For a guy who intercepted four passes in the Springfield High School football season opener in 2007, safety Ben Mathis found making an impact as an Illinois walk-on a difficult challenge.

For a guy who intercepted four passes in the Springfield High School football season opener in 2007, safety Ben Mathis found making an impact as an Illinois walk-on a difficult challenge.


"You think it's going to be an uphill battle,'' said Mathis, who just completed his freshman year. "Once you get here, you kind of realize it's more like a mountain.''


There are success stories, like Illini junior tight end Zach Becker, a St. Joseph-Ogden graduate who began as a walk-on but earned a scholarship and a spot on the first string heading into Camp Rantoul. Or Greg Lewis, a walk-on wide receiver a decade ago who earned a scholarship and played the last seven years in the NFL.


But for every underdog story, there's a handful of walk-ons every year who find the dream far out of reach. Walk-ons stand at the end of the line, when it comes to everything from practice time to expectations.


Yet athletics runs in the family for Mathis, whose father, Steve, was a reserve on the Peoria Central High basketball team that finished third in the 1974 Class AA state tournament. So Ben Mathis wanted to give it a try. During the season, there was the opportunity to run out of the tunnel prior to six home games, but that's been the only big payoff until the end of spring drills, when Mathis was listed at third string at free safety.


The bottom line: There wasn't anybody behind him, Mathis said. So as he put football out of his mind to complete final exams this week, Mathis still hadn't completely decided if he would spend another season with the program.


"We get a week off for summer vacation, then we're back here for summer and the same thing all over again,'' Mathis said. "As of right now, I'm leaning toward playing, but I'm not 100 percent.


"I did have a chance to prove myself this spring. I would look forward to having more opportunities in coming years, but I don't know right now. I'm trying to balance everything and decide where my heart's at. I have to decide if I want to take that extra step and devote a whole year to the program. It's really a tough decision.''


Mathis is a 6-foot-3, 190-pounder who turned down a partial scholarship with Illinois State. His Illini career began with Camp Rantoul, the two-week off-campus training camp in early August that's the definition of a full-time job: practices surrounded by meetings and weight lifting.


"Overwhelming,'' Mathis said.


His playing time in practice (the repetitions) was limited. During the season, walk-ons serve on the scout team -- the unit that prepares the offense and defense by showing the opposing team's formations. During spring drills, Mathis' reps were limited early because the defense was learning a new system under coordinator Vic Koenning. Thus, the first- and second-string defense needed the bulk of the practice time.


The next season starts again in June with off-season conditioning and 7-on-7. School doesn't get any easier, said Mathis, an academic all-stater as a Springfield senior, so time management gets more difficult especially in a sport as time-consuming as football.


"My decision will affect my whole next year,'' Mathis said. "Classes get harder. Things will intensify. Is it worth getting up at 6 in the morning and spending five hours a day at football and juggling homework and classes and getting enough sleep to perform at your top level?''


Even without a scholarship, Mathis felt the weight of expectations from his hometown.


"You have the unspoken burden on your shoulders to make something and turn it into a positive,'' Mathis said. "I would say it's tougher than expected.''


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.