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  • Sohini Singh

Walking-on Sunshine

Walk-on Athlete AK Okereke

Image: Jason Wu, BRSN

Year-round, thousands of Americans are glued to screens or hitting the road for one reason. When I was fourteen, I sat with a basketball in one hand and a TV remote in the other to watch March Madness. Now, as a college student, I know for a fact that athletics on every level are a reflection of the culture of the institution they represent. Cornell’s athletic culture is built on the foundational principles of excellence and success but also has created a haven for students who didn’t see chances to play their sport long term after high school. 

 “The athletic culture is the perfect representation of everything Cornell stands for… Generally, in athletics, we’re just really hardworking and scrappy and we’re willing to go out there and give it our all,” basketball player AK Okereke ‘26 explains. Since coming to Cornell in 2022, Okereke has walked onto the Cornell varsity basketball team and is now averaging 18 minutes per game, cementing himself as a reliable rotational player and a valuable starter. 

This “walk-on” culture is particularly unique because at other NCAA Division 1 institutions, many coaches don’t even think of accepting non-recruited members of the student body onto rosters. Before I started writing this article I typed “Walk-on statistics, Cornell” into Google. There wasn’t a single reliable source giving a reliable number set. Afterwards, I typed “Walk-on requirements NCAA D1,” only to find niche subreddits with the same rendering everywhere: most students don’t have a chance to play collegiate varsity athletics unless they have a recruitment offer coming out of high school. Yet, Cornell goes against the grain. While the process to become a walk-on is arduous, the Big Red continuously provides students with opportunities to pursue athletic careers. 

However, it’s still a difficult path that requires discipline and work ethic. Walk-ons have fewer resources to get up to speed with team fitness requirements and thresholds. When Michael Meneshian ‘26 was told by the Cornell heavyweight rowing coaching staff that he had to meet certain prerequisites in fitness and speed before walking on, he had to resort to some unorthodox methods at his previous college, New York University: “There was no rowing equipment at NYU gyms, so I had to get a job at a private gym where I could have free access to the machines.” 

Image: BRSN Digital Media

Meneshian then went on to discuss his own personal struggle with navigating the lack of athletic facilities on NYU campus and how personally for him, that was another hurdle he had to jump over just to even get to the gym to do his workouts. However, the efforts paid off. Meneshian and Okereke’s stories lead to one streamlined narrative that was common amongst all of the athletes I interviewed. Upon reaching their coaches' standards of fitness and performance, a spot on the team was offered to both of them. 

After the obstacle of athletic achievement was removed, the social one became a forefront issue. You’d probably think that assimilation into a team full of recruits would be intimidating, difficult, or awkward.

Thankfully, neither Okereke or Meneshian detailed struggles of getting along with either of their teams. Each told me it took a week or two for things to settle, and both would call their teammates close friends now. 

However, walking onto a varsity team at Cornell isn't always easy. Some athletes decide that they do not end up wanting to stay on a team for academic or personal reasons. Women’s rowing team member Liz Brantley ‘26 highlighted that the positives outweighed the negatives for her. Brantley decided to walk on for rowing her freshman year because of encouragement from a family friend: “I missed the structure and social circle athletics gave me… Crew has been a great motivation for me to improve myself physically and work towards larger goals.” Later, Brantley shared some of her personal struggles with assimilation into the sport that were both social and athletic. 

“The team was very accepting of me coming in and they saw my potential, but definitely at times it feels evident that because I wasn’t there during the initial recruiting process where my class bonded, I’m a newcomer.  Also, because I was a novice, I sometimes feel behind in terminology and culture. I wish I had a Quizlet to learn all of it,” she joked. Though Brantley has had some obstacles to battle within her athletic journey, she still comes out on top in the end. When I asked her about how she felt about walk-on impact campus-wide, she lit up.

Liz Brantley

Image: Jason Wu, BRSN

“Walk-ons do a really great job of holding a team accountable and put pressure on teams to do better. We kind of bring a new element [to teams] and can change culture, work ethic, and skill set.” 

Like Brantley said, walk-on athletes are more than capable of bringing about team success. Eventually, background becomes irrelevant as soon as performance becomes the priority, not just for the athletes themselves, but also for the coaches and institutions they represent. 

“Some of the older walk-ons, like juniors, seniors, and a couple fifth years, they’re some of the top guys on the team. It really doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. Our team has proven that if you work really hard from wherever you start, you’re going to get to the top,” Meneshian praised when asked about the walk-on/recruit hierarchy within his team.

 In other words, regardless of the different expectations a coach may have, the only thing that matters is work ethic and performance, not where you come from or who you are. 

“Walk-ons show that everyone has the opportunity to achieve something great, even though their starting point might be immensely different than anyone else in that sport,” boasted Meneshian.

At the end of the day, this all ties back to those people who trek across the country, that have their noses pressed to a TV, the children who watched Virginia’s ultimate redemption, and the people who build collegiate athletics. It’s about the kids who come to Cornell to become adults and somehow along the way find themselves thrown into a world where they’re the ones on screen and under bright lights. If anything, this institution’s propensity for walk-on success embodies not just the athletic culture of our nation but also is the personification of “Any person, any study.” The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what your journey here looks like: it's about what you bring to the table.

AK Okereke

Image: Jason Wu, BRSN


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