The walk-on life can be a tough go, less so now after the NCAA took on some student-athlete welfare issues. But back then, 2014, when Justin Allen, Anthony Grayson, Micah St. Andrew, David Tangipa and George Helmuth showed up at Fresno State to play some college football they really had no idea what was ahead.
They were five of 10, maybe 11 or 12 walk-ons relegated to the visitors’ baseball locker room at Beiden Field at the start of fall camp because the football locker room in the Duncan Building was under renovation and lacked enough space for all of the players.
Report one day, on the field the next — and in that subterranean bunker throughout.
None of them remembers exactly how many players were crammed in there, probably because the number kept changing. “It seemed like every day someone quit,” Helmuth said. But they all remember a couple of things, the inescapable. It was really hot, there was no AC and there was just one fan in the room.
“Practically a sauna,” St. Andrew said.
“That fan, it barely rotated,” Grayson said.
“That’s back when two-a-days were going, too,” Allen said.
“It was our first year and some of us aren’t from Fresno, so some of us didn’t know about the Fresno heat,” said Grayson, cracking a smile. “That was joyful.”
Allen chuckled at the thought: “I’ve tried to forget those days.”
But through that experience, the five bonded and not only made it through to their senior seasons, but to the field on game day, never a guarantee for walk-ons who can go through five years running an opponent’s plays on scout teams.
St. Andrew practiced and played his way into a start in the sixth game of the 2015 season as a redshirt freshman and has been there now for 31 consecutive games at right guard, the third longest streak on the team.
Helmuth, from Clovis North, played early, too, primarily on special teams, and is the Bulldogs’ Will linebacker. He started the last 11 games a year ago, finishing second on the team with 89 total tackles including eight tackles for loss.
Tangipa has played in 31 games, starting one in 2015 when a redshirt freshman, and last season caught the first pass of his career – a 3-yard touchdown from Marcus McMaryion at Hawaii.
Allen has played in 25 career games, catching his first pass as a redshirt sophomore in 2015 against UNLV, and had two receptions last season including a 45-yard touchdown in the opening rout of Incarnate Word.
Grayson played in four games last season, the first of his career.
Four of the five are now on scholarship.
They also made it into the renovated locker room, though even four years later they are bonded tightly by their time underground on the first base side of the baseball stadium.
“It’s like a blood kinship thing,” Helmuth said.
“It’s a tight group,” Allen said. “Every time we walk by each other we’re like, ‘Walk-on squad.’ “
Tangipa and Helmuth room together along with running back Josh Hokit, who also started his Fresno State career as a walk-on.
“Micah is married so he couldn’t,” Tangipa said. “We actually asked him to move in. He said, ‘No.’ “
That might have been the easiest question St. Andrew, an economics major, has answered in all of his years at Fresno State.
They also are trying to start a podcast together.
“We’re trying to figure that out,” St. Andrew said. “We’re not sure what we’re going to talk about, but our podcast is coming soon. We have to figure out a name for it, so be on the lookout.”
That first year, when not on the practice field or in meetings they were fairly well isolated. The returning players had been together, some for years, and all had just gone through a strength and conditioning program that summer. The incoming freshmen in that class 2014 recruiting class already had reported to campus.
Most of the time, what they had was in the room.
Turned out to be a lot.
“It’s not easy,” St. Andrew said. “You’re paying for school. You’re playing football. We weren’t fed that year, so everything came out of pocket. You definitely have to want it and have that hunger to continue to play and continue to keep in shape.”
Grayson said they would talk that, from time to time. “We looked at it like, ‘This is our class — we have to stick through it and push each other,” he said.
“The bond that we had in that locker room, it was special just because we became close to each other and we drove each other,” Tangipa said. “We knew that we needed to get to that next point and fight for each other.
“We’re as close as possible. We’re a walk-on family. Any walk-ons that we see come in, we always tell them, ‘You’re not at a disadvantage. You might think that. You might think that you’re a second-class citizen, but forget that. You have an opportunity. Take that and run with it’ “
The Bulldogs this season could run a long way. Fresno State was picked to win the West Division in the Mountain West in a preseason media poll, which would put them in the conference championship game for a second year in a row.
Win that, and a New Years Six bowl game becomes an option.
“It would be a journey fulfilled,” St. Andrew said. “I think we went 6-8 that season, to 3-9 and then 1-11. We really hit rock bottom. But even through that we got closer, just growing up as brothers.
“That’s why we stuck with it, because we had a good strong brotherhood amongst each other to stay here and to want better for our team. To finish on top, it would truly be a blessing for all of us.”