The Most Charming Sports Video Genre: Athletes Getting Surprise Scholarships

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 24 2013 12:54 PM

The Most Charming Sports Video Genre: Athletes Getting Surprise Scholarships

Earlier this week, Deadspin published a post highlighting the heartwarming scene when a Northwestern basketball walk-on receives a full scholarship. In a video capturing the moment, Wildcats coach Chris Collins praises guard James Montgomery, then grants him a free ride for his senior season as his teammates rejoice. Montgomery then calls his mom and sister to share the happy news.

There are a lot of terrible things about college sports, particularly when it comes to the distribution of scholarships. Coaches, amazingly, have the power to yank an athlete’s grant-in-aid after a single season for whatever reason they like—if a better player comes along, then Johnny Badshot can lose his spot on the team and lose the money that lets him go to school for free. It’s an abhorrent system that gives coaches far too much power over their young charges, and it needs to be destroyed completely.

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But as we wait for the NCAA to get burned to the ground, we can still enjoy those rare occasions when college sports does seem to fulfill its purported mission. Even as players like Johnny Manziel get exploited, there are those like Montgomery who get boosted up by major-college athletics. You can find a bunch of videos on YouTube in which that boosting gets caught on tape—when walk-ons, the unrecruited cannon fodder of college sports, get bestowed the scholarships they’ve worked so hard to earn. It’s the sports equivalent of Oprah Winfrey celebrating and rewarding unsung community leaders. The only difference is that Oprah’s local heroes get cars, fancy watches, and laptops. Also, fewer concussions.

Nevertheless, these videos will charm even the most-hardened NCAA cynic. In one classic of the micro-genre, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin shows a highlight reel of walk-on Marc Panu’s crushing blocks, then tells the stunned player—a three-time member of the SEC’s academic honor roll—that he’s got a full scholarship. His teammates go wild. Anchor down!

Auburn coach Gene Chizik treats the walk-on scholarship ceremony like it’s The Bachelor, calling up three players to get honored. Always good to see the chronically underappreciated long snapper get some respect.

These videos are so charming, in part, because they represent such a dramatic role reversal. This is the rare occasion when the star players stand up and cheer on the scrubs. “It was cool, just to know that the guys appreciate me being there,” says the Texas Longhorns’ Nate Boyer.

It happens at small schools, too. Here, Arkansas State walk-on Kelsey Collins gets the coveted scholarship paper. “My heart was pounding, and I was like, Is it really me? Is this real? I got a scholarship?” the glowing player says after he gets called up on stage. “I just thought I was dreaming.”

Yes, you could argue that this is all propaganda—that these surprise moments are contrived soundbites that put a shiny gloss on the exploitation of unpaid laborers. To that I say: That’s pretty much true. But at the same time, these videos reveal that good things can and do happen in the NCAA cesspool. These clips show the best qualities of team sports: the camaraderie, the meritocracy, and the joys of hard work rewarded.

To fill your heart with yet more joy, I’d suggest you top things off with this video of Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads telling his team how proud he is to be their football coach.

That one gets me every time.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.