Nerves played havoc with Tim Clary’s stomach on the morning of Aug. 28.
Clary’s football future was on the line. The 2011 Richmond-Burton graduate had one shot to impress Illinois’ football coaching staff in a walk-on tryout.
Otherwise, the dream would die. Clary had taken an unconventional path, first playing at NCAA Division III Dubuque, then deciding to walk on at D-I Illinois. Most players without D-I scholarship offers try to walk on first, then transfer and play at a smaller school.
Clary was positive and driven, but with everything at stake, he heaved up his breakfast. A phone call from his mother Colleen eased his nerves a little.
“I don’t want to say I was prepared [for it to end],” Clary said. “I would have been devastated. I don’t think I really thought that one through. I always though to myself that I was going to make it.”
Clary and 17 other walk-ons went through every drill they could imagine, none with footballs involved, hoping to catch the attention of coach Tim Beckman’s staff. Clary, in the best shape of his life, had to wait until Sept. 11 for the final word. That day he received the email that the list was posted outside the football staff’s offices. Clary was one of four walk-ons to make Illinois’ team and would redshirt the season.
Clary (6-foot-2, 250 pounds) is working in spring practices with the Fighting Illini at fullback. Tight ends/fullbacks coach Alex Golesh said Clary, who has three remaining years of eligibility, could be on the field this season and eventually could earn an athletic scholarship if he continues progressing.
“[A scholarship] is something that basically is a reward for playing,” Golesh said. “Coach Beckman was a walk-on (at Kentucky). He knows what it’s like for those guys. He has a soft spot for guys who are walk-ons.”
There are valid reasons Clary chose this route. R-B went to the Class 4A semifinals twice and the quarterfinals once while Clary was in high school, but the Rockets ran a ground-oriented offense so Clary received few passes. The only interest Clary received came from smaller schools, and he picked Dubuque.
Clary said he was a 3.0-GPA student at R-B, but that was not high enough to be accepted at Illinois out of high school. Clary thought about everything, like how he used to tell his parents, Jeffrey and Colleen, that when he got older he “was going to the NFL and would buy them a house in Hawaii.”
He talked to his best friend, former R-B quarterback Adam Pittser, who was at Wyoming and now plays at Illinois State. Pittser told Clary he had what it takes to play D-I.
He talked to his trainer, Cory Englebert, at XTS Speed and Strength in Elkhorn, Wis., who told him the same thing.
“I’ve trained a lot of guys and physically I knew he could do it,” Englebert said. “I get a lot of guys who are super-athletic, but they don’t set their goals high enough. I told him, ‘You have the size and physical tools, why not? That’s your dream.’ We worked out five days a week. It was intense. He definitely got a lot stronger and faster. He was in the best shape of his life.”
A proud Clary texted a picture of the list of walk-ons to Englebert on Sept. 11.
“People ask me why I didn’t just try out [at Illinois] out of high school,” Clary said. “I wanted to know the difference. I didn’t want to walk on and transfer to a smaller school. I thought that I had the talent to make it here.”
Golesh said the coaches appreciated Clary’s effort right away. Clary said it was an NFL Combine-style workout that ended with 53s, where five players run sprints and the last one in each race is dropped. Clary made it to the last four, running a total of 14 sprints in the drill.
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will incorporate the fullback position more than last season, a factor that plays into Clary’s favor.
“[Cubit] wants to use the fullback, and I talked to Tim about being that guy,” Golesh said. “He’s been a really, really pleasant surprise. I would expect him to play for us.”
In spring ball, Evan Wilson is Illinois’ No. 1 fullback, with Clary and Jon Davis rotating at the No. 2 spot. Matt LaCosse, another fullback, suffered a knee injury and will miss spring workouts. The coaches have asked Clary to come into the season at around 238 pounds and Golesh sees no reason why Clary cannot contribute this season.
“Growing up it was always a dream of mine to play Division I, like every football player’s should be,” Clary said. “I came to a realization [at Dubuque], I was playing a sufficient amount at Division III and I thought, ‘Do I want to be satisfied playing against the lowest level of college football or do I want to give it a try?’ ”