Who wants to be a football player?
There’s a longstanding mythology in big-time college football about the student walk-on. The kid who wasn’t a big-time recruit and still found his way onto the team. It’s the narrative of the 12th Man at Texas A&M and essentially the entire storyline of Rudy at Notre Dame. There’s little more intoxicating in the world of sport than the overlooked little engine that could.
Of course, that image is largely fantasy, as making the roster of any top-level Division I college football team is about as easy as getting on the crew for a NASA spaceship launch. Top athletes have been scouted since the time could walk, and the 85 scholarship athletes have risen to the top of a bottomless well of aspiring varsity wannabes. So it’s not realistic to imagine that some physics major could come to an open tryout and end up on the bench of a big-time college team.
Unless you’re at the University of Arizona. Now, to be clear calling Arizona a big-time football team at this point is kind of false advertising. They’re 0-6 this season and have now lost 18 straight, including a 70-7 trashing by Arizona State to end last season and the three-year coaching tenure of then head coach Kevin Sumlin. They lost to lower division Northern Arizona earlier this season, and the last time they won a game was October 5, 2019. Which means that whatever they’re doing right now isn’t really working.
So, if they can’t find wins on the current roster of scholarship athletes, they decided to try and discover talent hiding in plain sight. In other words, the University of Arizona football team, a proud member of the PAC-12 Conference that has produced nearly 200 NFL athletes, is now holding open tryouts to join the team. Put into perspective, this would be like trying to find someone to make the Covid vaccine by interview students in a high school science class.
That said, 59 students showed up, including those that seemingly knew relatively little about football and a whole bunch that seemed fairly confident in their overlooked skill sets, at least according to the account in the New York Times. They ran sprints and caught passes and filled out a bunch of paperwork. And none of them, not one was added to the roster. But the Arizona coaching staff can now confidently say that the athletes on their football roster are in fact the 85 or so best in the University, which likely comes as a surprise to anyone who’s watched them this year. Which means that the Wildcats are going to have stick with what they got. You can see how that works out this Friday night when they get dismantled by a largely mediocre University of Washington team.
There’s not that much to add here, at least not when it comes to the ineptitude of Arizona football. It does seem to defy the imagination that a massive, growing university in a warm environment and top conference with clear pathways to the pros can’t find a way to win a game in two years. That will be up to the next head coach to figure out – because the current one certainly won’t last to next fall. What is interesting is the line between pros and joes, between those who excel in sport at the highest level and those who think they can. Generally speaking, I’ve always considered elite athletes to be nearly a different species than mere mortals who recreate closer to earth. That’s especially true at the professional level – like the NFL or NBA, whose star athletes have natural and earned abilities that defy the imagination. I’ve always thought people’s naïve beliefs that they could have made it in sports is one of the most misguided constructs in the world.
Yet Arizona football tried to bridge that divide, if for just a brief moment. They tried to see if mere mortals could join the elite, as much as the Wildcats could be called that. And what they found was that even for a team that has more losses than a Trump lawyer, they’re still too good for this world. Or at least the 59 likely underconditioned folks who, for some reason, wanted to dedicate their time to this catastrophe. Perhaps that’s the bigger question – why would anyone in their right mind want to be a part of this, athletic or not?
Which means, for now, the mythology lives on. There will be no Rudy of the desert, no 12th man in the sun. No inspiring upset wins made for the big screen. Arizona State, you can relax again.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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