Life of a Walk-On Athlete

While most college basketball players dedicate themselves to the sport hoping to go to the NBA, Drew Cayce is using the sport to advance his career in a different way.

Cayce is a junior and a walk-on athlete for the University of Illinois men’s basketball team. He has been playing basketball since the age of eight and decided he wanted to continue playing after his high school career.

“I am not good enough to play professionally and I have known that for some time now,” said Cayce. “When I knew I wasn’t gonna make it to the pros. I saw that I could use college basketball as a networking tool, to help me meet people for my life post basketball.”

As a junior in high school at La Lumiere, Cayce was the third leading scorer on a basketball team that finished their season ranked 5th in the country by USA Today.

He received offers to play on scholarship for a few small Division One schools and many Division Two schools. Cayce said the way he saw it, his high school was already playing at a high level, and going to one of those schools would almost be a step down for him.

Cayce’s responsibilities on the Illinois team are much different than what his job was in high school.

“My role has changed every year I have been here, but mainly to prepare the players playing the most minutes and be a leader for the younger guys,” said Cayce.

Freshman guard, Mark Smith, spoke to Cayce’s strengths on the team.

“What Drew brought to the team was confidence.” Smith said. “He always worked hard and was a good leader.”

After high school Cayce joined the Creighton University basketball team and redshirted his freshman year. He was not on scholarship at Creighton either. Being a red shirt means that a person sits out the season so they can develop their skills and extend their playing eligibility for another year.

Cayce then transferred to Illinois as a sophomore and had to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules.

“I wanted to be closer to home and I figured if I had the opportunity to play here I should take it, considering many alumni are based around where I live in the Chicagoland area,” Cayce said.

Cayce’s family lives in a northern suburb of Chicago in Libertyville, Illinois.

This season Cayce appeared in nine games and finished with four points and four steals.

Cayce knows that many people do not understand why he has dedicated his college life to basketball when he receives little playing time.

“You know I have thought about stopping a lot, but I think I made it this far so I might as well finish it out,” said Cayce. Plus, the connections I am making I am not going to get anywhere else.”

Cayce said at times it can be hard to stay motivated throughout the season. He mentioned winter break as one of those times, because no one is on campus. Over breaks like this, the team does a lot of activities together to keep the morale up. Cayce added that focusing on being positive helps.

As the team spends so much time together they become close and real friendships form.

“I am probably closest with Tyler Underwood, but I mean I am close with everyone on the team, Cayce said. “You get to know the new guys every year and the bond is really strong.”

Tyler Underwood is the son of Illinois men’s basketball coach, Brad Underwood. Tyler is also a walk-on for the team. Tyler described Cayce’s contributions to the team.

“Drew is always energetic and talkative. He is someone guys look for to help them. He brings high basketball IQ and good shooting to the team, as well as being an exceptional teammate and leader.”

When looking to the future, Cayce is not exactly sure yet what his plans will entail, but he knows that the contacts he has made at Illinois will help him. Cayce said he may want to get into coaching. His time as a college athlete has shown him what he could be doing one day, and it has helped him form relationships with people in the field.

Cayce said he will not have enough time to do an internship over the summer because he will be in Champaign for basketball. However, he plans to further the connections he has made and gain as much experience as he can.

“I have set up a bunch of shadow opportunities. I have been reaching out to people I have met boosters, donators, and stuff like that,” said Cayce. “Coach Underwood has really gotten me to meet the people I need for what I want to do.”

As of right now Cayce is thinking, if not coaching, then he wants to get into sales. He is majoring in Communications and plans to get an MBA after he graduates.

“I think Communications will help with sales as I am a pretty outgoing person and I know how to talk to people and get to know them, which I see as beneficial,” said Cayce. “Plus working on business after my undergrad will help with my life in general.”

Cayce talked about a possible future in sales and how he will gain experience this summer.