When the clock ran down in the fourth quarter and students poured out of the stands and onto the field after Harvard defeated Yale in The Game on Nov. 17, senior defensive tackle Adam Riegel rejoiced at midfield with the rest of his jubilant teammates.
Although the team celebrated the victory together, Riegel’s path to that moment was one that few teammates on the over-100 man roster shared. While the vast majority of the football team was recruited to play at Harvard, Riegel—and roughly 11 other players, according to his estimate—walked on to the team over the past four years.
Once the walk-ons have successfully made it onto the roster, they are treated like any other member of the team. During the fall season, every player endures two-a-days composed of early morning lifts and long afternoon practices, and training stretches on throughout the winter and spring.
But walk-ons such as Riegel cannot expect to receive much playing time, and they often end up spending the vast majority of seasons on the sideline. Riegel has been an exception and has seen a decent amount of action, as he appeared in the final six games of last season and every game this year. But before his junior year, Riegel only appeared at the very end of two blowouts, an allotment more typical for a football walk-on.
Even though the walk-ons may not contribute as much as the team’s highly recruited players on the field, players such as Riegel nevertheless hold an important position on the team.
“The walk-ons are guys that probably are respected as much or more than any of the other guys simply because they weren’t recruited, they have not been the marquee players, and yet they come to work every day with pride,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “I think you appreciate those guys as much or more than our highly recruited guys who are great All-Ivy caliber players.”
For Riegel, his four years on the team have been part of a long journey, one he believes was still worth all the time and effort.
“I wanted to see how far I could push myself and how good I could be football-wise, and that’s exactly what [the program] has given me the opportunity to do,” Riegel said. “Competing with the best competition in 1-AA and really challenging myself and being part of a winning program…. I have nothing but great things to say of my experience.”
ROAD TO HARVARD FOOTBALL
Riegel played high school football less than an hour from Cambridge at Walpole High School in Walpole, Mass. Playing on both the offensive and defensive lines, Riegel served as captain his senior year and guided the team to an undefeated 13-0 record to finish second in the state.
The lineman was in contact with several Division III schools, mainly in the NESCAC, during the recruiting process throughout his junior and senior years in high school.
But once Riegel was admitted to Harvard in the normal spring admissions process, he knew he wanted to come to Cambridge and join the Crimson football team.
“When I came in to talk to the coaches about walking on in my senior spring [of high school], I went in and met with Coach Murphy, and he was very honest,” Riegel said. “[Murphy told me that] very few walk-ons come here and play, and it’s a very long road. And that really made sense to me.”
Since the roster was under capacity during Riegel’s first year, he did not have to go through the normal tryout process of drills and sprints that is typical for prospective walk-ons. As he had already provided the coaches with his recruiting tape, Riegel was offered a spot at the preseason camp.
According to Riegel, a total of five players walked on to the team his freshman season. Three of those players stuck with the program all four years: Riegel, and senior offensive linemen Jim Deng and Chase Sippel.