The role of a walk-on in a major college athletics program can sometimes be a thankless one, as they go to every practice, compete every day against elite athletes, and all too infrequently get the recognition or glory despite being full members of the team. Over the years, Syracuse has been lucky to have some pretty outstanding walk-ons, including a certain Hall of Fame head coach and a former star quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. Over the past weekend, I was put in touch with another in the long line of great young men who have competed as walk-ons, Ross DiLiegro. Check out this Q&A with Ross as he delivers some insight into the world of Syracuse walk-ons and makes a case to be the Most Interesting Walk-On in the World thanks to his utterly unique wedding experience.
OG: First of all, congrats man – I understand you recently got married. I also understand your wedding was not exactly what you’d call typical due to where it took place, and who officiated. Would you mind giving a little rundown of how everything went down, and how a certain person became so prominently involved?
RD: Thanks! My wife Allison works in the travel industry, and at a work event this past summer she won a trip to Necker Island, which is the private island owned by Richard Branson. The island is part of the British Virgin Islands and is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. While we were there, we loved it so much that we decided to get married during the vacation! Luckily, Richard agreed to officiate the ceremony and Allison and I can now say that our wedding was one of only two weddings that he has done – the other was for Larry Page of Google.
OG: A lot of people don’t really understand the level of play that you have to have competed at to become a walk-on – what other options did you consider when you were a senior in high school, in terms of playing at the next level? I have to imagine as a 6-8 kid who played for championship teams in the Boston area, you had opportunities. What were some of them, and what eventually brought you to Syracuse instead of pursuing one of those other chances?
RD: Coming out of high school I was recruited for basketball primarily by D3 programs around the Northeast. Most of the colleges recruiting me were small liberal arts schools, but I wanted to study engineering, so I was looking for a larger college environment . At the time, my sister was enrolled at SU so I was familiar with the school and city. I was lucky enough to get a meeting with Coach Boeheim during my senior year of high school, and he agreed to let me join the team as a walk-on freshman, should I choose to attend Syracuse. After that, the decision was easy.
OG: As someone who grew up dreaming of playing for Syracuse, I have to ask – what the hell did it feel like the first time you stepped on the court, in a Syracuse uniform, in an actual game, for some actual playing time?
RD: It was surreal – I remember being so excited just to be able to play in one game freshman year (it was only about 30 seconds against Colgate). As a walk-on, my time on the court over the course of each season was limited to say the least, so the first priority was not to embarrass myself by making a bonehead play. For me the most exciting part was running out of the tunnel in the Carrier Dome, though. The whole place erupts. SU fans are like like no other fans in the country. Regardless of whether we were winning or losing, ranked or unranked, they still went nuts. Every time, it gave me chills.
OG: Additionally, what did it feel like when you actually got a bucket?
RD: Such a relief! Once I got that layup out of the way knew I could move on to dunks, three pointers, and everything in between the next time I got in a game. Just kidding. At the end of my senior year, I was 1 for 1 from the field in career shooting. One of the true all-time greats.
OG: And final part of this – you actually got to play against Georgetown. What the heck did THAT feel like, getting on the floor in one of the biggest rivalries in college basketball?
RD: That game was crazy, and one of my favorite memories. I never thought I’d be playing in a game when the students rushed the court. If it hadn’t been my senior night, I probably would have just gone straight into the locker room (like we were supposed to do) once the students rushed on. Instead, I ended up standing on the scorer’s table, hyping up the crowd with Mookie, Terrence, and Eric.
OG: Could you give a basic rundown of what the process is like to become a walk-on? In terms of, how intensive is the tryout process, and basically, how much does it feel like that scene in “Rudy” where he’s trying out?
RD: I never went through the official tryout process, but I did witness it. Basically, tryouts consisted of a pickup game that took place after one of the first practices of the year in October. Walk-on hopefuls would rotate in and out of the game while the coaches watched. Some years, nobody would make the team from tryouts. It depends on the current roster and the skill level of the people trying out.
OG: Along with this, something I’ve always wondered and can’t believe I’ve never asked anyone – when you make the team as a walk-on that first year, do you have to keep coming back and going through tryouts to retain your spot, or do you get a little bit of preferential treatment from the coaches once you’ve earned a roster spot that first time, and gone through the whole season so that they kinda know what you’re about already?
RD: Once you were on the team, walk-ons didn’t have to try out in subsequent years.
OG: At what point, basically, do you really feel like you stop becoming a practice player, and a full fledged member of the Syracuse University basketball team, where it clicks into place that, “Yes, I am a a Syracuse basketball player, not just some guy that GMac and Paul Harris use to practice against”?
RD: For me, that moment was media day of my freshman year. This is the first time of the season that any of the players get to see their jerseys, and put them on. Seeing my jersey with my name on the back was when it really set in that I was on the team. One of the great things about the whole men’s basketball program was that walk-ons weren’t labeled as “practice players,” you’re either on the team or you’re not. This comes from Coach [Boeheim] – I always liked to believe he had a soft spot for walk-ons because he was one too. I distinctly remember after the final game of my senior year (an NIT loss at Clemson), Hop said to me, “You’ll always be a part of this family.” That meant a lot.
OG: Of all the walk-ons you played with at SU, is there one guy who jumps out who you look back on and think, “Okay, that guy should really be playing legitimate minutes somewhere at the D1 level”?
RD: All the walk-ons I played with were very good players, but it took more than just skill to be a walk-on. You have to be able to pour your heart into something and know that when the game comes, you’re going to be more or less on the bench. That’s a tough for many players who are used to getting huge minutes in high school. If I had to choose, I’d say Jake Presutti and Andrew Kouwe stood out to me. Both great players and great guys. I’m on an NYC league team now with Andrew and he’s as good as ever.
OG: Outside of scoring a basket, your first appearance on the court, playing against Georgetown (you know, the obvious stuff), what’s your best memory/story about your time as a Syracuse walk-on?
RD: This has to be the entire 2006 Big East Tournament. Going in, I think SU fans and the team were the only people in the country that thought we could win it. The whole week was incredible, on the back of performances by Gerry that were nothing short of heroic. It was such an amazing thing to be a part of.
While Gerry’s name was in the headlines that week, the contributions a walk-on can make in that environment shouldn’t be overlooked. I played a very critical role in our victories that hasn’t been released publicly – until now. For some reason, Gerry didn’t have toothpaste on the trip to New York and used some of mine to brush his teeth before the first game of the tournament. After his phenomenal shot to win that game, superstition took over and Gerry continued to use my toothpaste before each game that week. Would we still have won the tournament if my toothpaste wasn’t available? Possibly, but that wasn’t a risk worth taking. Every little bit helps.
A huge thanks to Ross for taking the time to answer some questions, and for a certain generous Syracusefan.com season ticket holder for putting me in touch. After graduating from SU, Ross also competed at the Maccabi Games in Brazil, where he helped lead Team USA to a gold medal. His brother Dane played college ball at New Hampshire, and has been playing professionally in Europe for the last few years, and is currently playing in Israel for Hapoel Gilboa Galil.