Though they may all wear the same uniform, there is no cast of characters with more diverse backgrounds than the Penn sprint football team.
Like any college team, the squad has its fair share of players recruited for the team. However, the majority of the team is composed of walk-ons.
Many players joined after playing high school sports other than football, including soccer, lacrosse and even baseball.
A select few even joined after departing another Penn team.
Junior offensive lineman Jack Howerton, a former member of the lightweight crew team, is one of them. Joining the team was a learning experience for Howerton, who had never played football until he walked on.
“I was one of the bigger guys on the lightweight crew team,” Howerton said. “It just didn’t seem healthy at a certain point, so I decided I still wanted to be on a team … It seemed like I was just about the right size, and it would teach me to play a new sport.”
Though forced to play catch-up at first, Howerton quickly adapted to the gridiron and hit the ground running with his new teammates.
“They’re a great group of guys,” Howerton said. “They’ve been very welcoming and it’s been a great learning experience.”
Howerton isn’t the only player to switch teams.
Senior wide receiver Kirk Hayes, a former Quakers baseball pitcher, also made the move. However, he was unable to get under the weight limit for this season.
Not every player has a story like Howerton or Hayes, though. Some have arrived at Franklin Field through far more traditional means, such as standout freshman defensive end Mack Pierson.
Overlooked by many teams because of his 5-foot-10 stature, Pierson watched many of his teammates at football powerhouse Santa Margarita High School in Long Beach, Calif., receive scholarship offers to Division I schools.
Originally hoping for a shot to play under coach Al Bagnoli, Pierson’s opportunity at Penn football glory was given to him instead by sprint football coach Bill Wagner.
“I was really upset because I wasn’t going to be able to play football at the next level,” Pierson said. “And then I found sprint football … [Bagnoli] turned me on to the sprint football team, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I’m so happy that I found sprint football. It’s allowed me to continue something that I love when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play again.”
Given a new lease on his football life, Pierson has certainly made the most of every snap he’s played for the Red and Blue so far — he currently leads the team with six sacks and 12 tackles for a loss.
For recruited players like Pierson, the occasional two-a-day is the most grueling part of the schedule.
For junior offensive lineman Matthew Paige, though, every day is a two-a-day.
Paige, who also participates in Army ROTC at Drexel, has a unique practice schedule, often waking up well before 7 a.m. for ROTC training before class and going to football practice at 6 p.m.
It was actually military service that was the first calling for Paige, who didn’t join the sprint team until one of his friends prompted him to do so.
“I lived in Hill, and I met another kid who lived in my hall who played, and he told me I should come out because I was wearing a high school football shirt,” Paige said. “I called [Wagner]. I just decided to come out, and it was all history from there.”
For all of their many backgrounds and stories, the Penn sprint football players have coalesced into a single, cohesive team.
For Wagner, it’s all part of the sprint football tradition.
“There are guys that just have a willingness to want to be part of a family atmosphere, camaraderie, friendships, and these friendships last beyond the four years here at Penn,” he said.
“I think that’s what they find, and it’s why I’m still here.”
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