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September 6, 2013

'A lifelong dream'

OXFORD, Miss. -- Walker Sturgeon walked on to the Ole Miss football team in the fall of 2010.

To date, he's never played a down.

That doesn't mean the 6-foot-2, 241-pound junior from Horn Lake, Miss., hasn't contributed to the Rebels' program. In fact, he may have played quite a key role.

"I felt like I contributed," Sturgeon said. "I told myself every night that if I didn't think I was making this team better or if I didn't think I had a way to contribute, I'd leave tomorrow. There was always something. I knew they needed me here for something, so I kept going."

When Houston Nutt was relieved of his duties after the 2011 season and Hugh Freeze was hired away from Arkansas State, Sturgeon found his niche. He knew he wasn't going to beat out more talented athletes such as C.J. Johnson, Cameron Whigham and Carlos Thompson, but he felt he could make the transition to a new staff smoother for his teammates.

"You can promote unity at a time when there's really not a lot of unity," Sturgeon said. "Coming out of the coaching change, there was a lot of individual assertion and there wasn't a lot of trust going around. There was a whole lot of individualism, people not trusting the new coaching staff, not trusting their teammates and a lot of animosity floating around. I felt like I could promote team unity. I felt I did that very successfully."

Told of Sturgeon's assessment, Freeze smiled and nodded his head in agreement.

"You know what? I would see him as that," Freeze said. "I think it's common any time there's a change in coaching staffs _ I've come in in three different places where there have been some issues for whatever reason _ that the initial reaction is, 'This guy is preaching all this stuff about core values but we just went through a very difficult time. What separates him and that staff from the others?'

"It takes some time, so it expedites the process if you have some kids who say, 'You know what, what am I going to lose if I choose to buy in? Maybe I can try to help expedite it by being a unifier.' That's exactly what Walker did. For some reason, these kids like listening to him. He's a good talker. You go in the locker room and they like listening to Walker Sturgeon."

Sturgeon was rewarded with a scholarship for that loyalty and hard work last month, one of five walk-ons to receive the honor.

"It was great, probably one of the top five greatest experiences of my life," Sturgeon said. "I've been working so hard for three years for it. I'd been led to believe that I wasn't going to get it up until the point where I got it. Getting it there was really emotional and it felt really great."

Sturgeon admitted there were times in those first two seasons at Ole Miss when he wondered if all the hours spent toiling on a practice field and in a meeting room were worth it. Once he found his niche, he knew it was.

"You realize you have a place to contribute," Sturgeon said. "If you can't find a purpose behind what you're doing, then you fall out. That's why there are no walk-ons left from my class. The other guys, they just couldn't stay motivated. It's not a critique of their character. They're great guys. They just couldn't find ways to stay motivated. I found ways to stay motivated and it kept me in here for three years. When some of the other guys backed off, I kept going, and it's paid off now."

"I just think it's one of the coolest things in sports, really," Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. "To see Walker come out to work every day, go down to scout team, be in meetings and be around all the guys that he sees get all the accolades and all the attention and just in the back and continue to go to work, it speaks unbelievable about their character and where they're going in life, not just in football. Walker has been so great to us. It's awesome we were able to reward him with a scholarship to pay off all that hard work."

Ole Miss (1-0) plays Southeast Missouri (0-1) Saturday at 6 p.m. at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The game is off the books in Las Vegas, but the Rebels are a 49-point offshore favorite. If the oddsmakers have the differential remotely right, Saturday could provide Sturgeon with an opportunity he's coveted since childhood.

"It's going to be amazing," Sturgeon said. "It's been a lifelong dream. Most of these guys, they're just great athletes. I've always wanted to be an Ole Miss Rebel. It's always what I wanted to be. It's been a lifelong dream, and now I'm going to live it."

If it happens, Sturgeon won't be the only one with an accelerated heart rate.

"I totally get in this business that we're probably hired to be fired," Freeze said. "I've never been through that as a head coach but I'm not nave enough to think that couldn't happen, and certainly it would be very difficult when that day occurs, but I'm determined that our staff will not be defined by the scoreboard.

"Even if that day comes, there will be hurt. There will be disappointment, but the things I'll look back on are the Jordan Holders giving up a scholarship for a teammate, the Walker Sturgeons getting in on a Saturday and his family's happy and the Jeff Scotts totally turning around and being a different person. No question it will be gratifying, quite gratifying, if we have a chance to put those guys in the game."

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