There is a scene in the movie Rudy where Sean Astin’s title character is trying out for a walk-on spot on the Notre Dame football team. There are maybe two dozen players trying to fill just a couple of spots and they are being bruised, battered, and bloodied to get a chance to be on the practice squad. Luckily for Sharon grad David Roelke, it wasn’t quite the same experience for him to join the Lehigh University team and play Div. I college basketball.
“It wasn’t anything too crazy,” he explained, laughing when the scene from Rudy is referenced. “We just kind of had a little workout together and then I kind of got thrown right into the team to be honest. It wasn’t too bad.”
Roelke had continued to play basketball and work out when he got to Lehigh, playing in rec leagues and getting to know some of the players from his time in the gym. During one of his workouts at the end of his freshman year, one of the coaches from the women’s basketball team asked him to help out with their practice team.
“Once that hit it off, I kind of realized I still wanted to be involved in basketball and I was confident enough that I knew I was good enough to do it,” Roelke said. “I got great feedback from the program and the guys on the team would always invite me to their pickup and just got it rolling.”
Lehigh was admittedly not Roelke’s first choice coming out of Sharon. He had some opportunities to play basketball with local Div. II and Div. III programs, but he wasn’t sure if the schools were the right fit. He was accepted to Lehigh off the waitlist around the time of graduation. He had been planning on attending Fordham but took a visit to the Bethlehem, Pa. campus and decided to go to Lehigh a semester into his freshman year.
It didn’t take long for Roelke to realize that, as much as he like the school and college life, something was missing.
“I just missed basketball,” he said. “It’s like having a family and I missed that a lot over the first three semesters of college that I wasn’t playing.”
Roelke added, “I’ve always been part of a team, whether it’s AAU or Sharon or whatever, so it was kind of jarring to go to college and not have that in any capacity. Freshman year I’d go to a game and think, wow this is my school’s team and I’m not on it, which was really weird for me because I’ve done it my whole life.”
He said that he was instantly embraced as a member of the team, scholarship or no, and he has embraced living the DI athlete lifestyle, especially the structure that it gives to his day. As an example, Roelke recited his schedule for the following day, which included class, then treatment from the training staff, then a few hours of practice, then an hour of lifting, then 30 minutes of film.
“I think one of the big adjustments for kids when they get to college is the amount of free time that you have and that’s just gone,” he explained. “Learning to manage that has taught me a lot about commitment, priorities, and what I need to get done when.”
Obviously it is easier to commit to the level of work, time, travel, and structure of being an athlete when you are also getting frequent playing time. It is a different experience as a walk-on who only gets on the court every once in a while.
“I’m getting full reps in practice and everything, and I’ll have a week in practice where I feel like I’m one of the best players on the court, I’m killing it, and that doesn’t translate to playing time, which can be frustrating,” Roelke admitted.
He continued, “As long as I’m doing my job then it’s going to translate into the team doing better and, at the end of the day, I want a ring and I want to go to the NCAA Tournament. Whether that means playing in a game or not playing, at the end of the day I want a ring so whatever works for that.”
It didn’t take Roelke long to get his chance to experience DI basketball, as he played in the season opener against Monmouth and scored in his first appearance, prompting a flood of text messages from friends and family marveling at how he was playing at the top level. This season, the Mountain Hawks have made trips to the likes of nationally-ranked Auburn and to St. Mary’s. In the end, Roelke said, “It’s nothing too crazy, it’s just basketball.”
He added, “I came back to all these texts from people, ‘Hey, you scored in a DI basketball game, that’s crazy,’ and on the bus I was like, I guess. I was on the bus and just thinking, I’ve got practice in the morning…It was just basketball. Once you get on the court, it’s not all that different from a Sharon/Foxboro game.”
Over the summer, Roelke started working for a sports recruiting service and he has shared his unique perspective with families looking to find the right fit for their student-athletes. He knows that walking on isn’t always the right fit, as it has been for him at Lehigh, but he emphasizes that the right college experience, whether it is at the DI, DII, or DIII level, is different for everyone.
“I think that there’s kids out there who are thinking, okay I don’t have a scholarship opportunity right now and are thinking about what kind of college experience they want,” he said. “If you don’t want to spend that much time doing it and it’s not something that you love, then go do something else, but if it’s something that you’re going to think I wish I was playing basketball five hours a day then go do it. It’s definitely worth it.”
Lehigh is currently 6-18 on the season, following a win over Lafayette on Saturday, and 3-9 in the conference. While it hasn’t been the best of winters to this point, the Mountain Hawks still have the chance of making a Cinderella run to the tournament and Roelke is hoping to cap his senior season with a chance to play on the biggest stage.
“That’s the best thing about college basketball,” he said. “We have the talent to do it. It’s just a matter of getting hot at the right time. If anyone’s going to make a run, it’s going to be us. We’ve got the pieces to do it, it’s just a matter of putting it together at the right time.”