CHAMPAIGN - Vacationing with his parents in Florida over winter break, Ben Mathis made sure he had his cell phone, even during runs on the beach.
Big news was imminent. Illinois coach Tim Beckman was crunching the numbers and counting heads on his team.
If space allowed, Mathis, a walk-on the last three seasons, would be given a scholarship.
Beckman told Mathis before the break the exact day he would know. And so on that day, Mathis ran on the sand to keep from glancing at the hourglass.
During the workout, the phone rang. Beckman was on the other line with good news to deliver.
"He told me I had a scholarship," Mathis said. "I was like, 'oh man, life is good right now.' Right there on the beach and given the scholarship."
Mathis, 6-3, 200 pounds, had to wait it out, but in hindsight Beckman's decision was an easy one to make.
"What I've seen from Ben Mathis is a mature individual that believes in Illini football and would love to do whatever he could to help Illini football," Beckman said.
The story of a walk-on is universal. Practice and preparation is taken as seriously as anybody else. A mostly unknown face around campus, walk-ons customarily take the physical punishment that stems from being a scout team star, facing off against the starters in practice to prepare them for the real thing.
Meanwhile, nothing is free. Tuition, room and board and expenses must be paid like all the other students who aren't on athletic scholarship. A communications major, Mathis admits there were struggles, but he never got too caught up in the negatives.
"It's been a long four years," he said. "I've tried to come to work every day and try to impress my coaches with the ultimate goal to get on the field and hopefully get a scholarship to help me and my parents out financially."
His parents, Stephen and Diane, put their first two sons through college, both at out-of-state institutions. So when Ben, a standout football player at Springfield High, set out to further his education, they afforded him the same support.
With their youngest nearing the end of his third year at Illinois, the scholarship means more than financial relief.
"I think they're just proud of me that I stuck with it," Ben said. "It's more of that than the financial part. I just think they're real proud, and it doesn't hurt with the bank account."
With his ultimate goal accomplished, what now? Mathis says his outlook and work ethic hasn't changed. And while the majority of walk-ons who earn scholarships normally carry on with little change in depth chart standing, Mathis found himself with the No. 1 unit at the start of spring drills.
Gone were the usuals at safety. Supo Sanni and Pat Nixon-Youman graduated. Steve Hull moved to offense. Earnest Thomas was limited with an injury.
But there was Mathis, ready and able.
"He's a guy that's back there with a bunch of freshmen, sophomores and junior college newcomers, and he's done a great job of trying to learn and teach," Beckman said.
And while there's a lot of time between now and kickoff in September, plenty of time for Thomas to get healthy and the junior college transfers to get ready, Mathis says he'll make the most of whatever comes his way. It's the only way he's ever known.
"Getting on the field is my primary objective, but if I'm not on the field I'll help the guys that are," he said. "I'm just trying to help. It's my last ride. After this it's the real world, so I might as well give it all I've got while I'm here."