The smaller colleges came by Harding Academy four years ago to offer Calvin Austin III full scholarships, and Austin would tell them all the same thing. He wasn’t interested. Not yet, at least. Not when the University of Memphis might still be an option.
Not when he could turn on the television, watch Anthony Miller starring for the Tigers and see so much he could relate to on the screen.
Both starred in football and track in the city of Memphis — Austin at Harding Academy, Miller at Christian Brothers High School. Both were wide receivers who stood under 6 feet tall. Both couldn’t convince a Football Bowl Subdivision team to want them because of their height.
And both ultimately turned down all those smaller schools that actually believed in them enough to offer a scholarship in order to walk on at their hometown school, in order to show everyone else they knew better than the recruiting experts.
“As long as there was a glimmer of hope,” former Harding Academy coach Johnny Allen said of Austin, “he was going to prove he was good enough to play at Memphis.”
A ‘superstar’ with a story
The proof is there for all to see this fall, even if this fall hasn’t exactly gone as planned for the Memphis football program.
Star players opted out of the season. The coronavirus pandemic led to a 28-day layoff and probably impacted the Tigers’ first loss. Then came the embarrassing blowout at Cincinnati last week.
Out of that carnage, however, comes the type of underdog story every fan can grab hold of and cherish whether the Tigers ultimately rebound beginning Saturday against South Florida at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Austin ranks among the top five in the AAC in receptions (31), receiving yards (545) and touchdowns (5).
But this is a story that’s not only just about Austin stepping into the void created by those who are gone to grab the spotlight he so badly sought growing up down the street from the University of Memphis.
It’s a story about Austin becoming the latest former walk-on to emerge as a difference maker at wide receiver for Memphis. So it’s also a story about whether he might just be the next Miller, the record-setting wide receiver who went from walk-on to All-American to the NFL with the Tigers.
Austin is “becoming a superstar,” coach Ryan Silverfield declared earlier this week.
Austin’s complete evolution — if he can become an All-American or play on Sundays — is yet to be determined. But the similarities to Miller, similarities that helped Austin persevere when so many college coaches told him what he couldn’t be, are nonetheless striking.
Each emerged as the team’s leading receiver during their redshirt junior season. Miller averaged about 7 catches, 110 yards and one touchdown in 2016. Through five games this year, Austin is averaging about 6 catches, 109 yards and one touchdown.
The two crossed paths in 2017, when Austin redshirted and Miller re-wrote Memphis’ receiving record book. The way they ended up on the same roster is where they diverge just a bit.
The only reason Austin finally caught the attention of Memphis football was thanks to track and field. Miles Smith, the Tigers’ former assistant coach for sprints/hurdles, wanted Austin to join the track and field program badly. Austin told him the only way he’d do it is if he could also play football.
So Smith went to former coach Mike Norvell and his staff, and an arrangement was made for Austin to become a preferred walk-on with the football team.
But Austin was never on scholarship with the track and field program. He couldn’t be because of an NCAA bylaw widely referred to as the Bear Bryant rule. It states that someone can’t play college football while on scholarship for any other sport.
‘A different type of speed’
That’s what made last November, when Norvell announced Austin had been awarded a scholarship after Memphis beat Houston to close out its historic regular season, so meaningful. Austin, by the way, also set records as a sprinter with the track and field program over the past three years.
“I’m not technically supposed to be here,” Austin said. “They technically didn’t think I could play at this level, so that’s all in the back of my mind. That made me into the receiver and the person I am today because all I know is work.”
It sounds a lot like Miller. It sounds like a 5-foot-9, 162-pound wide receiver who is constantly overcoming the misconceptions of not “looking the part.”
So in last week’s beatdown at Cincinnati, there was Austin catching seven passes for 121 yards as 6-foot-2 cornerback Ahmad Gardner tried to keep up.
“There’s a lot of fast people playing, but he’s got a different type of speed,” Allen said. “It’s amazing how quick he can get lateral and vertical at the same time. He’s able to stop on a dime and accelerate the opposite direction just as fast. It’s a rarity that you can find that in a kid.”
And to think there was a point in time, before Austin’s senior year of high school, when he almost let frustration get the best of this dream.
When he was one of the city’s best football players only a mile down the road from where the Tigers practice. When he went to every University of Memphis football camp he could. When nothing he did seemed good enough for his hometown school to offer a scholarship.
So one day Austin decided he just wasn’t going to come to Memphis like he always thought he would. And if his father hadn’t stepped in, if his father hadn’t provided just the right advice at just the right moment like parents so often do, perhaps Austin would be catching passes elsewhere right now.
“You’ve got to put your pride to the side,” Austin said of his dad’s message back then. “You don’t know what opportunity you could be missing by passing up on something just because you feel you deserve it.”
He could have missed out on the chance to be the next Miller, to prove he belonged here all along. And we could have missed out on watching it unfold before our eyes during this most unusual of seasons.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto