It’s a typically Everglades-worthy August afternoon on the LSU football practice fields, sunny and steamy, with the heat beating down from the sky above and rising from the well-tended alluvial soil.
Over there you glimpse outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson working through a drill, a sure-fire future NFL pass rusher. On another field, Justin Jefferson tries to perfect the route-running moves that may one day lead to a big seven-figure contract. Somewhere in the middle center Lloyd Cushenberry, the proud No. 18 stamped onto both sides of his practice jersey, leads by example as the other offensive linemen take their cues for blocking schemes they hope will spring a big play on the Saturdays ahead.
Your eyes are magnetically pulled toward the star players like quarterback Joe Burrow or All-American safety Grant Delpit, or to measure the seemingly boundless potential of freshman cornerback Derek Stingley. You know the names and it’s easy to memorize the numbers.
In their midst are the players who you need a roster sheet to pick out from the lumbering crowd. They’re the walk-ons, the young men who don’t dream of NFL riches or even realistically of scoring a touchdown to send Tiger Stadium into a roaring frenzy.
They come here instead for their own individual reasons, shunning the chance to play and possibly start at a lower-level program for their sliver of LSU gridiron glory.
Many are from right here with an easy-to-identify link to the program like tight end Aaron Moffitt, son of long-time LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt.
Others, like center Michael “Bus” Smith — former Tiger now Seattle Seahawks guard Ethan Pocic tagged him with that nickname when he arrived in 2016 — come from much farther away for the love of the game. For the love of LSU football.
“I’ve been an LSU fan since I knew what football was,” said Smith, a native of Killeen, Texas. “I remember being 2-years old sitting with my dad watching LSU games. So when I got the opportunity to come here, I automatically knew this was the one place I wanted to go.”
Wide receiver Michael Martin grew up 10 hours away in Weslaco, Texas, a few minutes from the Mexico border down near Brownsville. When his mother, Mari Fuentes-Martin, left nearby Texas-Pan American to become LSU’s dean of students, Michael and his father Randy, now an LSU police officer, followed.
Martin played his senior season at University High, where he played with LSU sports information director Michael Bonnette’s son Grant. Bonnette encouraged him to walk-on at LSU. Even the chance to just wear the jersey with a big purple “86” on it has already made Martin something of a celebrity back in tiny Weslaco.
“A lot of kids where I’m from go work in the oil fields, go back to Mexico, they get jobs because they have to support their families,” Martin said. “So it’s cool I have a lot of people in South Texas who are following me.”
Like Smith, wide receiver Colby Brunet, a junior from Archbishop Rummel, was smitten by LSU football at an early age.
“I’ll never forget being 7 or 8 going to watch (quarterback) Ryan Perrilloux play against Middle Tennessee,” Brunet said. “It was my first time in Tiger Stadium. I was saying, ‘I want to play here one day.’ ”
Brunet is one of those rare walk-ons who has actually made it onto the field. He played in 10 games on special teams last season, including in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF.
What would it be like to ever catch a pass, one Rudy-like notch on the season’s stat sheet?
“One catch would be awesome,” Brunet said. “But whatever I can do to help the team, I’m for it.”
Delgado Community College baseball coach Joe Scheuermann, whose nephew Hunter Faust is an LSU linebacker walk-on from Jesuit, understands the mindset.
“It takes a special kid, no doubt,” said Scheuermann, who in May was enshrined in the National Junior College Athletic Association Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Scheuermann said Faust broke his ankle his senior year at Jesuit and didn’t know if he would have the chance to keep playing college football.
“I had a small conversation with him at Easter of his senior year and I told him as long as you have a burning desire, go for it. He wanted to go to LSU and be a student and give it a try.
“I have a soft spot for them (walk-ons). I think most coaches are like that. They want a guy to make it. It’s a big part of your team. They want them to be competitive and give a good look at the opposition (on the scout squad).”
LSU coach Ed Orgeron called his walk-ons “the glue of our football team.
“In practice when they make good plays, I show highlights of them,” Orgeron said. “I really want them to get a shot on special teams, feel they get a shot to play. They’re best friends with those guys in the locker room. They’re a big part of our football team. They bring energy on the sideline. I expect those guys to provide a lot of energy. They do everything they can, so they’re tremendous Tigers.”
Like Martin, Smith has yet to see a snap in a live game. But two weeks ago, Orgeron called him in and awarded him one of LSU’s precious 85 scholarships that had become available.
The reward meant a great deal to Smith, but knows he has already gotten to live out the fantasy thousands will never touch, that of running through the goalposts into the joyful madness of a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
“I remember my first game my freshman year running into Death Valley, hearing the crowd, hearing the fireworks go off,” Smith said. “It was literally deafening. It was the first time I couldn’t hear anything. Our O-line coach was trying to go through the warmup drills and I couldn’t hear what he was saying it was so loud.
“It almost brought tears to my eyes how beautiful it was that my dream had finally become reality.”
It was the kind of moment that makes all those brutally hot August practice days worthwhile.