By Michelle Smith
STANFORD, Calif. - Ryan Whalen took a chance coming to Stanford. It turned out to be the chance of a lifetime.
The senior wide receiver is a mainstay on the Cardinal roster, the kind of player that comes up big and sets an example for teammates on the field every day.
But when Whalen came to Stanford four years ago from Danville's Monte Vista High he did it without the guarantee that he would play a single down. He came without the guarantee of a scholarship.
It was coach Jim Harbaugh's first season on The Farm and he convinced Whalen to assume the role of a recruited walk-on.
If he worked hard enough, Harbaugh told him, Whalen might not only earn some valuable playing time, but a scholarship. But Whalen said he never assumed anything. He was willing to take a chance.
Whalen had been planning to go to Princeton. He turned down scholarship offers from UC Davis, Idaho, Nevada and Sacramento State. He also passed on opportunities to be a walk-on at Cal and Oregon.
He was intrigued by the opportunity to play for Harbaugh and excited about what a Stanford education could offer.
"I took it one step at a time out of high school," Whalen said. "When I talked with the coaching staff, I knew there would be an opportunity to earn a scholarship. I knew I would work hard and do everything that was asked of me."
Has his experience at Stanford - becoming a three-year starter and a go-to offensive player - exceeded his expectations?
"I don't think so," he said. "I always have high expectations for myself."
Perhaps that is why after only a few weeks - before the end of training camp -- Whalen earned his scholarship, a function of both his unrelenting work ethic and the availability of a scholarship.
At the time, Harbaugh called Whalen "a wonderful surprise."
But nothing Whalen does surprises his coach anymore. Whalen is known for being a physical receiver who runs precise routes and has great hands, rarely dropping a pass thrown in his direction.
He's faster than he looks and stronger than his 6-foot frame would seem to indicate. Harbaugh considers Whalen "a consummate competitor and worker".
"Ryan is our steadiest receiver," Harbaugh has said of Whalen. "He does everything right. If a player isn't sure how to go about things, I tell him to watch Ryan. He'll never be outworked."
He is also a recognized team leader, having been selected a captain along with Owen Marecic and Sione Fua.
In Whalen's mind, he has simply continued to make the most of his opportunity. After catching just one pass as a freshman, Whalen broke through. In 2008 and 2009 Whalen was Stanford's leading receiver. As a sophomore, Whalen stepped in when injuries decimated the receivers group and caught a team-high 41 passes for 508 yards and a touchdown.
Last season, Whalen was Andrew Luck's No. 1 target. He caught 57 passes for 926 yards and four touchdowns and was named an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection. He caught three passes for 65 yards in the Sun Bowl game against Oklahoma and ranked fifth in the conference in receiving yards per game (71.2).
As a senior, Whalen leads a receiving group that includes the explosive talents of Chris Owusu and Doug Baldwin, not to mention Griff Whalen, who is not related to Ryan, but has a shared history as a walk-on and a surprising success story.
Whalen said he feels lucky to have been a part of the "culture change" that has taken place at Stanford.
"We're winning. After the season we had last year, we wanted to continue what we are doing," Whalen said. "It's been awesome to be a part of. I feel truly blessed to be able to play and contribute to this right now."
Whalen missed two games earlier this season with an elbow injury. The injury has impacted his production. Through the first six games of the season, Whalen has caught 11 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. It is not easy to be injured at any time, but it can be particularly tough when the injury comes in your senior season, when time is getting short.
"You never want to get injured," Whalen said. "And it is tough to miss games, but I haven't gotten frustrated. Two games in the grand scheme of things...it could have been worse."
Whalen has always been known as a hard worker, something of a grinder. That has made him a perfect fit for Harbaugh, who preaches a "blue-collar" ethic. Whalen lives it, not only on the field, but in the classroom. Whalen is majoring in science, technology and society and is carrying one of the highest grade-point averages on the team.
When it comes to football Whalen embodies Harbaugh's style.
"We are physical. We are a team that doesn't give up and that's something I've always prided myself in," Whalen said. "I see eye to eye with coach on that one."
Whalen said Harbaugh has set a standard.
"He's laid the foundation," Whalen said. "He's taught us to control everything we can control."
Harbaugh also taught the Cardinal to want more.
"Our goals are the Rose Bowl and the national championship and that may or may not be possible," Whalen said. "But everyone really believes in that. We're not just saying it."
Whalen called his time at Stanford "an awesome journey." One that's not quite over.
"I have learned so much about the game in my time here," Whalen said. "I continue to work as hard as I can to improve, run my routes better, improve my speed and strength and leadership qualities. It's been a growing process the whole way and you have to keep growing, that's important.
"I feel like I'm always working and striving to become a better player."