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Former Wake Forest, Cardinal Gibbons players get good news at NC State preseason camp

NC State’s Willy Brown gets some good news from Coach Doeren

Watch as NC State's Willy Brown reacts to news from Coach Dave Doeren as he is awarded a scholarship.
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Watch as NC State's Willy Brown reacts to news from Coach Dave Doeren as he is awarded a scholarship.

Will Brown wasn’t sure what was happening.

N.C. State football coach Dave Doeren called Brown down in front of the entire team, and Brown was in the dark about what was going to happen next.

Three days earlier Doeren had done the same thing to Seth Williams, but in a different setting. After practice on Saturday Doeren singled out Williams, the linebacker from Wake Forest High School. Doeren talked about the work ethic from Williams and how the rest of the team should work like that. Doeren concluded his speech by letting the team know Williams was no longer a walk-on, he was getting put on scholarship. The team erupted and a few minutes later Williams found himself on the bottom of a dog pile.

“I just knew it was a scholarship,” Williams said on Thursday when asked what was going through his mind when Doeren called him up. “I ran that situation through my mind so many times, it was very surreal.”

Brown, on the other hand, didn’t see it coming. A graduate student who already has his engineering degree, Brown played across the street from Carter-Finley Stadium at Cardinal Gibbons High School and paid his way through school for four years.

At the team meeting inside the Murphy Center on Tuesday night, Doeren called Brown down to the front of the room. The walk-on safety thought it was time for his senior speech, something he wasn’t prepared for.

“I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I’m not ready for my senior speech,’ ” Brown said.

It wasn’t until Doeren brought in Brown’s parents and his grandfather that it hit him what was happening. Kind of.

“Still I wasn’t sure what was happening,” Brown admitted. “Even when I thought I knew, I still didn’t know.”

In both cases, Doeren said each player had done everything they’ve asked them to do, and the reward paid off. For Williams, it was a case of following in the footsteps of his older brother, Hunter, who walked on at Wake Forest University and was awarded a scholarship at the end of his redshirt sophomore year. For Brown, it was the perfect ending to four years of grinding, literally starting from the bottom.

FIND A WAY TO STAND OUT

You could hear the excitement through the phone in the voice of Cardinal Gibbons football coach Steven Wright. He coached Brown in high school and said seeing him get a scholarship as a graduate student was incredibly rewarding, a proud dad moment.

The journey has been an uphill battle from the start for Brown, like it is with most walk-ons.

When he graduated from Cardinal Gibbons, Brown went to Wright and told him he wanted to walk-on at N.C. State. Wright said it was “after the fact,” way after signing day and they had very little communication with the football program.

Wright made a call and was told they didn’t have room on the team at the time. So Brown went through his first semester of college as a regular student, working out on his own. It wasn’t until January of his freshman year when Wright made a call to Henry Trevathan Jr. (the director of high school relations) and told him they had to get Brown a spot, saying his former player would “serve the program well.”

Trevathan got back to Wright and told him a spot opened up, and Brown joined the team for spring workouts.

“I’ve got to give him credit because a walk-on at a Division I, especially a Power 5 program, is a difficult road to walk because you’re just a number, initially,” Wright said. “You’re not among that preferred group, or that scholarship group, you’re just a guy on the roster and have to be prepared to work and serve as a scout team guy.”

Walk-ons arrive on campus and for the most part are just another number, beyond the 85 players on scholarship, closer to being player 100 or lower on a 105-man roster. Some prospects arrive on campus with stars beside their names, ranking them as the best, or one of the best at their positions, even before they play a down.

Guys like Williams and Brown have paid their dues on the scout team, serving as fill-ins while starters and future pros get their reps. So how does a walk-on find a way to stand out to their coaches? Williams and Brown looked at each other before answering, replying in sequence.

Effort, they both agreed, is what put them on the radar.

“You have to show those scholarship guys what’s going on on the field,” he said. “That give-a-crap factor. You care too much no matter what’s going on. Whenever you get an opportunity you have to go out there and go all out.”

When those opportunities are given, even though they are few and far between, the key is to maximize those moments.

“We’re not given as many chances to showcase who we are,” Brown said. “But when we do, we have to make sure we know what we’re doing, make sure we know the techniques that they taught us.”

Watch as NC State's Seth Williams get word from Coach Dave Doeren that he's receiving a scholarship.

HARD WORK PAYS OFF

The moment was almost like deja vu for Christine Williams. Her oldest son, Hunter, was a middle linebacker who led Wake Forest High to the state championship game in 2010. In 2011, Hunter earned a spot as a walk-on at Wake Forest University, earned a scholarship and was a team captain by the time he graduated.

Christine had seen one of her sons do it before, so when Seth decided he was going to walk on at N.C. State, she knew, once again, she had to be her child’s biggest cheerleader. This time, though, she didn’t have to wait as long.

Christine went to visit Seth on Saturday afternoon, a few hours after he was awarded the scholarship. When she went to his apartment, he greeted her with a smile and a hug.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, he missed me, too,’ ” she said Wednesday. “He said, ‘Mom I have to tell you something,’ and I was so happy. I’m still happy, I cried because I was so happy for him.”

Seth Williams.JPG
Wake Forest’s Seth Williams (32) goes into pass coverage during the football game with the Wake Forest Cougars and the Middle Creek Mustangs high school in Wake Forest, N.C. on September 4 , 2017. Johnny Johnson newsobserver.com

Christine Williams always taught her kids to write down their goals and look at it every day. It worked for Hunter and it has worked for Seth, who won two 4AA state championships at Wake Forest High.

When he got to N.C. State, Williams said he was giving himself one year to earn a scholarship. He wasn’t thinking about Year Three, like his brother, of Year Four, like Brown. It had to work in his first year. Talking to Hunter a lot helped, playing with a chip on his shoulder played a role. Knowing he belonged erased any doubt.

“I came from the best program in the state,” Williams said. “I’m just as good as you, just as qualified, but I wasn’t on scholarship. You’re not better than me, but your scholarship says it. That was probably the hardest part.”

Brown admitted he had more mental hurdles to get over, battles within himself before he was able to compete. Over time, after working alongside his teammates and building his confidence, the 5-8 Brown realized he could compete with players at this level.

When he wasn’t putting in extra hours for a chance to get on the field, he was maneuvering through N.C. State’s tough engineering program. Times got hard, sure, but Brown had a good support system around him, including his parents (he thanked them for paying for the first four years), family and his teammates. It would have been easy to walk away, but too many eyes were on him, and Brown wanted to set an example.

“I don’t think people realize how big the sacrifice is and how big this payoff is for him,” Wright said. “Will could have very easily continued to go to school, do great, work a job and make money. He sacrificed those things to be part of that football program. I’ll be talking about this 40 years from now.”

Christine said the whole experience was humbling, knowing there are players all across the country trying to work their way up from walk-on to scholarship player. She wishes they all could make it, just like two of her sons did. But for Seth and Brown, the lessons learned from the hardship they went through, just to see it payoff at the end, will stick with them forever.

“Everything you’re going to get from these four years is like an extra education. We just would let them know that this is just for a season, it’s going to be an awesome time, but what you get to do with it when real life comes around is going to be amazing.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.
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