SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — B.J. Finney and his mother, Christy, considered the cost of going to Kansas State, then looked at their own budget.
One year, Christy Finney told her son. One year was all she could afford to send her son to Kansas State to play college football. Instead of taking a wrestling scholarship, or going to a junior college to play football, he went to KSU.
B.J. Finney knew he had one year to prove himself to teammates and coaches that he was worth an investment as a Division I college football player.
“Coming in my freshman year, I did have a chip on my shoulder because everybody looked at me as a small-town Kansas kid,” said Finney, a junior center from Andale, Kan. “A lot of us, being small-town Kansas kids, get overlooked in recruiting from bigger schools. This was a chance for me to prove myself and show that I could play Division I football.”
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Finney is one of six walk-on players who have become starters on this year’s roster at Kansas State, which faces Michigan at 10:15 p.m. Saturday in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
While Kansas State doesn’t have the recruiting muscle that Michigan has — do you ever see Kansas State among the top-10 recruiting classes in the nation? — veteran head coach Bill Snyder has carved out a niche by recruiting players who may not have a recruiting service’s five-star seal of approval or who may not have the gaudiest statistics, and offering them the opportunity to walk on at Kansas State and earn a scholarship.
One of the brightest stars to have that humble college football beginning? Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, a high school quarterback and sprinter who became an All-American for the Wildcats.
“To me they're all young people that are part of our program in a very significant way,” Snyder said. “Jordy Nelson is just one of countless number of guys that have had longevity and success in the NFL that walked on in our program. One thing they possess in common is they have a value system that is in place that allows them to achieve at the highest capacity that they're capable of.”
Defensive end Ryan Mueller is arguably one of KSU’s top players this season. The former walk-on from Leawood, Kan., became a bit of a viral video sensation in October when several Web sites circulated footage of a play in which he chased Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, batted the football out of his hand and recovered the ball as he tumbled on the ground.
“My dad actually walked on and played football at Kansas and my senior year, I kept all my options open,” said Mueller, a junior who was second in the Big 12 with 11.5 sacks and led the conference with 18.5 tackles for a loss. “I wasn’t highly recruited but I knew I wanted to play at the collegiate level. Coach Snyder, and what he stands for and the coaching staff did a great job bringing me into the program, but it was up to me. How much work do you want to put in to be a good player for this program?”
Randall Evans, a junior cornerback from Miami, said he had some Division II scholarship offers but was recruited lightly during his senior year. He took a leap of faith in moving from South Florida to middle America.
“I got lucky that I got the opportunity to come up to Kansas,” Evans said. “I didn’t know a thing about Kansas. All I knew was that I was getting on a plane to come and try to be a walk-on, and I had to make it work from there.”
Evans earned a scholarship last fall, before registering 76 tackles and six pass break-ups in 2012. Mueller earned a scholarship last fall. Following his freshman year, Finney received a phone call from Kansas State’s coaches. He would become a scholarship player at the start of his sophomore year.
“It felt like a 10,000-pound weight had been lifted off my chest and shoulders, knowing the burden that had been placed on myself and my mother had been lifted,” Finney said. “Knowing that everything would be alright. I tell the younger players, this is a lot of hard work, but once you get to where you’re trying to achieve something, once you’re there, there’s no greater feeling.”