Why a 5-foot-6, 160-pound SEC walk-on who can’t attend most games wouldn’t stop until he made the team

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Sam Salz emerged from Texas A&M’s Bright Football Complex at dusk in early February, eager to explain how he got here.

“Over there,” he pointed, patting down his yarmulke with his other hand. “That’s where it happened.”

The patch of land in the distance sat adjacent to where the Aggies football team practiced. Salz, just a student with a dream in the spring of 2021, would arrive at the field every day an hour before Texas A&M practiced and stay an hour after the practice concluded.

A 5-foot-6, 160-pound Orthodox Jewish student who had never played organized football, Salz intended to try out for the SEC program as a walk-on. He worked on getting into shape and getting faster, even if he didn’t know how. He used old shoes instead of cones for drills. He lined up trash cans to simulate the line of scrimmage. He had no cleats. He didn’t even have a position to practice. He just worked.

A graduate of Kohelet Yeshiva High School — a Modern Orthodox college prep school in Philadelphia with roughly 100 students that did not field a football team — Salz had an improbable mission. And, like always, he had a plan.

Salz thought if he showed up every day and worked out as if he were on the team, he’d be noticed. But he didn’t leave it to chance. That fall, he attended then-head coach Jimbo Fisher’s weekly radio show at Rudy’s Country Store and B-B-Q to meet the man who would determine his fate.

“I walked up to him and looked him in the eye and said, ‘I’m Sam Salz and I’m going to walk on to your football team,’” he recalled, ignoring a team policy requiring walk-ons to have played varsity football in high school.

Fisher looked back at the undersized Salz, being more gracious than serious, and replied, “I’d be honored.”

Salz kept returning to the radio show, the same way he would to that patch of land. He approached Fisher again and asked if he could attend practice to better understand what the Aggies did. Salz scribbled down what he learned and incorporated it into his independent workouts.

The field Salz used was separated from the Aggies practice fields by a chain-link fence.

“I told myself, ‘I’m on this team,’” Salz said. “They are practicing on that side of the fence, and I’m practicing on this side of the fence, but I’m on the team. That was my firm belief. I’d practice, and the energy was great. Guys would come out of practice and realize this guy in a yarmulke was working out every day, and they’d hype me up. Coaches would notice. I’d talk to the coaches.”

Salz didn’t realize the coaches were talking about him, too.

Salz, 21, became obsessed with playing college football at a young age, for reasons he can’t exactly pinpoint.

“People talk about ‘Rudy’ to me all the time,” Salz said of the popular motion picture about a Notre Dame fan willing to do anything to make the team. “It’s funny, I’ve never seen it.”

College football games largely fall on Shabbat — the Jewish Sabbath, observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. As a result, he didn’t grow up watching the sport.

For an observant Orthodox Jew, Shabbat is an entire day meant for communing with God, whether it be studying Torah, praying or being with your community. Judaic law limits distractions. There’s no work, no lifting weights, no cooking, no cleaning, no business transactions, no usage of electricity and no riding in motorized vehicles, among other rules.

And, obviously no playing football.

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Sam Salz can suit up for the Aggies only after sundown for Saturday games. (Texas A&M Athletics)

So, what drew Salz to Texas A&M?

While in high school, Salz — like many other kids — got swept into the Dude Perfect craze on the internet. A group of friends took the web by storm by recording trick shots and putting them on YouTube. Salz learned that the members of Dude Perfect — now headquartered in Frisco, Texas — were college roommates at Texas A&M. Salz became infatuated with the school, a former military institution known for big-time ambitions, revered traditions, oil tycoons and Midnight Yell on Friday nights and Aggies football games on Saturdays.

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Sam Salz started out as a running back but is now a wide receiver for the Aggies. (Texas A&M Athletics)

He researched. The university has a total enrollment north of 70,000 students and there are an estimated 500 Jewish students on campus, according to the University’s Hillel website, less than 1 percent of the population.

He reached out to Yossi Lazaroff, the rabbi of the Texas A&M Chabad. He concluded College Station was the right fit.

“It was really about the culture, what the school represents and the alumni network,” he said. “It’s very different from any other school in America. It also has a strong Jewish community, even if it’s not large.”

Salz said he felt a desire to prove to himself — and to other Orthodox Jewish people — that religious beliefs don’t have to infringe on goals or pursuit of happiness. For him, for some reason, that involved football.

“I’ve always been a ‘see if I can do it’ type,” Salz said. “I don’t know how this got into my head. People think I’m BS-ing, but I always had this belief in my head, back to when I was a little kid, that I had to play college football or else I wouldn’t have done everything I could’ve — or should’ve — in life.”

When Salz was a child, his school held a fundraiser selling cookie dough. The student who sold the most won a flat-screen television. Salz became obsessed and, with the help of a family friend who was an accountant, devised a sales strategy.

“He won,” said his mother, Marianna Salz. “I’m of the mindset that if you want to try something, go ahead and do it. I know my son, so this wasn’t as big of a surprise and shock as it may have been for other people. He is a determined person. When he told me he wanted to do this, I was like, ‘OK, this is your next thing. Try it. Do it.’”

Even with all of Salz’s planning, he never realized Fisher could see him working out from his Kyle Field office.

“In the offseason, even on days we didn’t practice, he’d still come out there,” said Mark Robinson , Texas A&M’s associate athletic director at the time and currently the chief of staff at Florida. “There’s a balcony that overlooks the field. (Fisher) would see him out there and just say, ‘That’s the same kid who comes to the radio show. He’s always working out, and I love his drive.’”

When he first got to College Station in 2021, Salz took online classes at a Texas A&M system school and couldn’t try out for the football team until he became a full-time student on the main campus. And then before the 2022 season, Texas A&M had so many players in the program that it didn’t hold walk-on tryouts.

But during a difficult 2022 season — one that would include a six-game losing streak — Fisher wanted to make a statement to the locker room. He wanted someone like Salz, who wanted something bigger than seemed possible and was willing to work for it, on his roster.

“Halfway through the season, that’s when I got the text from Mark,” Salz said.

The text from Robinson was simple: “Sam, do you have some time to come by the football offices today or tomorrow?”

As Salz responded yes and received more information about the walk-on process, he couldn’t contain himself.

He screamed, jumped up and down and fist-pumped as hard as he could.

Fisher and Robinson invited him on the team, even though he lacked the size and the experience necessary to compete in the SEC.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant or self-aggrandizing when I say this. But there was something that I was willing to do that most people were not,” Salz said. “I made human connections and made myself a known person to them. I think (Fisher) appreciated that persistence. It was something old-school coaches would appreciate.”

Salz never hid his faith, proudly wearing his yarmulke and tzitzit, the head covering and the knotted fringes or tassels on the Jewish prayer shawl that serve as reminders of the 613 commandments in the Torah. But he was initially worried that the coaching staff wouldn’t be understanding of the time constraints of his religion and his need to eat only kosher food.

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Sam Salz attended a high school with roughly 100 students. Now he is on a team that plays in a stadium with more than 100,000 seats.

Texas A&M, though, accommodated Salz. He isn’t expected to participate in team activities on Jewish holidays. The first practice after he was invited onto the team fell on Yom Kippur, and he didn’t attend. Team nutritionist Tiffany Ilten makes sure Salz has access to kosher meals, which they get from a distributor in Cherry Hill, N.J. A microwave in the team facility reads “kosher food only.”

“Our main priority was making sure that all of our student-athletes are fed and nourished,” Ilten said. “It was a challenge at first, but not in a bad way. It was just something new we all had to educate ourselves on.”

Salz and Robinson, who is also Jewish, connected by wrapping tefillin, small leather boxes and straps, around their arms and heads, symbolically binding themselves to God.

Salz, who remains part of the program after Fisher’s November firing and the hire of Mike Elko, started out as a running back. He was brought along slowly, still lacking foundational football knowledge and the physical makeup to run between tackles. The longer he has been on the team, the more he’s been incorporated onto the scout team, where he’s likely to make his biggest impact.

He moved to receiver, where Texas A&M needed depth. He understands his physical limitations when matching up with elite athletes. But as he talked about it, he reached into his pocket and shared a clip of him running a drag route in practice and making a nice catch.

“He goes hard all the time,” Texas A&M strength coach Tommy Moffitt said. “There is a size discrepancy between him and the other guys, but he doesn’t let that discourage him. The players have embraced him, and he works his tail off.”

Added former A&M wide receiver Ainias Smith, a fifth-round pick of the Eagles in the 2024 NFL Draft: “We needed somebody like that on the team. Once people get here, it seems like everybody feels like they made it. His story motivates us to keep going.”

Salz believes he is the only Orthodox Jewish player in college football. It’s not something that is tracked by the NCAA.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for him is reconciling that no matter how good he gets, he will always have restrictions on game day. If the Aggies play during the day, he can’t attend because he’s observing Shabbat.

For night games, he walks more than a mile from his apartment to Kyle Field. There are workers by the entrance who let him into the building — he can’t use his thumbprint scanners on Shabbat — and he finishes out the sabbath in the team rooms. He studies Torah, eats a meal and then gets suited up while the sun goes down. In the middle of the third quarter, he runs out of the tunnel and joins his team in his No. 39 jersey, yarmulke and tzitzit.

“My teammates joke that in the new NCAA video game that my rating should be a 99 overall but I can only be used in the fourth quarter of night games,” he said.

Salz has yet to appear in a game. He couldn’t participate in Texas A&M’s all-walk-on kickoff team (which paid homage to the 12th Man Kickoff Team from the 1980s) during its win over Abilene Christian last November because the game was during the day.

So why does he put himself through this routine if there isn’t the payoff of eventually playing?

“I know why I’m doing it: for my Jewish brothers and sisters,” Salz said. “I knew I’d be in a position to inspire a lot of people.”

(Top image Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photo: courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics)

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