While the UNH football program distributes both full and partial scholarships to its student athletes, many earn non-scholarship spots on the roster via recruitment or tryouts.
These players are known as walk-ons. They’re driven to play for the love of the game.
When Andrew Drazin was entering his senior year at Hollis-Brookline High School, he knew he wanted to play college football and UNH was his top choice. The tight/end linebacker took the recruiting process into his own hands.
“I’d give them a call once a week just to say ‘Hi, hows it going,’ just to let them know that UNH was my No. 1 school,” Drazin said. “I knew I wasn’t a full-scholarship guy, but I told them that if anybody gets hurt, I’d be up there as soon as possible.”
Drazin’s persistence got him a call from Wildcats head coach Sean McDonnell, who invited him to camp as a freshman.
“That was a real intense experience. Going into it I didn’t realize how good some of the athletes were,” said Drazin. “Growing up I was always one of the better athletes, and I found I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was.”
The physicality of the college-level practice hit Drazin hard.
“I got knocked around a bunch, I was a small skinny 18-year-old guy getting knocked around by 22-year-olds,” he said. “It was pretty intimidating; that got me down a little bit, the level of competition.”
Up until the eighth game of his junior season, Drazin hadn’t seen the field. But that changed during the 2010 Colonial Clash against UMass at Gillette Stadium.
“I was really nervous,” Drazin said, “I remember putting my hand down on the ground and my whole upper body was shaking.”
Drazin’s first game experience came on the Minutemen’s last offensive drive when UNH had the game in hand.
“That was quite an experience that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” Drazin said.
Drazin played played in a total of two games his junior year, recording one tackle. But a torn labrum ended his senior season before it started.
“It kind of stunk,” said Drazin, “I feel that I would have maybe been able to go in and play and get in the rotation. I think I was getting to that point where I was big and strong enough to be able to do that.”
The Hollis, N.H., native was a redshirt junior at the time, which meant he had one year of football eligibility remaining. Yet as a non-scholarship player set to graduate in May of 2012, that would have also meant another semester of college tuition.
“I had a good run,” Drazin said. “It was time to stop.”
While Drazin’s football career at UNH was drawing to a close, Jim Earley‘s was just beginning.
In 2010, Earley was freshman at UNH and one of roughly 15 players trying out for the football team.
“I didn’t make it,” Earley said, “I decided, hey you know what? I just need to put more work in it.”
Earley put the extra work in, and after a second tryout that spring, the coaching staff told him “see you next summer.” The former Division V lineman at Bishop Brady had made the cut.
“I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say,” said Earley, “I was like, ‘O.K.’”
Once summer arrived, Earley was back in Durham practicing with the Wildcats and the same reality Drazin experienced had begun to set in.
“I felt overwhelmed and that I had to prove something,” Earley said. “Everybody was bigger and stronger, and they all came from very successful backgrounds.”
Earley had to get stronger in order to compete. He did.
“I think I graduated high school [at] about, I want to say 150 [pounds] and since then I think I’ve put on 30 pounds,” said Earley, who eats six meals per day in between classes and his four-hour football practice.
For Earley, however, it’s not just about bulking up. As a walk-on, his effort in practice is critical to whether or not he travels to away games with the team.
“If I don’t have a great week of practice, there’s a good chance I’m not going to be able to travel,” Earley said. “If I do extraordinary and show the coaches that I’m ready to go, then they’ll give me a chance to travel.”
While Drazin and Earley landed spots on the UNH football team as unrecruited walk-ons, the journey of recruited walk-on Seth Sheridan is no less of an underdog story.
During the seventh game of his senior year at Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham, Mass., Sheridan avoided a tackler and his right knee locked up.
Sheridan tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus. His hopes of playing college football were in serious jeopardy.
“Most schools stopped looking my way,” said Sheridan. “I became a risk and it came down to who would take the risk.”
Following surgery, the then-running back spent over half a year trying to regain his ability to cut laterally. By the time he got healthy, Sheridan decided to take a post-graduate year at Bridgton Academy in North Bridgton, Maine, where he played wide receiver.
But during a summer camp scrimmage with the Wolverines, Sheridan blew out his other knee.
Months later, he was back at the gym doing squats to build up strength in his quads when he felt a pop.
Sheridan had re-torn the meniscus in his right knee.
“It was at this point I had a lot of people tell me I should look at different things other than football in life and that it just wasn’t meant to be,” Sheridan said. “But I still wasn’t ready to give up.”
After having three surgeries in two years, Sheridan was back on the field the next fall and his play warranted attention from UNH.
He accepted the non-scholarship offer to play football for the Wildcats.
“It means the world to me,” said Sheridan, who is redshirting his freshman year. “I work hard to help the team out in any way I can. I do hope to become a top player in the near future but if it doesn’t happen I’ll continue to work hard and do whatever I can for the team.”
Waiting for Their Moment
Their stories differ, but Andrew Drazin, Jim Earley and Seth Sheridan all share an unconditional passion for the game of football.
“A lot of guys who are walk-ons put in just as much work as the guys who are full-scholarship,” said Drazin. “They’re just preparing for their time to get on the field as well.”