EDMOND — Caden Sander wore an OU shirt as he sat at a table decorated with an OU tablecloth, OU balloons and an OU hat.
The football standout from Deer Creek High School had all the trappings of a signing day ceremony.
Except for the national letter of intent.
On a day when hundreds of high school athletes across Oklahoma accepted scholarship offers by signing on the dotted line, a handful of football players celebrated the day by not signing anything. They turned down scholarship offers, some to major-college programs. They opted instead to take a path where nothing is promised and no letter of intent is required.
They decided to walk on.
There were prospects with Division-I offers like Nick Basquine from Norman North, Andre Dowuona-Hammond from Yukon and John Cole Neph from Owasso. There were first-team All-Staters like Cade Parker and Matt Hockett from Norman.
There was also a kid who as recently as last week didn't think he'd be part of signing day.
Sander did a little bit of everything for Deer Creek during his high school career. At 6-foot, 175 pounds, he played quarterback as a senior, but he'd also spent time at defensive back and kick returner.
But as signing day approached, he had no offers that appealed to him.
Southwestern Oklahoma State had offered a full ride. Central Oklahoma made an offer, too. Sander just wasn't interested in playing Division II football.
So, he'd all but decided to go to Oklahoma and study petroleum engineering.
Football wasn't in his future.
Then last week during class, he got a text from Deer Creek football coach Grant Gower.
“I've got some news for you if you'd stop by my class in between periods,” it said.
Sander went to Gower's classroom.
“Hey,” the coach said, “I just got off the phone with Coach Heupel.”
Sander's stomach dropped.
He couldn't believe what Gower was saying. OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel had called and wanted Sander to be a preferred walk-on.
“We didn't send anything in to them,” Sander said of his highlight video. “They kind of found me.”
And once Sander talked to Heupel, he quickly decided that he wanted to walk on. Yes, if he makes the roster after a two-week tryout period in August, it will mean balancing a demanding major with major-college football, but Sander believes he's up to the challenge.
He grew up around farming and ranching where early mornings, hard days and late nights are the norm. His granddad is a custom harvester, and Sander spent many summers traveling around the countryside helping to harvest other people's crops. His dad has worked in the cattle industry for as long as Sander can remember and is now an operations manager.
“He's worked his way up,” Sander said of his father. “I guess he's always instilled in me that you've got to work for what you're going to get. It's not just going to be handed to you.”
That will definitely be the case for Sander at OU. He has no football scholarship, though scoring a 29 on the ACT has helped him secure enough academic scholarships to nearly pay his way. He has no roster spot.
But he doesn't mind.
“I kind of like it that way,” he said. “It leaves me working for something. I have to work for that scholarship and for a spot on the team.
“I think that leaves me a little hungrier than some other guys.”
For any walk-on, preferred or otherwise, the challenge is great. But on signing day, athletes like Sander were just like everyone else. They thanked their families and friends and coaches. They posed for pictures. They laughed and smiled.
They celebrated the possibilities in their future.
Jenni Carlson can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.