ANN ARBOR — As Dylan Esterline crosses through the Michigan football program’s weight room each day, he passes a sign posted on the wall, which asks a question.
“What’s your ‘why’?”
For the walk-on tight end and a former three-sport standout from Blissfield, it’s a question he ponders daily.
Not because he questions his desire to remain a part of the program. Instead, Esterline has looked at the question from a standpoint of setting and sticking to goals.
He set the goals of earning a degree from Michigan. Pursuing a career in nursing or physical therapy — and not in professional football. Finding rhythm in a way of life that, at time, has seemed monotonous or exhausting or uncertain. But not unfulfilling.
“A guy like me, I realize what my calling is,” said Esterline, who is listed as a redshirt junior but who will graduate with a degree in anthropology and prepare for graduate school. “A good degree is meaningful, and getting my degree is 100 percent the goal.”
Wisconsin is a Big Ten program that’s heralded for its tradition of walk-on players. Badgers coach Gary Andersen emphasizes the importance of having in-state players on the team and working upward in its ranks.
Yet for every walk-on who has risen to some sort of glory, either within a program or in professional football — Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, for instance, walked on at Wisconsin after a year at Central Michigan — each team fields a handful of players who pay their own tuition and who toil in relative obscurity.
Esterline never earned a scholarship. He never contributed regularly on Saturdays in the fall. For the most part, he works with the scout team and if Michigan happens to be on the winning end of a blowout game, Esterline might get to catch a pass.
“This is it,” Esterline said. “I’ve accepted my role.”
At one point in high school, Esterline convinced himself that he would join the team at Hillsdale College. After he took in UM’s 2009 game against Purdue, Esterline made a decision: he wanted to earn a degree from Michigan.
Ron Estes, Esterline’s football coach at Blissfield, remembers a conversation he had with his former player while he was making his college decision. Rich Rodriguez’s staff offered Esterline the chance to join the Wolverines as a walk-on.
“Dylan told me, ‘I have a chance to go to Michigan,’ ” Estes said. “What he said to me was, ‘If I don’t take this opportunity, I will never know what I could have done.’
“It was a challenge to him. He wanted to do it. He wanted to try to play football at the highest level. He was very realistic of his chances. He knew he wasn’t going to walk on and be a two-year starter. That was his mindset.”
During his first year with the Wolverines, Esterline commuted to and from Blissfield for summer training sessions. One day, he recalled, he was so exhausted he drove home in 95-degree heat without turning on the car’s air conditioning or rolling down the windows.
“The NFL has never been a huge goal,” Esterline said. “I know that I’m not on scholarship here, unlike so many of the guys are. But you learn to balance it. You sacrifice your social life sometimes.”
Still, it has some incentives.
The first time Esterline ran through the tunnel of Michigan Stadium, it was overwhelming. A few years later, that feeling hasn’t really subsided, even on the day of the season opener against Central Michigan.
“There was no way I could pass on this,” Esterline said. “I never really thought I’d be able to play here.”
Esterline’s perspective doesn’t surprise Larry Tuttle, his former baseball coach at Blissfield. Tuttle said Esterline is his school’s first Division I football product since the early 1980s.
“Football, for him, was not about being a star,” Tuttle said. “His situation was that he just wanted to be a part of something, he wanted to contribute, and that doesn’t surprise me at all that those are his feelings.
“Not getting a scholarship wasn’t key for him to go there. He knew, going in, that his back would be to the wall, that he would have to go above and beyond what a scholarship athlete has to do. He chose to do that after turning down scholarships to smaller schools.”
In September, Michigan won two nail-biter contests, including one at Connecticut. Many of the walk-ons do not travel with the team, and Esterline looked at a weekend off as a chance to clear his head, to reset in preparation for the Big Ten schedule.
The Wolverines trailed by 14 points in the second half at Connecticut, and Esterline attended a wedding in Hillsdale. He took a few moments during the reception to check the score on his cell phone, and admitted something weeks later.
“I wondered what I could have done to help my team,” Esterline said. “Sometimes things aren’t always going to go your way. Like this season’s not going exactly how we wanted, but it’s not lost, by any means. As far as facing adversity and persevering, and staying positive and trying to make the most of every day, I’ve developed that much more so here.”
The numbers won’t say a lot about Esterline, or many of the other walk-ons at Michigan. In two games, he has one catch for seven yards.
Esterline doesn’t see his time in Ann Arbor as a short line of numbers.
“There’s a lot, a ton to take away from my time here, as far as the character it’s instilled and the work ethic,” Esterline said. “Just a lot of positive traits the coaches preach every day. I know there’s days when some of us seem as if we take it for granted, but it sets in. And in the end, it defines your character.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.