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Sioux walk-ons do best to impress: Swedish safety, Alaskan wide receiver have aspirations of making team

GRAND FORKS -- At the University of North Dakota football spring game last Saturday, the Sioux coaching staff laid out the red carpet to try to impress approximately 50 high school recruits.

Not every player with college football aspirations receives that kind of treatment.

There are those who simply appear out of nowhere -- or, say, the North Pole in UND's case.

Wide receiver Pat Brown, a native of North Pole, Alaska, is one of a handful of Sioux walk-ons trying to make the team as UND prepares for the 2012 season -- its first in the Big Sky Conference.

Brown isn't alone in his quest to make the team via long-distance roots. There's also William James, a safety from Sollentuna, Sweden.

"Those two both want to be here and be a part of the program," said UND defensive coordinator Mike Mannausau. "We didn't recruit either of them. They just showed up because of the great university we have. They're coachable, they work hard and they're willing to do anything it takes.

"We're fortunate. I think they're both on paths to make it and be good players here."

Brown said he came to UND for the education and because his brother lives in town. Brown's brother, Michael, played on the defensive line at Mayville State in 2011.

James, meanwhile, arrived on campus through a connection between his Swedish national team coach and Sioux head coach Chris Mussman. The two coaches attended a coaching clinic together.

"The Swedish coach gave me coach Mussman's number and that led to me talking to (former co-defensive coordinator John Kelling)," James said. "Kelling said he'd let me play spring ball. That was enough for me to come over and do my best to try to make the team."

The Sioux coaching staff stresses to the walk-ons that the path to making the team is difficult. Mannausau said coaches make sure the players are interested for all the right reasons.

"The biggest thing we want to be is honest," Mannausau said. "It's very hard. It's an uphill battle for a couple of years. They've got to love the game of football. We as coaches have a lot of respect for those guys who make it without having the recruiting bells and whistles as some of the others."

Success stories of walk-ons at UND are numerous.

David Wisthoff of Glenburn went from walk-on to starting fullback and captain on the 2001 NCAA Division II national championship team. Wisthoff was the lead blocker on Jed Perkerewicz's game-winning touchdown run and also recovered a fumble during the title game.

On the current UND squad, defensive end Jay Nelson went from walk-on to two-year starter. Nelson played Minnesota nine-man high school football at Wheaton, Minn., and didn't receive any considerable recruiting interest.

"But for every David and Jay, there are just as many kids who don't make it," Mannausau said.

Brown and James appear to grasp that concept that nothing is guaranteed for a walk-on.

"I hope to get invited back to fall camp," Brown said. "I try to learn every day and listen to coaches. I realize how lucky and blessed I am to play at the next level."

Said James: "My expectation is I want to make the team and contribute as much as I can."

As expected, both players are currently buried on the team's depth chart. However, they could see the field on special teams.

Either way, the two are enjoying the experience.

"Every day is so much fun," James said. "Every day I get excited to wake up, lift and get better."

Brown said: "It's been great. This whole team is very friendly and I love playing with them all."

Miller is a sports reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.