HE’S NO WALK-OFF
It isn’t all falling leaves and letter sweaters, marching bands and Saturday shadows.
Sometimes, college football’s realities sweep through its magic with the sort of gale force that would make a bundled booster shudder.
Sometimes, Rudy gets run over.
Meet UCLA’s Andrew Baumgartner.
Wait. You already know him.
He is that walk-on wide receiver who tried out for the team on a whim, played well enough in training camp last summer to earn a scholarship, caught a touchdown pass to start the victory over Oklahoma, caught a fourth-down pass on the winning drive against Washington.
In two short months he went from math nerd to folk hero, from dreamer to deliverer, a scrawny, slow, giant epitome of that good old college try.
Our hero is back at practice this summer for his final Bruin season, still scratching, still soaring, with one difference.
He’s a walk-on again.
This summer, by letter, Baumgartner was informed that the Bruins would not be renewing his scholarship.
The money was needed for top freshman recruits. It couldn’t be wasted on a senior who wasn’t as talented. Baumgartner’s fire was appreciated, but his abilities were dispensable.
Eighty-five scholarships, and not one for a kid who caught 111 yards worth of passes.
Eighty-five scholarships, and they took one away from a kid who led all UCLA receivers with an average of 18.5 yards a catch.
Baumgartner wanted to quit.
“It was a tough deal, I figured it was time to get on with my life,” he said.
His parents were stunned.
“I thought once you got a scholarship, unless you did something terrible, they never took it away,” said his mother, Carol Claypool.
He was on the verge of turning in his pads when the strangest thing happened.
All these friends and teammates and coaches he had inspired, they suddenly inspired him.
“People kept asking me to remember why I tried out for the team in the first place,” he said. “It was never about the scholarship. It was always about just loving to play college football.”
So this fall Andrew Baumgartner will play again, one more time, and again he will be the most unique impact player on the field, but for a different reason.
He’ll be the only one who has taken out a $12,000 student loan to be there.
“I guess I want to finish what I start,” he said.
Sometimes, Rudy gets run over.
And sometimes, he just gets back up again.
Baumgartner was on the phone, Friday afternoon, flush from the first week of UCLA practice.
“Things are going great,” he said. “I’m running with the first and second team. I’m having fun. You never know.”
He never gives it a rest, this kid.
He still thinks he has a chance to play, even though walk-ons rarely play.
He still thinks he can have the same leadership impact of last season even though, after school starts, he won’t even be able to eat with the team at the training table.
“That’s OK, I’ve eaten at Taco Bell before,” he said.
He still believes in the fluffy clouds of college football, even as they have grown dark and rained an embarrassing storm upon him.
“It’s a great sport, it helped me find a niche on campus. I play for my teammates, I play for fun,” he said.
All of which inspires two words.
In trying to rebuild the Bruins program, Coach Karl Dorrell needs as many solid cornerstones as flashy shingles. In selling his young program as a place of big dreams, couldn’t he find room for the biggest dreamer of all?
“This was a one-year deal, a one-year reward, and Andrew knows that,” Dorrell said. “He understood everything.”
Maybe, but, hearing Baumgartner’s story, understanding might not be so easy for the rest of us.
He showed up on campus from Marin Catholic High in the Bay Area, a three-sport athlete with a 4.6 GPA but not enough raw skills to warrant a major-college look.
He came to UCLA as an engineering major, but he found himself stopping by varsity practice on the way to class. At barely 6 feet, barely 200 pounds, it appeared that some of those guys could crush him.
But he saw the practices, and himself, differently.
“He would look out there at the wide receivers and say, ‘You know, I can do that,’ ” recalled his friend and roommate, Griff Barash. “You could tell he was starting to dream.”
After leading intramural teams to consecutive school flag football championships -- go Team Ramrod! -- he called the football office after the 2003 season and asked for a tryout.
“I missed the sport, I didn’t feel complete, I had to try it again,” he said during a campus interview last week. “So I called the football office and, on their answering machine, I asked for a chance.”
At the annual student tryouts, he made the team as a walk-on, then suffered a high ankle sprain and watched the 2004 season from the sideline or the couch.
The following spring, still playing, even changing his major to math and economics to better fit his football schedule, he began to get noticed.
Said Dorrell: “He knew he wasn’t the fastest of guys, but he had a special quality about him, he was smart, he worked hard, he showed us something.”
The rest of the summer he would get up around 5 a.m. to work out with the scholarship athletes, running, lifting, making believers of at least one set of folks.
“We heard him getting up every morning, we just knew something good was going to happen,” Barash said.
At the end of summer training camp, it happened, Baumgartner being awarded a scholarship just in time to give it to his mom and stepfather for their 50th birthdays.
“He said, ‘Mom, I got a scholarship’ and I’m like, ‘What, an academic scholarship?’ ” Carol said. “When he said it was for football, we were stunned. We were so happy. It was all he ever dreamed about.”
Who knew it would be a dream that grew bigger than he ever imagined ... and then would disappear faster than he ever thought possible?
Baumgartner remembers the 2005 season not only for the thousands of cheers and dozens of hugs, but for a singular voice.
“I remember, before that fourth-down play against Washington, somebody saying, ‘It’s coming to you,’ ” he recalled with a soft smile. “I remember thinking, a couple of years ago I was in the stands, and now it was coming to me.”
While he became one of the Bruins’ most popular players, he knew he wasn’t one of the best, and he knew fame could be brief.
“I knew it was just a one-year deal, I always knew there was a chance I wouldn’t get it again,” he said.
When players were summoned to the football offices this spring to sign their scholarships -- and Baumgartner wasn’t one of them -- he felt it.
Then, in the late spring, he received a formal letter.
“The letter began something like, ‘As you may or may not know, your scholarship is not being renewed for the 2006-2007 school year,’ ” Baumgartner said.
By then, he knew. But it would have been nice if he had been personally told by Dorrell.
“We didn’t need to say anything, we had already talked about it,” Dorrell said.
It would have also been nice if he had more official time to figure how to pay for his final year.
“My first thoughts were not about football,” he said. “My first thoughts were, ‘How am I going to pay for my final credits?’ ”
His mother’s first thought was of his older sister, Megan.
She had attended Stanford on a one-half swimming scholarship. Her sophomore year, she suffered mononucleosis and struggled.
“But they didn’t take away her scholarship,” Carol explained. “So we thought, if Stanford didn’t take Megan’s scholarship, then UCLA would never take Andrew’s scholarship.”
There’s college swimming, then there’s college football, and you don’t need goggles to see the difference.
Said Dorrell: “We’re still improving here.”
Common translation: They cannot improve with players like Andrew Baumgartner still on scholarship.
My reply: Every championship team has a player like Andrew Baumgartner on scholarship.
“I know that I’m in the bottom 5% of talented people on this team,” Baumgartner said. “But I also know how hard I work.”
Some of his summer work was devoted to finding money for a tuition that he insists on paying.
“I told my parents, I had the scholarship, I lost it, it’s my responsibility to pay for it now,” said Baumgartner, who hopes to recoup the money in a career on Wall Street.
Is it any wonder those around him still shake their heads? And for reasons that have nothing to do with football?
“All that Rudy stuff, it’s all Hollywood,” said his father, David. “My son is real.”
College football is indeed not all falling leaves and letter sweaters, marching bands and Saturday shadows.
Sometimes, it’s even better.
* Now we know what Matt Leinart learned in ballroom dancing class.
Dip to the 10th pick in the draft. Waltz around a fair offer befitting that pick. Swing out of favor with Arizona teammates and fans during a holdout that is completely out of step.
* When Brad Penny joined the Dodgers two seasons ago, his favorite number 31 was being worn by then-coach John Shelby.
It was a number of sentimental value, as Shelby wore it when he helped lead the Dodgers to the 1988 World Series title.
But to foster goodwill in the clubhouse, Shelby gave the number to Penny.
* Another Native American group has mounted a legal challenge against the “Redskins” name on Washington’s football team, and good for them.
How this blatant ethnic slander is continually allowed to proliferate in our nation’s capital is one of the biggest mysteries in sports.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org To read previous Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.