Walking (On) In Their Shoes

Author: Annie Dineen

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If the movie “Rudy” has taught students at this university anything, it’s that getting accepted to Notre Dame is no easy feat. For the members of the Walk-On Players Union, or WOPU Nation, within Notre Dame’s football team, the story of Rudy Ruettiger hits especially close to home. WOPU Nation includes preferred walk-ons (PWOs) and unrecruited walk-ons, each with a unique recruiting process. Upon discussing the purpose and the goals of WOPU Nation with a few of its members, it is clear that this union is made up of players who are eager to make the team the best it can be.

The recruitment process looks different for every player, and there is more than one way to become a member of WOPU Nation. Juniors Marty Auer and Andrew Yanoshak are considered PWOs. A PWO is not recruited as early as scholarship players and has most likely not toured the campus or facilities nor spoken to the coaches and staff to the same extent that a scholarship player would have.

According to the Next College Student Athlete (NCSA) College Recruiting company, coaches can only begin reaching out to high school players the June after their sophomore year, per NCAA guidelines. However, Yanoshak said that it was around December of his senior year of high school when the director of recruitment reached out to offer a spot as a PWO.

“I committed a few days later [after the call]. I didn’t visit campus until right before I showed up to start classes. It was very quick, but very special,” said Yanoshak. Auer shared that he also was not in contact with coaches before stepping on campus. He said, “I had no help with the admissions process. I eventually did make it on the team and got started when I arrived for school.”

Other members of WOPU Nation are known as unrecruited walk-ons, meaning they are not in contact with the director of recruitment before gaining admission to the university. Unrecruited walk-ons must try out and earn their spot on the team during the Spring.

Sophomore Jerry Rullo, who tried out in the spring of 2023, said “My walk-on process was that of a true walk-on.” Rullo explained that in addition to submitting an interest form including the link to his high school film, the try-out was a brief session including a dynamic warm-up and agility drills. When he received an email later that week offering him a spot, all Rullo had to do was adjust his academic and ROTC schedule to become an official member of Notre Dame football.

Reflecting on his first season with the team, Rullo said “I was surprised to see how our WOPU guys always seemed to be some of the hardest workers in the room. They always were taking care of business and giving 110%, seizing the opportunities when they arose. I think it's a testament to the WOPU mindset.”

While a few walk-on players earned starting positions this season, many members of WOPU Nation are a part of the scout team. The scout team is responsible for running the plays of the upcoming opponent in practice to give the starters an idea of what they are up against. Auer added that the behind-the-scenes job of the scout team is keeping the morale high and demonstrating a commitment to the sport. “The scout players are a vital part of the week's preparation and they take a lot of pride in their job to get the starters better each week,” said Yanoshak.

Some members of WOPU Nation earned a scholarship along the way, including Matt Salerno, Davis Sherwood and Michael Vinson. Jordan Faison is a first-year player on the Notre Dame Men’s Lacrosse team and Notre Dame football walk-on who earned a football scholarship after his tremendous plays in the game against Louisville this fall. Faison said, “Knowing the hard work that I had put in was paying off felt incredible. It motivated me to continue going no matter what.”

WOPU Nation hosts events for its members and the team as a whole throughout the year to foster a sense of community. Faison acknowledged their unique brotherhood: “At other schools, walk-ons are treated as outcasts and really aren’t considered to be a part of a team. This is not the case at Notre Dame. Everybody is family no matter what, and everybody is treated as a family.”

Even without a scholarship or guarantee of seeing the field, members of WOPU Nation have put in hundreds of hours to make Notre Dame football a stand-out program. Yanoshak said it best: “There isn’t a barrier between WOPU and scholly [scholarship players], but everyone welcomes each other with open arms. It doesn’t matter if you are someone who has never played in a game, or you are a projected first-round pick… Notre Dame football continually chooses to love.”