signed their scholarship offers to play college football.

Sincere's day finally came when he earned a scholarship, but it didn't happen surrounded by friends and family amidst popping flashbulbs. Instead, Sincere found out he would be a scholarship college football player for the Owls when he looked online at his FAU account balance after his freshman season and saw that his tuition already had been paid in full.

 
 

"I thought it was a mistake," Sincere said. "I went to talk to coach (Howard) Schnellenberger and he said 'Congratulations and welcome.' I couldn't believe it, but it was a great experience."

Like many players on the roster, Sincere thought his best option to play college football was to take up FAU on its offer to come play for the Owls as a walk-on and possibly earn a scholarship later.

It worked out for Sincere, now a senior, as it has for others at FAU who started their careers as walk-ons and wound up in the starting lineup.

The Owls have four starters in their starting lineup who began their careers as walk-ons - tied for the second most in the nation.

"It's been a big part of our development," Schnellenberger said. "It just shows you how many prospects fall through the cracks down here."

At FAU, Sincere, senior safety Kris Bartels, junior offensive lineman John Rizzo and junior defensive lineman Robert St. Clair, a Forest Hill High graduate, all were walk-ons but later earned scholarships by cracking the starting lineup.

"It takes a big commitment to come out and work and it's also a big commitment from your parents to put you through school," said Bartels, who didn't receive many college offers his senior year at Hollywood-Chaminade.

Among Division I-A teams, only Florida International with five has more former walk-ons who are now starters than FAU.

"It's a perfect situation to have the best walk-on program in the country," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "Being here with the talent in South Florida we're going to grow not only with the guys we put on scholarship, but also with guys who want to pay their own way and come here and contribute."

That the two newest Division I-A teams lead the nation in number of starters who are former walk-ons isn't surprising.

Five years ago, both schools were Division I-AA schools with aspirations of moving up to Division I-A. At the Division I-AA level, schools are allowed to offer the equivalent of 63 scholarships compared to 85 scholarships allowed by I-A.

With fewer scholarships to give out, FAU could only offer the possibility of earning one in the future. Many players graduate without earning a scholarship and many more quit the team or leave school.

"For every one that makes it, there are probably 10 that don't," Schnellenberger said. "This is by far the most productive situation of walk-ons I've had."

At FAU, the general rule is if a walk-on is good enough to be starter, that player will be awarded a scholarship or the next possible scholarship if one isn't available at that time.

However, the ones who are rewarded appreciate the recognition - maybe even more than the financial reward.

"Earning a scholarship shows you belong here as a big part of team, not just a body standing on the sideline," Rizzo said.