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Pitt walk-on chasing doctorate, dream

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Saturday, Dec. 20, 2008

For his first four years at Pitt, the thought of playing football was a foreign concept — as in Greek — to Scott Shrake.

He was relegated to playing intramurals for his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta.

Yet Shrake never could shake his desire to play for the Panthers, even as he was consumed with completing courses toward his bachelor's degree in civil and environmental engineering.

So, with one season of eligibility remaining under NCAA rules, Shrake set out to become a rarity in the major-college football world: a walk-on pursuing his doctorate and his dream.

"I knew I could do it, but I didn't see any reason why they'd take a fifth-year senior," said Shrake, 23, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound scout-team safety taking 10 credits toward his master's degree this fall. "I realized there aren't many Ph.D. students playing Division I football. It's a dream come true."

Shrake has dressed for home games but hasn't played a down this season. His reward is that he will travel for the first time with the team to El Paso, Texas, where No. 18 Pitt (9-3) will play No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) on Dec. 31 in the 75th Brut Sun Bowl.

"As a (scout-team) player, he helped us win this year," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "That should be very motivational for the rest of our players, to see somebody like that."

The valedictorian of his class at Ingleside (Ill.) Grant Community High — he graduated with a 4.78 grade-point average — Shrake was a three-sport athlete who burned out on football and eschewed small-college interest.

He soon realized how much he missed the game, but the demands of completing his course work in the four years of tuition covered by being a finalist for the Chancellor Scholarship prevented him from playing. In one three-semester sequence, for example, he took 23, 19 and 22 credits.

After being accepted to Pitt's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation Program on a Pittsburgh IGERT Sustainable Engineering Fellowship — focusing on designing communities to become green and the conservation of energy and water — Shrake decided to give football a go. His persistence paid off when he was the only candidate to survive a tryout in January.

"People told me, 'You're going to be a tackling dummy. You're just going to get hit.' If I wouldn't have done it, I would have regretted it," Shrake said. "At least I bring up the team GPA."

Shrake said he survived grueling conditioning workouts thanks to the encouragement of two fellow fifth-year seniors — All-America middle linebacker Scott McKillop and outside linebacker Austin Ransom, a former walk-on who has known Shrake since they were freshmen.

Ransom, for one, would love to see Shrake get his "Rudy" moment.

"He's fulfilling his dream," Ransom said. "It impresses me, knowing the workload he has to do in grad school, that he still has a passion for the game.

"I hope in this last game, the coaches give him an opportunity to get on the field on special teams or something, just so he can always have that memory."

For now, Shrake spends his mornings and evenings at Benedum Hall, which houses the Swanson School of Engineering, where he's taking three classes and researching a bio-fuel study as part of a PennDOT grant for methods of clean energy. On track to have his master's degree by this time next year and his doctorate within three years, he has alternative career plans.

"I won't need a Ph.D. for what I want to do," Shrake said. "My dream job is to be a high school teacher and football coach. I'm getting my Ph.D. because it will allow me to do whatever I want."

Despite the long hours and lack of sleep, Shrake has found comfort in the camaraderie of playing football for the Panthers. He takes his highlights wherever he can, whether it was by stopping a receiver reverse in spring drills or laughing at being mistakenly identified by ESPN on T.J. Porter's punt return against Connecticut (Shrake wears a duplicate No. 9).

"I wouldn't trade (the experience) for the world," Shrake said. "It's been great."

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