Nov. 14, 2012
There was a point not too long ago that Mitch Huelsing didn't know how much longer he'd be able to play the game he loved.
During the fall of his sophomore year in 2010, Huelsing's parents both became victims of the spiraling economy, losing their jobs despite having a combined 60-plus years at their organizations. The unplanned setback left him wondering about his future with the team. A walk-on for the Tigers, Huelsing resorted to cutting teammates' grass and doing other odds and ends to help pay for his own tuition.
"I was fighting, wondering if I was even going to be able to play football and afford it on my own," Huelsing said.
After starting three of the last four games to end the 2010 season, Huelsing came into the 2011 spring camp trying to earn a starting spot. On the verge of seriously deciding the financial obligation was too much, former head coach Larry Porter pulled him aside to deliver some encouraging words.
"Coach Porter brought me into his office, and it was just a message from above," Huelsing said. "He ended up putting me on scholarship to help me to get my grant with school and my books. It was just a blessing."
Now in his senior season, Huelsing's grit and determination has seen him transform from walk-on to full-time contributor in the Memphis defensive backfield. He is one of 50 players nominated for The Burlsworth Trophy which is given annually to the most outstanding football player in America who began his career as a walk-on.
"Mitch is a guy who has worked for everything he has got," said Memphis defensive coordinator Barry Odom. "There is no player in the program who wants Memphis football to be successful more than Mitch does. It means a whole lot to him. Anytime you get that combination - where it means a great deal to him and he is going to work his tail off to do his part to make it there - you have a chance for success."
A native of Munford, Tenn., Huelsing grew up about 30 miles from Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium idolizing the Tigers.
"I grew up as a Tigers fan always going to Memphis games," Huelsing said. "I was in high school cheering on the team, and then a couple years later I was playing with them. It's a dream come true for me."
His older brother, Tyler Huelsing, was a four-year starter on the Memphis baseball team (2007-10). Tyler hit .343 his senior year in 2010 with 12 home runs and was named to the All-Conference USA second team.
Two years younger than Tyler, Mitch wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps at Memphis, but on the gridiron instead. However, the only schools showing interest out of high school were smaller universities such as Lambuth, a former NAIA member that has since merged with the U of M.
Tyler then asked him if he would rather play for Memphis and try to work his way up. But since he wasn't being recruited by the Tigers, Mitch needed an in with the team. The in came in the form of Will Hudgens.
A teammate of Tyler's, Hudgens played on both the baseball team as a pitcher and the football team at quarterback.
"My brother was trying to talk to Will asking `Do you think my brother could get a shot?' and stuff like that," Mitch said. "Will actually threw in a good word with Coach (Tommy) West."
The good word paid off, as Hudgens arranged for a meeting between Huelsing and the U of M coaching staff. Huelsing was allowed to walk-on during the Tigers' fall camp in 2008. After redshirting the season, he made his way up to the scout team entering 2009 as a redshirt freshman.
Toward the middle of the season, Huelsing approached then special teams coordinator John Wozniak and asked him if there was any way he could be on special teams. Later that year at Southern Miss on October 17, 2009, Huelsing made his first collegiate appearance on the kickoff return team. He played the final six games of the season on special teams.
"I was just so proud to even be on (special teams) initially," Huelsing said. "To have come from where I've been, I feel like it's a super humbling experience."
Huelsing continued working on the scout team and special teams at the beginning of his sophomore season in 2010. He began the year second on the depth chart at nickelback behind D.A. Griffin. Toward the end of the season, Huelsing was informed that he would be making his first career start against Tennessee.
Starting at free safety, Huelsing led the team with a career-high 11 tackles, including 10 solo stops and one tackle for loss.
His first tackle in the game was a big one. Tennessee led off the game with the ball and drove all the way into Memphis territory. Facing fourth-and-two from the Memphis 38-yard line, the Vols decided to go for it and handed the ball off to Tauren Poole. But Huelsing stopped him for no game, forcing Tennessee to turn the ball over on downs and setting up a Memphis touchdown drive.
"I'll always remember that big fourth-down stop in the game," Huelsing said. "The crowd went nuts, and that was my first big tackle. It was just unbelievable."
Huelsing finished the year starting three of the last four games. He recorded back-to-back double-digit tackles in his first two starts with 10 stops coming against Marshall.
After being put on scholarship heading into his junior season, Huelsing finished the 2011 season with five starts and saw action in all 12 games. He finished as the team's fourth-leading tackler with 64 total stops and ranked among the top-50 in Conference USA. Huelsing also tied for the team lead with four fumble recoveries and added two pass breakups and two interceptions.
Heading into his final season with the Blue and Gray, Huelsing is one of five seniors to play for three different coaches at the University.
"It's been crazy playing under three coaches," Huelsing said. "I've had five different defensive coordinators here, and everybody has a different scheme. It's been crazy, but I feel like we've taken a step in the right direction this year with Coach (Justin) Fuente. I'm excited to see where he takes the program."
Huelsing realizes the growth the program will need to go through to get to where it needs to be, but is excited to be a part of the change in direction.
"I'm just a senior trying to leave my mark on this program," Huelsing said. "I'm trying to help build a positive foundation and a step in the right direction. I know Coach Fuente and his staff are going to do great things here, and we're just trying to be a part of that movement."
Heading into the UAB game on Saturday, Heulsing has played in 40 career games, starting 11. He has registered 34 tackles this season and has posted 133 career tackles. It's a far way from the player whose hard work and determination helped him move from walk-on, to special teams' member to starter in the defensive backfield.
"From the beginning, we knew he had the talent," Tyler Huelsing said. "He will not give up. It's been awesome to watch."
More about the Burlsworth Trophy
Without one Division I scholarship offer, Brandon Burlsworth walked on at the University of Arkansas I 1994, worked his way to being a three-year starter and was eventually named an All-American in 1998. Burlsworth was selected as the 63rd overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1999 NFL draft, but was tragically killed in a car accident 11 days later.
The Burlsworth Foundation was created in his memory and supports the physical and spiritual needs of children, in particular those children that have limited opportunities.
"We are extremely proud of this group of nominees for the 2012 Burlsworth Trophy," said Marty Burlsworth, CEO and founder of the Burlsworth Foundation and brother of Brandon. "All of these young men have worked very hard to get where they are. The stories behind these players are incredible and they are all winners in my book."
Springdale Rotary Club will host a banquet on Dec. 3 in Springdale, Ark., to honor the finalists and to announce the 2012 winner.