“We didn’t give him anything, he earned it.”

Kent State coach Doug Martin pulled Lee Stalker aside after a summer practice on Aug. 10 last year.

Martin was about to give Stalker the birthday present he had worked for three years to get. The coach congratulated Stalker and told him he received a scholarship after playing without one for three years.

Stalker never thought the day would come.

He kept his emotions in check. He showered, got dressed and then decided to call his parents. As he broke news, tears finally rolled down the 6-foot-2-inch, 254-pound defensive lineman’s face. His hard work and dedication paid off.

“For me, it was probably the best day of my life,” Stalker said. “Football, that’s the biggest goal for me to go from high school to playing at the next level. We’re an elite team in the (Mid-American Conference), doing great things here. For me and my family, it was a big sigh of relief, coming to school and now school is paid for. For all of the hard work and the dedication put through those years, it was a great day.”

Every season, players arrive on Kent State’s campus in hopes of playing on the Kent State football team. The ones accepted then have the challenge of attending practices, traveling to games when needed and competing with the rest of the team — all without the incentive of a scholarship.

“I came in here every day on scout team and played my heart out.”

When his high school playing days were finished, Stalker decided to attend Kent State and major in architectural studies. Although Stalker did not receive a scholarship offer to play football, he set his sights to walking on the Flashes’ football team.

In the summer of 2007, the Butler, Pa., native stepped onto the field at Dix Stadium not knowing what to expect. He did not know what the future had in store or if the hard work would pay off. The uncertainty did not stop Stalker.

“A lot of walk-ons you see or a lot of guys that get in here their first year on scout team just kind of hang their head,” Stalker said. “For me, I came in here, and they gave me a chance to play. I saw an opportunity so every day was great. I came in here every day on scout team and played my heart out. During the middle of practice, when the (scout team) came out, that was my time to shine.”

While Eugene Jarvis and other Flashes shined in 2007, Stalker received a red-shirt. His playing time was restricted to practice, but he made the most of it.

At the end of the season, the coaching staff awarded Stalker with the Defensive Scout Award for the player that demonstrates outstanding ability on the team’s scout team. In 2008, Stalker appeared in two games for Kent State and received the Scout Award for the second consecutive year.

Martin, who preaches players need to practice how they play, said Stalker is an example of where hard work can take a player.

“What you saw from Lee is he showed up every day with his A-game, and it didn’t matter what was going on off the field for him,” Martin said. “When he showed up here, it was business. He’s always been an effort guy, and Lee has a lot of athletic ability, but he probably gets more out of athletic ability than most people do because of his attitude.”

From scout team to starter

The defensive lineman’s breakthrough season came in 2009. He appeared in 12 games and finished the season with 12 tackles.

Coaches began to take notice of the lineman who stood almost a head taller than his counterparts.

Martin said it was a proud day when he was able to finally honor Stalker for his work ethic.

“To keep that dream alive and to come and play, takes a lot of dedication from those guys,” Martin said. “It takes a lot of dedication from their families because they’re obviously paying for their school, and those guys can’t work because they’re at practice all of the time, so financially it’s a strain. I have a lot of respect for the guys who stick it out. We didn’t give him anything, he earned it.”

After a strong showing in last spring’s camp, Stalker earned a starting job and made his first career start against Murray State. This season, the junior has seven tackles in three games.

Every summer, more players walk-on to Kent State looking for an opportunity. Some are success stories like Stalker or former safety Andre Kirkland, who played in the National Football League after walking on. Others stay on scout team for the remainder of their careers.

Stalker said at the start of camp every year, he offers a few words of advice to players who remind him of his 18-year-old self who walked onto Kent State’s campus, just looking for an opportunity to prove himself.

“Walk-on guys think they just get brushed aside and the coaches don’t pay any attention,” Stalker said. “It’s hard work, and there’s no doubt when you line up against a starter or first team, you’ve got to fight. You have to show the coaches you can play and you want to play.”

Contact Lance Lysowski at [email protected].