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Watch now: Illinois State football surprises walk-ons with scholarships

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NORMAL – When a university athletic compliance officer brings up “extra benefits” it typically isn’t good news for anybody.

Yet when Cindy Harris spoke to the Illinois State football team recently at Hancock Stadium, she brought glad tidings for six Redbirds.

“We try to set them up,” ISU coach Brock Spack said. “I try to get different people to come in and do it. She did a good job.”

The “extra benefits” of which Harris spoke were Redbird walk-ons being put on scholarship.

“It was truly an unbelievable experience,” said defensive end Dalton Tevis, “something I will never forget.”

Tevis and fellow Normal Community High School graduate Franky West along with Dillon Gearhart, Aidan Bresnahan, Spencer DeForest and Jacob Bellizzi joined the ranks of Redbirds receiving financial aid.

“It was definitely a blessing to see all your hard work has paid off,” West said. “Dalton and I dreamed about this since Normal Community.”

Walk-ons are athletes offered a roster spot on a team but little else. They are responsible for paying for all of their school expenses.

As an FCS program, ISU is allowed the equivalent of 63 full scholarships that may be distributed to as many as 85 players. Partial scholarships are permitted in FCS but not at the FBS level.

“I tell players it’s the best thing I do. I just love doing that,” said Spack. “The only sad thing is I can’t give it to everybody. I would love to give all these kids some kind of aid because they deserve it. We have some really good walk-on players here.”

Tevis and West are 2018 graduates of NCHS. ISU offensive lineman Peter Bussone and receiver Nick Hesse were juniors when Tevis and West were seniors.

“I had no idea. I really didn’t,” Tevis said of the announcement in front of the entire Redbird team. “I really didn’t figure out what was going on until I got in front of the team and saw everybody smiling. Just shocked is the best way to say it.”

Spack remembers Tevis coming to ISU summer camps even before he entered high school.

“He always wanted to be a Redbird,” Spack said. “He came here and worked really, really hard. He never misses a practice. He’s a really good student. He’s been a really good team member, just a great guy.”

Tevis believes walk-ons hoping to follow his path to a scholarship need to “show up every day to practice and work your butt off. You’re out here to prove you belong. Put yourself in the best position to help the team and eventually your hard work is going to pay off down the road.”

West has elevated himself to a second team cornerback spot and is currently playing with a heavily wrapped broken hand.

When West heard Gearhart called to come up in front of the team, he thought it was to be given a scholarship. Then West’s name followed.

“I was so happy for Dillon. He works his tail off as much as I do,” said West. “As soon as I hear my name, I had those chills run through my body. It was a moment of ‘this is really happening to me.’ I couldn’t be happier to be a Redbird.”

“Franky is a really good kid and a hard worker,” Spack said. “He does well in school and he can run. It’s hard to find guys who can run like that. He’s a really good special teams player.”

West’s father, Frank, played at ISU from 1990-94 and professionally in Canada.

“He was ecstatic,” Franky said. “And it was on my (21st) birthday.”

Gearhart at safety and Bellizzi at linebacker have also worked their way up to the second defensive unit.

“Dillon is athletic, explosive. He has a great work ethic as well. He’s going to help us as a third or fourth safety, in nickel (packages) and special teams,” said the ISU coach. “Bellizzi is a tough, physical special teams guy. He’s the third or fourth guy to go in (at inside linebacker).”

The cousin of former ISU linebacker Ty DeForest, Spencer DeForest is a reserve defensive back while also serving as the Redbirds’ top holder and punt returner.

“He has a huge role on our team,” Spack said. “He’s got nerves of steel back there. One of the more difficult skills in football is being a punt returner, and he’s really good. He can get some yards, but he’s really good with decisions and what he can catch. He’s on all of our big four special teams.”

Bresnahan was ISU’s place-kicker for the spring schedule and converted five of five field goal attempts over four games.

“He’s been very consistent on kickoffs and kicking,” said Spack. “He’s worked really hard and done a good job.”

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