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Football: The path less walked on

Nearly every player who joins the Stanford football team follows the same route: they hit the Farm in June as incoming freshmen, go through summer training camp and suit up in time for the season’s opening game. But every now and then, a couple of athletes choose a different path–one that leads them to the program in the midst of both the academic year and their Stanford careers.

Their backgrounds can be wildly divergent, but generally, these players, who begin with the Cardinal on a tryout basis, share similarities–they’ve been actively involved in athletics in college and have a burning desire to, with no assurance of playing time or even a spot on the team, strap on a helmet and hit the gridiron one last time.

“Later in life you can play almost anything at a master’s level,” said Dan Priestley ’09. “But not football.”

Priestley joined the Cardinal in March of 2009, in between the first and second sessions of spring practice. A swimmer for four seasons–he won All-American honors as a junior–Priestley switched programs after the Pac-10 Championships of his senior year. Due to an NCAA rule that allows for an extra year of eligibility to athletes who change sports, he was able to do something he hadn’t done since middle school–play football.

He had no illusions of grandeur, and knew that the chances of getting into a game were small–indeed, after earning a roster spot, he never stepped on the field during the 2009 season. But as a scout team defensive end–Priestley stands at 6-foot-5 and put on 25 pounds of muscle after joining the program–he was able to assist the squad in its weekly preparations. He was, in his own words, essentially a freshman, but with vast varsity athletics experience and almost no wear or tear on his joints due to the non-impact elements of swimming. Priestley was thus able to play the hundreds of snaps per practice that the scout team requires.

“I was there for a year to work hard, have fun and contribute anyway I could,” he said.

“We don’t know if they can play in a game on Saturday, but we want to see if they can contribute in practice,” said director of player development Ron Lynn about spring walk-ons.

Priestley was an exception because of his swimming background, but generally, Lynn said that, in addition to in-person meetings and “a little bit of an eyeball test,” coaches like to analyze between 30-50 plays of high school film to see if a player is fit to try out.

That was the case with sophomore Cason Kynes, who walked on to the team this spring. A high school football player, Kynes joined the Stanford rugby team during his freshman season, but after helping coach quarterbacks at his alma mater during the following summer, Kynes felt an itch to get back to the gridiron.

“I was watching these guys on Friday nights and I thought, ‘Man, I really miss this, this is something I really enjoy,’” he said.

It made sense: Kynes comes from a football family–one devoted to the University of Florida. His grandfather and father both played for the Gators. His three older brothers all played high school football and one, Matt, was a walk-on quarterback at Florida in the mid-2000s and helped teach Tim Tebow the Gators’ playbook. His family owns season tickets and growing up, Cason would travel from northern Virginia to Gainseville for a number of games every year.

Playing for Florida was his dream, but whereas Matt is 6-foot-2, Cason is, by his own admission, “5-foot-10 with shoes” and “not the biggest, fastest or strongest guy.” He was a quarterback and safety in high school, but was only lightly recruited. He took one official visit–to Division III Wheaton College. When he took off his pads after the playoffs in his senior year, he thought he was removing them for the final time.

But as his sophomore year approached and he finished coaching at his high school, he made the decision to try and walk-on. He spoke with Lynn throughout the fall and submitted his game film. Then in February, less than a week before the first spring session was set to begin, he received word: pass a physical and get ready, because practice starts on Monday.

“I put my head down and got to work,” said Kynes, who was placed at strong safety and did enough to earn a spot on the team.

Kynes may have been one of the few players without a nameplate, but he hardly felt like an outsider; Priestley echoed that sentiment. Both players noted that once they hit the field, they were dealt with just like any other player.

“Guys were introducing themselves to me and were interested in getting to know me,” Kynes said. “From the coaches side, I was so impressed. From day one they treated me just like any other player, even though I hadn’t proved anything of myself. I was just a new guy stepping in and yet they coached me just like they would coach anyone else.”

While the on field handling of the spring walk-ons was similar to any other player, the evaluations were a bit different.

“They aren’t treated any differently, but each guy is evaluated, and if he looks way out of place, we’ll talk to him. Don’t want him wasting his time and don’t want him to get injured or injure someone else because of lack of body control,” Lynn said.

Indeed, not every player who tries out in the spring makes the cut. Junior Stanley Fich, formerly of the baseball team, contended for a roster spot at outside linebacker this year–he and Kynes shared a locker–but his bid ended after he suffered a knee injury.

But for those who do make it, the chance to help the team and ingratiate themselves within the program is the overriding objective, even if the chances of actual playing time are slim.

“My goal from day one was to find a way to contribute so that when Stanford played on Saturday, I would know that Stanford had a better chance of winning because I was on the team,” Kynes said. “It might not be on the field, but that won’t stop me from competing in practice.

“It’s a good group of guys that play great football. That’s what I want to be a part of.”