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From walk-on to Wonderland

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008

There was no Signing Day news conference and no scholarship waiting for Greensburg Salem's Brennan Marion. Instead, he paid his own way to a junior-college and was homeless for four months before becoming a record-setting receiver at the University of Tulsa.

Moon's Robbie Leonard is another success story. A backup cornerback at Washington & Jefferson four years ago, no one could have imagined he would become a starting linebacker at North Carolina State.

Chartiers Valley graduate Brian Castello chose to give up football and attend his dream school rather than play in Division III. Now, he's a reserve quarterback at storied Notre Dame.

Butler offensive lineman Nate Hartung scared away scholarship offers by blowing up to 450 pounds. One Mormon mission and a 100-pound weight-loss later, he's a freshman at No. 9 Brigham Young.

All four WPIAL products were once discarded items of the window-shopping frenzy known as college football recruiting. They were either too heavy or too light, too small or too slow to capture the attention of coaches looking for the perfect fit.

But they refused to quit. They walked on and kept alive their dreams of playing Division I college football.

Four former walk-ons. Four amazing profiles of persistence and perseverance.

'I knew I was good at football'

Brennan Marion was hardly a household name in high school, in part because he had so many changes of address.

Marion attended four high schools in as many years, playing for South Allegheny, then Westinghouse, Steel Valley and Greensburg Salem.

"I moved every year since sixth grade and went to a different school every year," Marion said. "I'm sure if I would have stayed in the same place, I would have had an opportunity to play Division I."

Metro Index scouting director Joe Butler, who closely tracks high school and college prospects, called Marion "a very unique case."

"He was a guy nobody ever heard of," Butler said. "I dug out my old files, and nobody knew much about him."

Marion has since gained 50 pounds without losing a step. Now 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he has been timed at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Despite his speed, Marion persevered through a process that tested his patience.

Marion walked on at Foothill Junior College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. After one season, Marion transferred to near-by DeAnza College, where he was homeless in the four months before his sophomore season.

"I lived all over the school, in the locker room, the press box," said Marion, who often "roomed" with Woodlawn Hills' Chuck Thompson. "We'd have practice, take a shower, go to class and tell the janitors to leave something open for us.

"It was rough, but it wasn't bad. I was at the school all the time anyway. I just didn't want to go back to Pittsburgh and do nothing."

Marion had 60 receptions for an NJCAA-best 1,196 yards and 16 touchdowns, drawing Division-I attention. Tulsa recruited Marion only after a recruit named Alric Arnett signed instead with West Virginia. When Marion showed for his official visit in a shirt and tie, asked for a chance and promised not to let him down, Tulsa coach Todd Graham took a calculated risk.

"I had a feeling about him, so I took him," Graham said. "I had no idea he'd be one of the best receivers in the country."

Marion didn't just lead Tulsa in receiving, with 39 receptions for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 31.9 yards per catch broke the NCAA record of 27.9 set by Houston's Elmo Wright in 1968.

"He's a legit deep threat," Graham said, "as big-time as you get."

After spending so many years being angry at the world for the hand he was dealt, Marion can smile easily now. He is on track to graduate next spring with a degree in sociology and is an NFL Draft prospect.

"I just feel really blessed right now to have a chance," Marion said. "From day one in California, it didn't look like it was going to happen. I kept thinking, 'I'm probably going to end up back home.'

"That was my motivation. I knew I was good at football. It's a dream I've always had, always wanted to come true. It makes me focus that much more now that I'm that close. I always told people I was going to make it."

'Some kids just mature later'

Even as a backup cornerback at W&J, Robbie Leonard was convinced he could play Division I football. What scouts never imagined was him growing into a 6-foot, 205-pounder starting outside linebacker as a fifth-year senior at North Carolina State.

"After playing Division III level and Division I level, I know some kids just mature later," Leonard said. "It's unfortunate that that's the way the recruiting process works."

Metro Index's Butler agrees.

"There are a lot of guys who peak early and don't get any better," he said. "The colleges are stuck with them. What you're seeing with these walk-ons are kids who are good players who got better in college."

That was the case with Leonard. After one season at W&J, he decided to walk-on at N.C. State, where Moon coach Mark Capuano had been an All-Atlantic Coast Conference defensive end. Capuano called Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato, a former teammate, to put in a good word.

Leonard made it clear that he didn't just want a jersey. He had two goals: to earn a scholarship and merit playing time. The first was accomplished by his first eligible season, the second shortly after.

"That was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life," said Leonard, whose family moved to Raleigh, N.C., four years ago. "When I got to N.C. State and saw some of the kids, I was upset that I wasn't good enough for a scholarship out of high school. I used that as motivation every day."

Leonard made five tackles at cornerback in 2006 and 19 the following year at strong safety. This season, he switched to strong-side linebacker, where he not only secured a starting spot but is fourth on the Wolfpack with 35 tackles. His highlight was starting the opener against South Carolina and recording a team-high nine tackles.

"It doesn't happen in a week," he said of making it as a walk-on. "You have to be pretty motivated. It's not quite as hard as it sounds. If you believe in yourself and work hard and do what the coaches ask, I'd definitely recommend it to someone who, in their heart, wants to play D-I football."

'A dream-come-true for me'

Brian Castello knew in his heart that he wanted to follow a family legacy and attend Notre Dame, but to do so would require sacrificing his days of playing competitive football.

The Chartiers Valley graduate, who turned down a chance to play at Carnegie Mellon, found an outlet in Notre Dame's Interhall full-pads, tackle-football league. He led his dormitory, the Keenan Knights, to the championship game as a freshman last November.

"I missed it," he said. "I knew football had to be part of my life in some way, shape or form."

Castello was so impressive that friends told him he should play for the Fighting Irish. Never mind that the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder played quarterback, a position Charlie Weis had stockpiled since becoming Notre Dame's coach in 2005. The more Castello learned of the tryout process, the more interested he became.

"In the back of my mind, I thought about walking on," said Castello, whose father, Tom, is a 1976 Notre Dame graduate and whose mother, Mary Esther, attended its sister school, St. Mary's College. "Before I got here, it seemed like more of a fantasy than reality."

The circumstances of his tryout were perfect. Two quarterbacks had transferred - Zach Frazer to Connecticut and Demetrius Jones to Cincinnati. Another, Evan Sharpley, was playing baseball. That left only starter Jimmy Clausen to take all of the practice snaps. Castello made the team, splitting second-team reps with another walk-on in spring drills.

Castello said he and other walk-ons at the school talk about what a "privilege" it is to play at Notre Dame.

"My dad going here, we always used to come out and watch games," he said. "Just watching the team walk by as a little kid and having to bend your neck to look up at them, the prestige they had, it's more a dream come true for me than another kid who wasn't tied to Notre Dame."

Weis holds walk-ons to high standards, demanding a 3.0 grade-point average from non-scholarship players. That made it more challenging for Castello, an aerospace engineering major carrying 14.5 credits.

Yet, Castello gets goosebumps when he dresses out for home games and is reminded that he is living out his boyhood dream, wearing the gold helmet and playing at the most storied program in college football.

When he played in the Blue and Gold Game last spring, it was his first time in the locker room at Notre Dame Stadium, his first chance to hit the "Play Like A Champion Today" sign at the bottom of its staircase. He quarterbacked two series in the game - going three-and-out on six running plays - and understands that it might be the extent of his playing time at Notre Dame.

"It was a challenge I gave to myself," Castello said. "I'm being realistic about my situation and not trying to kid myself. It's more of a thing to say I was part of this team, this tradition, one of best college football programs in the nation."

'I didn't really have any options'

Nate Hartung embodied the idea of big dreams, to the point where he outgrew them. By his senior season at Butler, he had ballooned to 450 pounds and scared away Division I suitors.

Even when he lost 65 pounds to play in the Big 33 Football Classic that summer, the 6-foot-2 Hartung couldn't shed the label of overweight offensive lineman. Compounding his problems was that Hartung, a Mormon, intended to take a mandatory two-year mission.

"I didn't necessarily have many (college) choices," Hartung said. "I was so heavy my senior year - I think that stopped people from offering."

Instead of college, Hartung took his mission from September 2005 to October 2007, preaching the Bible door-to-door in New Zealand.

"It was wonderful," he said of his mission. "Some things are above football."

By the time Hartung returned to the U.S., he was back up to 440 pounds.

"I was," he said, "a pudge ball."

Still, Hartung was convinced that he could play Division I football. After all, he had held his own against Cincinnati All-America defensive tackle Terrill Byrd in the Big 33. But few schools showed interest, even as Hartung made a concerted effort to get in shape.

Following his faith, Hartung decided to walk-on at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He reported at 377 pounds but has since dropped to 338 and plans to redshirt this season.

"He's a football junkie," BYU offensive line coach Mark Weber said. "We do get a lot of linemen that walk-on after their mission. Sometimes, things are a little bit different for them, and they've had a chance to grow and mature. It usually takes at least a year to get back in football shape."

Hartung is not receiving any financial aid at Brigham Young, a private institution where his tuition is $2,400 per semester. The No. 9 Cougars don't practice or play on Sundays, keeping the Sabbath holy.

Saturdays, however, are a different story.

Although Weber believes Hartung has a future at BYU - likely at center - Hartung is just trying to make his mark on the scout team against the first-team defense while waiting for his moment.

"You take a lot of lumps at this level," Hartung said. "We're good. It's not like I walked-on to some slouch program. I'm still trying to earn my place here. I don't think there's a sign or token that says, 'You're in.' When you're a walk-on, you can't get complacent."

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