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August 29, 2012Since 2009, Arizona State walk-on linebackers Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor have put themselves through college on their own dime while competing at a BCS institution.
They went through the same workouts, practices and meetings as their scholarship teammates, but received none of the financial perks.
The massive time commitment of playing football at the Division I level didn't even allow either to work a job on the side to make extra money. Instead, they relied on government aid, family support and student loans to pay tuition.
But after three years of struggle, all that changed Tuesday when ASU coach Todd Graham awarded scholarships to both players.
"They earned it," Graham said. "You really have to have a passion to walk-on, especially to stick with it. Everybody walks-on and quits after six months, but to stick around for multiple seasons, that's what it's all about."
For the former walk-ons, the news was almost too much to handle.
"It's a huge burden off my shoulders, I can't tell you how strong I feel about it, it's a blessing," Taylor said. "It has been a long time waiting. I told myself at the beginning of the season I would keep working hard and it would pay off. Well to anybody that believes in themselves, it does."
"It's a tremendous feeling," Johnson said. "It's such a great weight lifted off, it's amazing, it's truly a blessing and I'm grateful."
At multiple points over his career in Tempe, Taylor considered giving up football, but his loved ones encouraged him to stick with it.
"My family has been here through this whole experience," he said. "I tried to stay connected with my faith, family and teammates to stay strong. Early in my years, [quitting] came up a lot but I told myself to stay with it and it would pay off. My brothers look up to me a lot as a male figure, so proving to them that anything is possible feels great."
Graham insisted the decision wasn't one made out of kindness either. The coach said both players will contribute this season on the field.
Last year Taylor saw action in all 13 games, mostly on special teams, while Johnson's highlights included two fumble recoveries.
"We aren't doing charity work, those guys earned it, they are going to make plays," Graham said. "I can't say enough about Grandiville, he's a guy that this spring, I would not have thought I would give him a scholarship. But he's worked his tail off physically and mentally, he's so deserving we couldn't not give him one. Johnson has been steady the whole time and both those guys are going to help us win football games."
Sticking with his dream throughout multiple seasons, Johnson believes his and Taylor's success will encourage other walk-ons to join the Sun Devils, no matter how bleak it looks.
"I feel like we set a tone, if you work hard, it pays off," Taylor said. "Coach told us that, he said he puts people on scholarship. The fact that I had that in mind made me work even harder. I'm going to be a scholarship athlete. It's an amazing feeling."
Echoing his athlete, Graham also hoped he made a statement to other kids around the state by awarding walk-ons for their dedication.
"My message is if you're in this Valley and you want to walk-on and earn a scholarship, Arizona State is the place to be," he said. "This is Arizona State, I want kids to know if you have a burning desire to play, this is a great place to walk-on."
Early Tuesday morning, ASU switched its practice location from the Bill Kajikawa Practice Fields to Sun Devil Stadium to help aid the team feel more comfortable on its home turf in preparation for Thursday's season opener.
"I like being on the game field, it's a little different, the kids practice better and they have a better intense focus," Graham said. "Just being in here creates a different synergy, I like it. We came in and had a dress rehearsal, I thought the guys did a good job. These guys are chomping at the bit to unveil the 2012 Sun Devils."
Moving forward through the rest of the season, ASU will practice every week two days before each game at Sun Devil Stadium.
As for Tuesday's walk-through, the Sun Devils focused on preparing for any surprise tactics from NAU.
"It's tough to get ready because we don't know what they are going to do," Graham said. "We worked on defending trick plays though to make sure we're not to give up any cheap big plays."
With any FCS team facing a BCS opponent, the Lumberjacks will come into Tempe looking to prove themselves on the biggest stage they will see all year.
"They come in with a chip on their shoulder every time we play them," ASU senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. "They come out really hard in the beginning so we have to not let them get any confidence because that's when it gets scary."
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