Sept. 29, 2003
Berkeley, Calif. -
By Jonathan Palay
In the big time college football, scholarships are incredibly important. As a head coach, you only have so many to issue and you better make sure you give them to the right people. Moreover, you better hope those endowed players stay healthy, because you can't just expect any Vincent or Burl off the street to walk on and pick up the slack.
Walk-ons Vincent Strang and Burl Toler were just the remedy for a Cal offense in need of playmakers. With last year's leading receiver, senior Jonathan Makonnen, injured early in the season, both have stepped up and filled the void. Besides being regarded as less talented because they were not recruited, walk-ons don't receive tuition, meals, and books for class like the other players. About as physically dissimilar as two wide receivers could be, Strang and Toler have had to fight to get where they are today.
At 5-foot-8, 150 pounds, Strang is all heart. From first impression, he has no business beating the opposing secondary. Thankfully, the instant replay erases any doubts.
"People underestimate you when you are undersized," said Strang. "I can use my speed to my advantage. I can get guys on their heels and loosen them up a little. They aren't ready if you blow by."
Kansas State wasn't ready. Neither was Colorado State. Strang burned both secondaries for 34-yard and 30-yard touchdown catches, respectively. And against Illinois, his 68-yard punt return late in the first half put Cal up by two touchdowns. As one of the fastest players on the team, Strang has a knack for getting open, as well as stretching the defense.
"Making a big play is a huge adrenaline boost," said Strang. "You know when you're open and even though you don't always see the quarterback, you see the football pop over the line. Coach always says do whatever it takes. When it happens, you can run faster than you ever thought you could. Once you get the ball, everything after that is icing on the cake. It's like you did it. It gets you excited and you just want to do it again."
At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, Toler is a far more physical presence. He speaks as a player who has never had anything handed to him in his football career, but has come to terms with that.
"I am part of the offense and our job is to help us win," said Toler. " I am never satisfied with where I am. There is always room for improvement."
Toler has to be at least a little satisfied with his effort against Colorado State. He set a career high in catches with five for 48 yards, using his big frame to shield the ball from the defender.
"I've gotten faster since last year," said Toler. "I worked on my burst off the line. Now I can run a 4.5 flat. And I can definitely stack up physically."
While both players have had success, neither was recruited to play at Cal. Both Strang and Toler walked on to the Memorial Stadium practice field with little endorsement from anyone, and had to compete with scholarship players.
Think about that for a second.
One of the toughest things in life is to prove you belong when no one thinks you do. It takes self-discipline, humility and a whole lot of desire. Now Strang, a senior, and Toler, a junior, have proven they do in fact belong, even though Division I-A recruiters looked past them. That is a credit to both the individuals, and the coaching staff, for giving them the chance they did in fact deserve.
Strang played at Orange Coast College, where his junior college teammate and current Cal tight end, Brandon Hall, convinced him to transfer to Cal and try out as a walk-on. It was no wonder Strang was not being recruited by Division I-A teams. He wasn't heavy enough to make Pop Warner football before high school. It's not that he couldn't play, they just wouldn't let him. Finally, Strang got his shot at I-A football at Cal in 2002, Tedford's inaugural training camp.
"Brandon talked to the coaches and told them I was someone who would work hard," said Strang. "The coaches saved me a spot in camp and the rest is history. I was just happy to be here and be part of a team with so much talent. I never thought I would have this kind of impact. I wanted to suit up for one game, make the travel squad once. I started doing special teams to make the team, but I got some big breaks and fell into a receiver spot."
Toler had a far different journey to the Golden Bear locker room. One might even say his road to the gridiron was laid out at birth.
Burl Toler III was the son of Burl Toler Jr. - a walk-on who started at linebacker for the Bears in the mid-1970s. His grandfather, Burl Toler Sr., played at University of San Francisco in the 1950s until a knee injury in the College All-Star game at Chicago's Soldier Field ended his playing days. He went on to be a long time official in the NFL.
It is not surprising then that Toler would do anything he could to play big time college football. Moreover, he was brought up in the Cal tradition, so playing here means even more to him.
"I was born in Berkeley," said Toler. "My parents had been bringing me to every home game. I would get wrist bands and high fives from the players."
Toler was a walk-on his freshman year, but last year was awarded the lone extra scholarship coach Tedford had. Coming from a line of football players, might have been pressure for some, but for Toler it was destiny.
"My parents never forced it," said Toler. "I was raised in the presence of great role models. Seeing tapes of my dad and grandfather and hearing stories growing up made me want to do it myself."
Thankfully, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. He showed he too could stretch defenses, averaging 25 yards per catch over three catches against Utah, Sept. 11. Toler has made a difference this year on offense as a possession receiver, moving from his role last year as a special teams player.
Now both receivers enter the Pac-10 schedule, knowing full well that new challenges wait ahead.
"The Pac-10 always has the best receivers," said Toler. "I've proved myself as a walk-on, now I have to prove myself in Pac-10 games. Now I know I will have the opportunity to do so."
"I never thought I would see the ball as much as I have," said Strang. "To be able to play on the same level as the big number one at SC is amazing. I don't see myself as a big time receiver. I just see myself as Vince Strang."
Walk-ons do not always have the same talent level as the scholarship players, but they may have the intangibles on the football field that can make a difference. In the case of wideouts Strang and Toler, that is something all of the Golden Bear faithful can be thankful for.