Florida Gators football: “The best day of my life.”

We hear and use the term scholarship all the time but have you ever thought of what the word means or all that it entails? Start with tuition, which can run upwards of $8,780 a year if you attend summer class — which most football players do. Throw in room and board (approximately $6,800), books and supplies (approximately $1,510) and that doesn’t even include food, clothes and personal expenses that a typical college student will need.

Not every player can be on scholarship. The NCAA allows just 85 per team. Still, every year across the country, kids decide to walk-on to teams. They wake up before the sun to run and lift with the scholarship players; they sweat, bleed, suffer and celebrate with the scholarship players as well; they just have to pay their on way.

Will Muschamp knows what it’s like to be a walk-on — he walked on at the university of Georgia in 1991 and played safety. Through his own gumption, Muschamp earned his scholarship and was named a defensive captain his senior season. He knows the feeling.

“I earned a scholarship when I went to school and I’ll never forget the feeling when my coach, Ray Goff, walked up to me and said you earned your scholarship,” he said.

For all players, a scholarship alleviates a lot of financial burdens, but even more than that; it gives them a sense of pride, they’re now, officially, one of the guys.

Muschamp remembers the day and he remembers the feelings of pride and achievement that he felt when he earned his scholarship. It’s why he made it a point to award two former walk-ons scholarships on the practice field, in front of the rest of the team, adding to the Florida Gators football team by two.

“We talked about earning the right to win, earning the right to compete. We’ve got two guys who’ve earned the right for a scholarship,” Muschamp said to his team after practice on Friday. “I’ve got two free scholarships, two guys that will contribute to this team this year, Mike McNeely, Frankie Velez.”

The Gators erupted in cheers for their teammates. Velez, who was on a knee just off to Muschamp’s right, stood up, emotional, and hugged his coach. He was soon lifted on to the shoulders of his teammates, an orange helmet extended high above the group in his left hand, he broke the team down, officially ending practice.

It wasn’t long before Velez took to Twitter to express what he was feeling, what this day meant to him.

Florida Gators Football
Mike McNeely never imagined a day where he would be on scholarship at the University of Florida. / Gator Country photo by David Bowie

McNeely — a redshirt senior — played in every game last season on special teams and figures to fit into that role again this season. He was a Pinellas County All-Star as a senior in high school back in 2009. McNeely played basketball and ran track and considered schools like Harvard and Dartmouth before walking on at Florida.

“It means so much. I’m so thankful,” he told GatorZone.com “I don’t know if I was expecting it, I just love working out hard and everything. It will help so much with paying for stuff.”

“I love my teammates so much, the reaction was incredible.”

McNeely will continue to make an impact on special teams but Velez is entrenched in a battle for a starting position.

Velez was thrown into the first last season. He had never traveled with the team before, but was told the week of the LSU game that he would be going to Baton Rouge. Velez was 2-for-2 in front of a sold out purple and gold clad crowd in Death Valley.

He was brought out by a University of Florida rep to talk to the media after the game. He stopped in his tracks when he saw how many media members were waiting for him, just some walk-on kicker.

Velez explained that he had kicked in big situations before. In fact, the last time he kicked in an actual game it was four years prior in the Florida High School state championship game for Ocala Trinity Christian.

Velez finished the year 6-of-8 kicking field goals and has — along with Austin Hardin — distanced himself from the other kickers on the team.

Velez could very well win the starting job, which, five years ago seemed only a dream.

“I walked on here and they told me, five years ago, I would have a one percent chance of playing,” he told GatorZone.com. “Last year I played. I never even dreamed of getting a scholarship because this is such an unbelievable program an it’s an honor for me to receive one from this school.”

“This is like the greatest day of my life right here.”

The players were soaking it all in on Friday and they had Saturday and Sunday to soak it in even more after getting two days off before game week preparation begins on Monday night.

Velez described the day as the “best day of his life” and McNeely was overjoyed as well. But they probably weren’t the happiest people on the field Friday afternoon.

For a former walk-on, Will Muschamp gets no more joy out of anything in coaching than being able to share the feeling he felt 20 years ago. Being able to stand in front of your team and be accepted and rewarded for all of the hard work that you put in. It’s a feeling Muschamp knows from personal experience and one he loves to be able to give back to young men who have worked hard on and off the football field. just like he did 20 years ago.

“There’s nothing better than that feeling of seeing that today and being able to do that on the field with Frankie and Mike,” he said. “They’re two very well-deserved young men.”

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC