|Real Talent Takes a Number
(Taken from Athletic News)
Most sports fans remember the jersey number of their favorite player. Michael Jordan was #23 for the Chicago Bulls. Mia Hamm was #9, and everyone in Texas knows at least one of the famous athletes to wear #34: Nolan Ryan of the Astros and Rangers, Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets, and Earl Campbell of the Oilers. The top seller in the nation, #4 is still worn by Brett Farve of the Minnesota Vikings and formerly of the Green Bay Packers, the team on which he cut his cloth. The top selling collegiate jersey in the Lone Star state still belongs to Vince Young of the Texas Longhorns.
Some St. John’s alumni fortunate enough to sport a NCAA uniform, have fond enough memories of their glory days in high school to wear the same number in college. Nick Lukens (’02) wore #34 for St. John’s and Georgetown in lacrosse. Andy Gagel (’06) carried on the tradition of # 34 for the Mavs and the Big Green of Dartmouth College. M.A. Boles (’10) picked her high school #12 in her first year on the Washington & Lee Women’s Volleyball team.
While Derry Herlihy (’07), Nick Tutcher (’09), Paul Hobby (’78), and his son, Walker (’10) never got their choice of a jersey, they have a common bond underlying the digits on their back—they all walked on NCAA Division I football teams. “My jersey number in college was different from high school. I was not in a position to bargain,” said Paul. Walker, following in his dad’s footsteps at UVA, settled for 31, not his “beloved 44 from high school.” Walker also took a new position at safety. Herlihy, too, found a new appointment at Notre Dame. “My number is 27, and I wore 22 for the Mavs. Of course I would have picked my high school number if I could have, but walk-ons don’t get to choose their numbers,” said Derry. Tutcher wears 58 for TCU.
Like a Maverick middle-school athlete getting his or her first team jersey, these guys identified themselves by a new number, and moreover, by choosing to belong to something bigger than themselves.
“There were a couple of factors that motivated me to try out for the team. First and foremost was simply a love to compete in the game of football. I had the time of my life playing for the Mavs – Coaches Gleaves, and Whitmore, and the staff brought a passion for the game that definitely rubbed off on me. Even just being at practice with my teammates and friends, things that you take for granted, were some of the best times I had at St. Johns,” said #22, a.k.a. Herlihy. “My fondest memories of St. John’s were helping take my senior lacrosse and football teams farther than most thought possible. Both squads returned only a couple of starters, and both squads consistently outperformed expectations by just going out and playing extremely hard in every game from start to finish. It is no different here at Notre Dame. Even against some of the best athletes in the country, I go full speed and don’t question it. It is a choice—you must fully commit to make it.”
Herlihy, cut by Notre Dame his freshman year and taken back a year later, is listed as a running back in the Irish media guide, and he runs for the scout team. Each week the scout team dons the jersey of the Irish’s next opponent. As exciting it was to wear #2 (Herlihy’s lax number) as Michigan State’s Mark Dell, Derry’s goal is to be on the kick off team in his last season for the Irish.
“It is hard to bust your tail every day pretty much all year around knowing that you likely will never see meaningful playing time, but despite all that, there is literally no feeling in the entire world like running out of the tunnel in Notre Dame Stadium with ‘Irish’ on your chest and that shiny gold helmet on your head with 85,000 fans screaming at you. It’s worth every single day to do that just once,” said Derry.
Just before the 105 Notre Dame players, including the 20-odd walk-ons, exit the tunnel onto the field in South Bend, they pass the slogan “PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY.” For walk-ons this would be a fantasy, except for another phrase that speaks to their position. This band of walk-ons clings to the coaching cliche “Next Man In,” reminding every player that there is a guy ready to take your place. “My job everyday is make the coaching staff upset at the starters, usually by busting the wedge and tagging the return man,” Derry quipped. “A few walk-ons have turned enough heads to play in games, so we know it can be done.”
As Derry does for the Irish, Walker Hobby suits up for home games for his University of Virginia Cavaliers. As Mavericks, they both played lacrosse at defensive midfield, a position lacking glory but full of the guts both young men continue to demonstrate. “The long hours, along with the 6 a.m. workouts we have during the week, have been the toughest parts so far, but the relationships I’ve made and the camaraderie have been worth it.” said Walker. “My advice to any St. John’s athlete who is considering walking on to a sports team in college is to be ready for serious mental and physical commitment, and then go for it!”
Thirty-three years ago Walker’s dad, Paul Hobby, made a go for it, also at UVA. “I learned some life lessons. When they offered me a partial scholarship it meant a lot, because it was a form of success. Once people have an investment in you they work harder to see you succeed,” said Paul. “It’s a very basic concept, but people want to affirm their own decisions–and I didn’t know that. And, yes, it did hurt. I have nagging injuries from college football to this day, but I would do it again.”
Nick Tutcher is back for more in his second season at TCU. He suited up for the 2009 #3 ranked Horn Frogs for the Fiesta Bowl in January. “The atmosphere was electric for the bowl game, but it was not my main motivation to play football,” said Nick. “When football ended for me at St. John’s I felt like I was just discovering my athletic talents. My dad played in college and I felt like I need to see if I could do it.” Three weeks into the 2010 season, with his team ranked 4th in the country, Nick is starting to gets reps on the offense in addition to his scout team duties. “At first I only wanted to make the team. Now I want to play,” said Tutcher.
St. John’s athletes have walked on in other sports too. Richie Mercado (’78) found his way on to the UVA track team, a step which took him into his coaching career. David Noel (’06) and Matt Carter (’01) made the basketball teams for the Virginia Cavaliers and Vanderbilt Commodores respectively. Hoping to be the next man in, each of them not only walked on, but earned a number.
Sam Chambers Athletic News