Feel-good story at UCLA takes a not-so-happy turn

Other voices

The Kickoff

August 15, 2006|By BILL PLASCHKE | BILL PLASCHKE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- It isn't all falling leaves and letter sweaters, marching bands and Saturday shadows.

Sometimes, college football's realities sweep through its magic with the sort of gale force that would make a bundled booster shudder.

Sometimes, Rudy gets run over.

Meet UCLA's Andrew Baumgartner.

He is that walk-on wide receiver who tried out for the team on a whim, played well enough in training camp last summer to earn a scholarship, caught a touchdown pass to start the victory over Oklahoma, caught a fourth-down pass on the winning drive against Washington.

In two short months he went from math nerd to folk hero, from dreamer to deliverer, epitome of that good old college try.

Our hero is back at practice this summer for his final Bruins season, still scratching, still soaring, with one difference.

He's a walk-on again.

This summer, by letter, Baumgartner was informed that the Bruins would not be renewing his scholarship.

The money was needed for top freshman recruits. Baumgartner's fire was appreciated, but his abilities were dispensable.

Eighty-five scholarships, and not one for a guy who caught 111 yards' worth of passes.

Eighty-five scholarships, and they took one away from a guy who led all UCLA receivers with an average of 18.5 yards a catch.

Baumgartner wanted to quit.

"I figured it was time to get on with my life," he said.

His parents were stunned.

"I thought once you got a scholarship, unless you did something terrible, they never took it away," said his mother, Carol Claypool.

He was on the verge of turning in his pads when all these friends, teammates and coaches he had inspired suddenly inspired him.

"People kept asking me to remember why I tried out for the team in the first place," he said. "It was never about the scholarship. It was always about just loving to play college football."

So this fall Andrew Baumgartner will play again, and again he will be the most unique impact player on the field, but for a different reason: He'll be the only one who has taken out a $12,000 student loan to be there.

Baumgartner was on the phone, Friday afternoon, flush from the first week of UCLA practice.

"Things are going great," he said. "I'm running with the first and second team. I'm having fun. You never know."

He still thinks he has a chance to play, even though walk-ons rarely play.

He still thinks he can have the same leadership impact even though, after school starts, he won't even be able to eat with the team at the training table.

"It's a great sport. It helped me find a niche on campus. I play for my teammates. I play for fun," he said.

All of which inspires two words.

C'mon, Karl.

In trying to rebuild the Bruins program, coach Karl Dorrell needs as many solid cornerstones as flashy shingles. In selling his young program as a place of big dreams, couldn't he find room for the biggest dreamer of all?

"This was a one-year deal, a one-year reward, and Andrew knows that," Dorrell said. "He understood everything."

Baumgartner showed up on campus, a three-sport athlete with a 4.6 GPA but not enough raw skills to warrant a major-college look.

He found himself stopping by varsity practice on the way to class. At barely 6 feet, barely 200 pounds, it appeared that some of those guys could crush him.

But he saw the practices, and himself, differently.

"He would look out there at the wide receivers and say, `You know, I can do that,' " recalled his friend and roommate, Griff Barash. "You could tell he was starting to dream."

At the annual student tryouts, he made the team as a walk-on. The next spring, he began to get noticed.

At the end of summer training camp, Baumgartner was awarded a scholarship.

While he became one of the Bruins' most popular players, he knew he wasn't one of the best, and he knew fame could be brief.

"I knew it was just a one-year deal," he said.

Said Dorrell: "We're still improving here."

Common translation: They cannot improve with players like Andrew Baumgartner still on scholarship.

My reply: Every championship team has a player like Andrew Baumgartner on scholarship.

Bill Plaschke writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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