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Walk-on to NFL prospect: How the shortest man on the field blew up into a Memphis Football icon

<p>Calvin Austin III and his sister attend a Tiger football game in the Liberty Bowl in 2003. Although later becoming a star player for the Tigers, he began his journey as a walk-on – knowing playing Tiger football was what he was meant to do.</p>
Calvin Austin III and his sister attend a Tiger football game in the Liberty Bowl in 2003. Although later becoming a star player for the Tigers, he began his journey as a walk-on – knowing playing Tiger football was what he was meant to do.

Five years ago, a freshman walk-on ran out of the tunnel at the Liberty Bowl for the first time, unsure of what to expect. 

As a walk-on, Calvin Austin III knew he was not going to get any playing time. Although he was not thrilled at that fact, he knew that having to fight his way into the rotation was better than the alternative: not playing for the Memphis Tigers. 

“It was my dream to stay in Memphis,” said Austin, a Memphis native who attended Harding Academy. “Obviously I didn’t want to walk on here, but it was either walk on here and actually love being here or go somewhere else where I probably wasn’t gonna be as happy. This was the best option, because I wanted to be here and I got to prove myself against the best of the best.”

Austin has never been intimidated by a challenge. The trackstar earned a spot on the varsity team at Harding Academy his freshman year of high school. He was only 5’4 and 135 pounds at the time, or as Austin describes it, “I was small as hell.”

But even before he was recognized for his football abilities, there was always one thing that differentiated him from the other kids: his speed. Austin recalls being seven-years-old and winning his heat at his first ever track meet. It was then that he was noticed by the coach of a local track team called the Memphis Bears. 

“That’s how I got started with track,” Austin said. “I knew I was pretty fast.”

From then on, Austin never stopped running. He was heavily recruited out of high school by University of Memphis’s Track & Field Team, but Austin only had one condition – if he was going to run track for Memphis, he wanted to play football, too. 

“I accomplished all of the goals I wanted to in college (in track), like go to nationals. I do wonder, if I had the opportunity, what some of the times I would’ve hit if I was just a track athlete,” Austin said. “I mean, I love track, but football is my first love.”

Austin’s first memories in the Liberty Bowl weren’t standing on the sidelines. Growing up, he would attend Tiger football games frequently with his parents and his sisters. 

“We used to go to Tiger games all the time,” Austin said. “We’d get the cheap little five dollar tickets, and be able to move all the way to the bottom because there’d be nobody at the game. People would leave at halftime because they would be losing by a lot.”

What he didn’t know was that in four years, he would help lead the Tigers into uncharted territories and be an electric player, responsible for filling up the arena that was nearly empty just years prior. 

But before he could do that, he had to prove himself. Just like he did his freshman year of high school, he had to earn a seat at the table. 

Despite not playing for the first season of his collegiate football career, Austin joined the track team and instantly began breaking school records his freshmen year. 

“Doing both of them at the same time was hard sometimes,” Austin said. “In 2017, I redshirted. In 2018, I played in a couple games but in garbage time. I still scored a touchdown that year and caught a couple passes. Even in 2018, I was taking reps with the 1’s and 2’s. So going into 2019, I was coming in saying this needs to be my year — the year I blow up.”

The Tigers were facing South Alabama in their third game of the 2019 season when starting punt returner and receiver Pop Williams went down with a knee injury. Then Head Coach Mike Norvell called Austin into the game, a decision that would ultimately change the trajectory of not only Austin’s career, but the Tigers team as a whole. 

“Against UL Monroe, I caught a deep pass, and that kind of started everything for me,” Austin said. “Because then, the next game, I had my own personnel package. And then the Tulane game came, and we actually used my personnel package for the first time and I scored twice that game. From then on, I became a permanent part of the offense.”

By the time the Tigers were facing Houston two months later, Calvin was a pivotal part of the Memphis offense. Every game, his name was called, not because someone was hurt, or because the Tigers were winning or losing by a large amount, but because the offense needed a jolt only the All-American trackstar could provide. 

When Austin ran out of the tunnel on that Saturday afternoon against Houston, he knew he would be firing on all cylinders. 

“I was making some big plays,” Austin said. “In the drive right before halftime, I had caught three or four passes, and then I scored the touchdown. I remember when I was going off the field, all my teammates were yelling, ‘Put him on scholarship!’, hyping me up.”

A scholarship was something Austin expected down the road, but he certainly was not expecting it that night. 

“I ain’t see it coming, especially not that game,” Austin said. “I was definitely expecting it after the season. I’m pretty sure I was the only player on either side of the ball that’s not on scholarship, and I’m actually scoring touchdowns and helping the team out.”

Keeping with Tiger football tradition, the team piled into the locker room following their win against Houston and prepared to break the rock. 

“It’s this little concrete block with the other team’s logo on it,” Austin explained. “Before the game, everyone signs it, and it’s basically saying that you’re gonna give your all for the team. So, after the game, if we win, we have this thing called ‘the hammer,’ and whoever is the player of that game gets the hammer and gets to break it in front of the whole team.”

Now, it was time for Coach Norvell to announce who would receive the honor this evening — but this time, there was a slight twist. 

“Norvell was like, ‘Ok, the person who is gonna break the hammer this game and also our new scholarship player,’” Austin recalled, “and then he said my name.”

Dozens of teammates celebrated alongside Austin as he broke the rock. 

“It was like everything coming full circle,” Austin said. “It meant a lot. It’s so cliche and all, but hard work is actually paying off.”

It’s hard to believe that Austin’s favorite moment as a Tiger was yet to come. In a college career that included so many highs — such as getting to experience College Gameday in Memphis and having a viral punt return that was “liked” on social media by NFL legends such as Travis Kelce — Austin’s proudest accomplishment as a Tiger was winning the conference championship.

“Winning the conference championship is obviously the goal coming into every season,” Austin said, “but Memphis hadn’t had one in 40 or 50 years. The whole city was buzzing. It was like all of Memphis was together. After we won, people ran onto the field and stuff. Everybody was just so happy. Fans and all. You could just feel the togetherness of everyone.”

Looking back on his final season with the Tigers, Austin admits that the season did not provide the result he wanted. He played with a hurt ankle for the majority of the season after spraining it against Temple in early October, and the team finished the regular season Saturday with a 6-6 record. 

Despite a less than ideal season, Memphis earned a spot in their 8th consecutive Bowl Game. However, the game was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak among Memphis’ meant-to-be opponent, the University of Hawaii. As Austin goes through the NFL draft process, he feels grateful. 

“It feels right,” Austin said. “It feels like this is how it’s supposed to be. Not talking about our record and stuff like that. But playing here for five years, having an impact on Memphis football and the city of Memphis, going through adversity this last season and finishing it out in Memphis with my brothers – I don’t know, it just feels right.”

Austin recently returned to his hometown of Memphis after training in Texas for months and impressing at the combine with a 4.32 40 yard dash, one of the top 5 times out of every participant. All of his performances at the combine ranked in the top 3 of all wide receivers – topping out with the 2nd longest broad jump and had the 3rd highest vertical at 39 inches.

He describes approaching the NFL draft as “surreal.” 

“You know how you talk about something for so long, and you believe it’s gonna happen, but when it actually comes, it feels so surreal?” Austin said. “Everyone can’t make it here in Memphis, just because of all of the circumstances, how hard it is to even play football at Memphis. Like, I’m not supposed to be here but I am. I’m not supposed to be here, but I’m blessed enough that I am.”

Five years ago, a freshmen walk-on ran out of the tunnel at the Liberty Bowl for the first time, unsure of what to expect. On Nov. 27th, 2021, he did it for the last time. 

If he had a chance to go back and give a message to eighteen-year-old Calvin, who nervously ran through that tunnel, he knew exactly what he would say. 

“I’d say it’s all gonna be worth it in the end,” Austin said. “Because, well, there was plenty of days where I was thinking — I knew I wanted to go to the NFL, but I didn’t know how I was gonna get there. The days I wasn’t playing, it was just hard and very discouraging. But if I could tell him one thing now, it’s that it would all be worth it in the end. All of the extra work I was doing — it would all be worth it.”

Calvin Austin III and his sister attend a Tiger football game in the Liberty Bowl in 2003. Although later becoming a star player for the Tigers, he began his journey as a walk-on – knowing playing Tiger football was what he was meant to do.

Calvin Austin III, although undersized, attracted attention with his NFL combine performance.

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