Profile in Persistence: BYU’s Jon Kotter
Earlier this year, we introduced you to Andy Bayer, a walk-on athlete at the University of Indiana who persevered through injury to become an All-American in cross country.
Kotter was a good but unspectacular runner at Alta High School, placing third and fifth in the 3,200- and 1,600-meter runs, respectively, at the state track championships. That drew no interest from college coaches.
Kotter served an LDS Church mission in Rome and ran just twice during the next two years, which was one too many. During his second run, he tripped and fell to the asphalt, breaking both elbows.
He returned from his mission in January 2006 and tried out for BYU’s cross-country team that fall. Collegiate teams are limited by the NCAA (read: Title IX and the federal government) in the number of athletes they can retain on a roster, even if they want to run without a scholarship. When Kotter failed to crack the top 20, he was cut from the team. Rules forbade him even from practicing with the team.
“I took a few days to reevaluate how much time I could commit to running,” he says. “I wasn’t doing well in school, and I had to have a job. Still, it was a dream of mine, so I kept training.”
Boy did he ever. Even though he didn’t have a scholarship and was barred from practicing with the team, he kept at it on his own, and now he’s turning in the best times of his running career:
Kotter trained alone for the next few months, sometimes passing the BYU runners going the other way on the road. “It was a little depressing,” he says. He tried out for the track team in the winter and this time made the team by winning a 3,000-meter time trial.
Kotter improved steadily but gradually. He placed sixth in the 5,000 at the indoor conference championships as a sophomore. He placed in the top five in both the 5K and 3K at last year’s indoor conference meet. This year, BYU took Kotter to his first outdoor conference championships, where he rewarded the team with a second-place finish in the 10,000.
Once again, here’s a quote from Marilyn McNeil, the Athletic Director at Monmouth University, one that she gave the New York Times in a story about how walk-ons were becoming an endangered species:
”I hated the movie ‘Rudy,’ ” said Marilyn McNeil, athletic director of Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., referring to the film about perhaps the most famous walk-on of all, Rudy Ruettiger of Notre Dame. Ruettiger endured years as a scrub on the practice squad until, as a senior concluding his career, he was allowed into a game for one play, and he sacked the quarterback.
”If you’re not going to get your uniform dirty during games, you shouldn’t be on the team,” said McNeil, who is also the chairwoman of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s committee on women’s athletics. ”I believe there is still an opportunity for a walk-on to bloom on our teams, but there has to be a cutoff date for those who just want to hang around. We can’t afford it. It’s time to tell these students: ‘You’ve got other talents. Go write about sports at the school newspaper, join the debate team, or maybe you’ve got a nice voice and belong on the stage.’
”Some guys just like to be part of the group. Then 10 years later they will talk about being on their college team, when the fact is they never played.”
When I talk to college coaches, they have a name they call folks like McNeil: dream stealers.
Remember, if the folks who are in favor of proportionality continue to get their way at the nation’s colleges, universities and high schools, there will be that many fewer opportunities for athletes who have a dream.