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Walk-ons seize rare opportunity

On Oct. 3, two freshmen earned arguably the most lucrative prize Duke can offer a first-year male student-a spot on the men's basketball team for the 2006-07 season.

Steve Johnson and Nick Sutton-the two freshmen who withstood the grueling tryouts and provided what the Blue Devils' coaching staff was looking for-are now living the life even they only dreamed of just two months ago.

"It really just doesn't seem real," Sutton said. "It doesn't hit you. Every once in a while-once a week, once a month-you just step back, and you realize what's going on."

Though they have taken different paths to their place on head coach Mike Krzyzewski's team, both Johnson and Sutton have one thing in common-they made it, and they get to suit up each game in front of thousands of screaming fans.

After taking a post-graduate year at The Lawerenceville School in N.J., Sutton-who scored seven points per game as the fourth scoring option at Lawerenceville last season-worked out all summer in the hopes of getting a tryout with the Blue Devils. He got in contact with Mike Schrage, director of operations for the men's basketball team, who informed Sutton and the 15 or so others who had inquired that there would be a tryout Sept. 14.

With six players from last year's squad having graduated-including walk-ons Patrick Johnson and Ross Perkins-Duke's coaching staff was open to the idea of having a tryout session this fall for the first time in seven years.

On Oct. 15, 1999, the Blue Devils were also looking to replace a number of departed players, including Elton Brand, Trajon Langdon, William Avery and Corey Maggette. That night, after the varsity team scrimmaged for the crowd, around 30 potential walk-ons played against one another as part of Duke's Midnight Madness festivities. None, however, made the final roster.

"We never know year to year what the walk-on situation may be-it's kind of a wait-and-see approach to evaluate needs," Schrage said. "We have a tryout just to see what's out there. There wasn't necessarily an expectation to add anybody."

Because of the unique roster situation this year, Duke's coaching staff invited all 15 interested men to take physicals and show up ready to play on that September afternoon.

One player who had not shown as much initial interest was Johnson. He had scored 19 points per game for Cheyenne Mountain High School on his way to making all-state second team in Colorado his senior year, but he only received recruiting interest from Division III schools in basketball. At the same time, several Division I schools-including Duke-recruited the 6-foot-5 high-jumper to compete for their track and field teams. He took Duke's offer and began working out with the track team this fall.

On the first day of the walk-on tryouts-of which Sutton actually informed him-Johnson ducked out from track practice to make it over to Cameron Indoor Stadium. There, the potential walk-ons ran through drills and scrimmaged for a couple of hours.

Johnson and Sutton were among the five who were invited back to continue working out with team, and after several weeks of workouts with the team and conditioning, the field was narrowed to two. Both the coaching staff and Duke's players liked Johnson's athleticism and attitude and Sutton's commitment to hustle and defense.

With the decision made, associate head coach Johnny Dawkins called Johnson and Sutton into his office in the Schwartz-Butters building for individual meetings.

"He's a very solemn guy-very direct," Sutton said of the meeting with Dawkins. "He was like, 'Congratulations, you've made our walk-on team.' So I thought it was like a different team that played separately. Then he was like, 'So how do you feel?' I said, 'Well actually I'm kind of confused right now. Did I make the real team?' And he said yes.

"That's when it hit me."

Johnson read Dawkins' message a little more clearly.

"[Dawkins] shook my hand and said 'congratulations,'" Johnson said. "He asked how I felt. I just started smiling-I didn't know what to say."

Once they left Dawkins' office, the freshmen had the same reaction. They both called their older brothers-Johnson's brother is 22 and Sutton's is 21-and the older siblings had no other way to react than to excitedly scream into the phone.

Of the other three finalists, two accepted positions as team managers and the third, a senior, returned to his position on the women's practice squad. Since then, Johnson's and Sutton's lives have transformed measurably. Johnson has left the track team, though he said he would like to return in the spring, and Sutton is just enjoying the ride.

"The second we made the team, our lives changed," Sutton said. "This experience in being under such great coaches and great players, it really is amazing. If we didn't make the team we'd be doing something completely different every single day. Every single part of our daily life has been changed.

"I'd probably be sitting down, by the TV, ordering a lot of food, playing video games and wasting my life away-just kidding," Sutton added.

Generally, Duke expects its walk-ons' largest contributions to come in practice, where they fill in for injured players and help with the scout team. That's something Johnson and Sutton said they were OK with.

"Our role is to make the team better in practice-behind the scenes," Sutton said. "So we're just going to do whatever we can, hustle our ass off, do whatever little things that will make the team better."

The walk-on process is evaluated on a year-to-year basis, but Schrage said the program would not invite a walk-on to join the team simply for a one-year commitment.

Even though their role might be somewhat different from their recruited teammates, Johnson and Sutton are enjoying the ride and fitting in just fine with the team. Just like the rest of the Blue Devils, they have their nameplates above a locker in the men's basketball locker room in Cameron. And just like the rest of the team, they have a number of jerseys and pairs and pairs of shoes stuffing their lockers.

After Duke's win over Georgia Southern, sitting at their lockers in the corner between Marty Pocius and Greg Paulus, Johnson and Sutton were asked if the recruited Blue Devils treated them like the rest of the team. The two walk-ons chuckled, and Johnson asked Pocius, who had just returned to his locker, what he thought.

Speaking in a good-natured and deeper-than-usual voice, Pocius said, "Oh yeah."

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