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The 12th Man: Eric Zalewski’s journey from manager to walk-on

The undersized junior point guard has taken a long road to get to where he is today — and he’s not done just yet.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, Eric Zalewski isn’t sure why he does it. After all, morning workouts, lengthy practices and many a weekend road trip can feel like foolish uses of time for someone who virtually never leaves the bench. Six hours a day spent in Welsh-Ryan Arena inevitably means sacrifice – usually coming in the form of a missed family gathering or a late night catching up on high-level economics.

“The type of stuff you have to cut out of your life is your time to decompress,” Zalewski said. “It’s hard because you have to pick and choose between when you decompress and watch an episode of “The Office” and when you make time for friends. Everything is a lot more calculated. If it’s not, then your life is a hell of a lot more stressful.”

A junior at Northwestern, Zalewski is six months into what is a life-long dream for many: playing Division I basketball. After managing the Wildcat basketball team for nearly two years – and after displaying a work ethic that won over the hearts of players and coaches alike – Zalewski earned a walk-on spot on the roster. Countless kids have played out such a scenario in their imagination; very few ever realize it.

But, the endless hours and the cliché blood, sweat and tears haven’t exactly led to fame and glory for the 12th man on the roster. He’s seen just over 40 seconds of playing time all season, only leaving his designated cheering spot at the end of the bench when the game has gotten sufficiently out of hand. The Wildcats have finished in the bottom two of their conference for the third consecutive year. And, unlike most of his teammates, basketball isn’t paying for his education.

Between class, basketball, friends, a girlfriend, the job search, and multiple on-campus organizations, the 21-year-old is spread so thin that there is little time for the leisure activities that help keep most of us sane.

“The saying ‘It’s never as good as it seems and it’s never as bad as it seems’ is incredibly true,” Zalewski said. “From the outside, everyone could look at me and think, ‘He goes to Northwestern, he’s on the basketball team - his life is good.’ But there’s more to it than that, there are times where you question whether it’s worth it.”

Growing up in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Zalewski played his high school hoops at Stevenson, a basketball powerhouse in Lincolnshire, Ill. Suiting up alongside the likes of Jalen Brunson, a two-time NCAA champion with Villanova, and Justin Smith, a current forward for Indiana, Zalewski was hard-pressed to find playing time as an underclassman.

Instead, he settled into a largely thankless role that would prove valuable experience moving forward: scout team point guard. A player on the scout team makes almost all of his contributions strictly within the realm of practice, preparing the players who will actually see the floor come game time by simulating the playstyle of the upcoming opponent.

“Get on the floor, rebound, do anything you want – that’s why I loved him so much,” said Pat Ambrose, Stevenson’s head basketball coach. “And obviously that’s why I think he can stick in the Northwestern program, because he’s willing to do those things. Not many kids are, because of perceived lack of playing time or glory, but he does it.”

Despite occupying a seat on the bench during Stevenson’s 2015 state championship run (he would be heavily featured as a point guard during the final two years of his high school career), Zalewski made quite the impression on his coach. So much so that Ambrose would later vouch for him, calling up Northwestern head coach Chris Collins when Zalewski decided he wasn’t quite finished with basketball. It turns out competing against a McDonald’s All-American in Brunson and a variety of other future Division-I athletes is the perfect preparation for a wannabe walk-on.

Zalewski arrived at Northwestern with the intention of leaving the rust-colored ball and hardwood floor behind, acknowledging that, at just 6’0” and without next-level athleticism, books would almost certainly have to replace hoops. But the allure of the high-pitched squeaks and the routine synonymous with organized basketball proved too much.

So instead, he settled on a compromise that he hoped would stoke the fire of his basketball involvement without completely letting it roar: managing the team. With his heart set on a career in the operations and business side of basketball, management experience in the sport seemed a logical first step. Though the job mainly entailed grunt work – putting equipment out, cutting film, rebounding at practice, etc. – Zalewski stressed its necessity.

“If you don’t play basketball [in college], that’s your rite of passage,” Zalewski said. “It’s being a manager, making connections, paying your dues to get a shot to keep working up the ranks. That’s how it goes.”

But the compromise soon proved not nearly enough.

“The more and more I showed up to practice as a manager, I found that I liked playing more than the operation side,” Zalewski said. “I enjoyed playing, so I knew if I wanted a chance to be a walk-on, you have to be a walk-on before you’re given the title.”

Zalewski said he had never heard of a manager earning a walk-on spot at Northwestern, though, making the chances of his ascendance from equipment wrangler to student-athlete that much more unlikely.

He sacrificed holiday breaks, staying on campus or traveling with the team to prove his commitment. He showed up to the gym whenever players had to be there. He worked himself into the best shape of his life. Nothing was promised, yet Zalewski went all in.

Collins eventually gave him what amounted to a week-long tryout period, as injuries and the imminent graduation of one of the team’s walk-ons had created an opening on the roster. Waking up every morning “nervous as hell,” Zalewski held his own with Northwestern’s scholarship players well enough to earn a permanent roster spot at the end of his sophomore year.

Playing time has not come along with his jersey and locker. Zalewski’s only in-game action has come in the form of 20 seconds at the end of a blowout win over SIU-Edwardsville and a handful of seconds at the conclusion of a 26-point loss to Minnesota.

But Zalewski said he isn’t concerned with not playing. Pressure does come with checking into a Big Ten game, of course, but, more importantly, he understands his role lies within assisting the team in its preparation, not its actual performance.

It’s this ability to stay positive in the face of what many would consider a thankless scenario that has caught the eye of his teammates, including fellow walk-on Tino Malnati.

“The one thing that sticks out is he always has a smile on his face,” Malnati said. “No matter how tired he is, no matter how annoyed he is with doing some work that no one wants to do, he always has a smile on his face and is able to enjoy it and make the most out of it.”

So, when asked whether it’s all been worth it – the endless grind, the sacrifices, the repeated ankle injuries, the lack of glory, and so on – Zalewski paused. About 30 seconds went by before he answered:

“Well, it’s worth it. No matter how hard it seems in the moment, or how much I feel like I’m just grinding and grinding for however much we win or however much attention I get - which is very little - I’m going to be able to talk to my kids about it.”

“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”