Dante Pettis has 144 career catches for the Washington Huskies. He will leave the program as one of the best wide receivers in school history.
Azeem Victor has 192 career tackles. He is a preseason All-American linebacker who will likely have a shot to play in the NFL someday.
That is the type of production teams should expect for the players who make up the front end of the roster — the standouts — as they try and win football games and contend for conference championships.
But what about a guy like junior John Gardner?
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Who is that?
For starters, the walk-on wide receiver from Woodinville is a favorite of UW coach Chris Petersen.
“He’s one of those guys that’s worked his tail off for a really long time around here,” Petersen said. “He really does it the right way. He shows up to practice every day, and it’s not for this year — it’s been for years.”
To Petersen’s credit, once in the heat of battle for playing time, the coach does not differentiate between scholarship and non-scholarship players.
But Gardner is here on his own accord.
“I’ve always been a Husky fan growing up, and this is where I wanted to be,” Gardner said.
Gardner had a spectacular senior season at Inglemoor High School, leading all 4A KingCo receivers in yards (1,028 yards) and receptions (58). He was his team’s most valuable player in 2013.
But he had no thoughts of playing college football, choosing to attend the UW for academics.
It wasn’t until right before preseason camp in 2015 that Petersen made a phone call to Gardner to ask if he wanted to come out as an invited walk-on.
“A late invited walk-on,” he said with a smile.
And so, the “thankless” grind of life as a walk-on began.
All Gardner did his first season was serve on the scout team. He never played in a game.
“We have a walk-on pride thing here, doing this because you really want to be here, and not because of anything else,” Gardner said. “You love this game, and you love this team.”
A game last season against Idaho made it all worth it.
Early in the fourth quarter of a blowout win, Gardner saw his first action at wide receiver. And he caught a 12-yard pass from K.J. Carta-Samuels for a first down deep in Vandals territory.
“My parents had left the stadium already. It was such a blowout, nobody was expecting me to get a catch,” Gardner said. “But I could not stop smiling after that. It was a lot of hard work that paid off there a little bit.”
In his two-plus seasons in the program, Gardner has played in 12 games. He has one career catch, and one career tackle.
This season, his role is clearly defined: As a backup on all the special-teams units, he usually gets in for “five to 10” snaps a game on the kickoff coverage team starting in the second quarter.
And Gardner treats those snaps as if they were being played in a Super Bowl.
“The great thing about this team, they appreciate everybody, no matter if your Dante or Azeem playing every down, or whether you are not playing at all,” Gardner said. “Everyone understands, from the bottom up, each player has a part on this team.”
Currently, Gardner is one of 13 walk-on players who have been in the program three or more seasons. Only Shelton running back Ralph Kinne has been here longer.
“Those guys really dictate a lot in how practice goes,” Petersen said.
Besides football, Gardner has also spent plenty of time at a summer internship at Northwestern Mutual, one he will continue at this winter.
Guys on the team know Gardner will someday be a very successful businessman, if that is what he continues to do.
In the meantime, Gardner will stay with the football team he loves, and said he intends to return next year as a senior.
“Every (walk-on) has ups and downs with this, especially when things look bleak for yourself,” Gardner said. “But I think your attitude and energy if what keeps you going — not focusing on yourself, but your team.”