Since he came to Vanderbilt four years ago, Marc Panu wanted to earn a full scholarship on the football team.
The former all-state linebacker arrived as a walk-on in 2009, was named the team’s defensive scout MVP, contributed on special teams and last year, when a new coaching staff arrived, switched to fullback.
In three years, he played in 19 games, with just one tackle and one kickoff return for three yards. But the hard-nosed reserve from Georgia didn’t mind enduring an unheralded career. He stuck through one demanding practice after another hoping his work ethic and determination would lead to a full-ride.
However, as he entered his final preseason camp two weeks ago, he began to have his doubts.
“I kind of gave up on the idea that I would get a scholarship,” Panu said after practice on Saturday. “I was just going to come out, play hard, have a great senior year and finish the thing off right.”
Now, he can do so without worrying about paying for his final year at Vanderbilt.
On Wednesday, during a team meeting in a packed auditorium at Vanderbilt’s newly renovated McGugin Center, coach James Franklin stunned Panu, an aspiring chemical engineer, with a full scholarship.
With his teammates rising to their feet for a standing ovation, Panu lowered his head into his hands and sunk back into his chair in shock. He then made his way to the front, receiving congratulatory hugs before a long embrace with Franklin.
Adding to the moment, the entire scene was caught on tape and posted on Vanderbilt’s website on Friday. By Sunday, the video had gone viral with nearly 90,000 views on YouTube.
“It really feels surreal,” Panu said. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time. ... My phone is blowing up. My Facebook is blowing up but it’s great. I love the support and I want to thank everyone for it.”
According to his coach, Panu need not thank anyone. He earned it.
Before he made the announcement, Franklin showed clips of Panu delivering crushing blocks in practice the previous day.
“You’re talking about a guy who just came off knee surgery,” Franklin says in the video. “You’re talking about a guy who keeps his mouth shut and loves being a part of this team. Watch him here [as Panu delivered a block] – finding a way to bring value to the team.”
On Saturday, Franklin said there are still a couple walk-ons under consideration for one of the coveted 85 full scholarships. But after just one year of witnessing the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Panu in the weight room, at practices and during games, the decision on him was simple.
“The guy just comes with his lunch pail every day and works extremely hard,” Franklin said. “He is what this is supposed to be all about it, what this country is about. It’s about having a great work ethic and a good attitude and not being entitled to the American dream but coming out working for the American dream every day.
“So I’m really happy for him and his family. He’s a good kid and that’s a good story for college football.”
When Panu delivered the news, his parents were speechless and excited all at once. They arrived from Congo and Trinidad and Tobago to further their education. His father, Al, received his Ph.D. from Georgia and is a dean of math and science at Gainesville (Ga.) State College.
But Panu, the middle child, is the first in his family to play a college sport.
“I’m not sure if [his parents] knew how big it was to me,” he said. “They definitely knew I wanted to do it and supported me throughout the whole thing. They didn’t discourage me from it at all.”
Panu has been named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll three times and financial aid covers more than half of his tuition.
He’ll graduate next May and is thrilled about getting a head start on saving money.
According to Vanderbilt’s website, the estimated cost for tuition for the 2012-13 school year was $41,088. With room and board, books and student fees, the annual price is $59,890.
“On one hand, it’s great for my financial situation. I’ll get to save a lot of money,” Panu said. “But it also validates me as a football player. Now I’m not a walk-on anymore. I’m someone they really want here, enough to give a scholarship too. It’s just a great feeling.”