Athens High defensive lineman Ethan Rinke has always been the type of person to march to the beat of his own drum. When it came to making a decision about where he wanted to play college football, it was no different.
Rinke eschewed scholarship offers from smaller Division I schools to take a preferred walk-on position at the University of Tennessee. A preferred walk-on is a player who is guaranteed a roster spot, but must pay his own way for a year until he is potentially put on scholarship if his performance is enough to impress the coaches.
“He's not taking the easy route at all,” Athens coach Cody Gross said. “The easy thing would have been for him to say 'Hey, I'm going to take this offer over here,' but he's going to go for it. This decision is just Ethan. It's very fitting that he does this. Ethan doesn't care what people think, and in our society, that's very refreshing.”
For Rinke, who had scholarship offers from schools such as South Alabama, Army, Coastal Carolina, Bowling Green and Jacksonville State, the allure of playing in the SEC was just too much to pass up. And when Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt offered him a preferred walk-on spot, he knew what he wanted to do.
“I've always dreamed since I was little to play in the SEC,” Rinke said. “My dad was an Arkansas fan, and we went to a few of their games. I loved the atmosphere of how the SEC was, and when Tennessee came, and offered me a spot, we were able to work things out. I didn't want to let this opportunity pass, so I took it.”
Rinke said Tennessee first spoke to him in November, and invited him to visit during a game weekend. He was blown away with the atmosphere, and was happy to meet Pruitt and the other Volunteers coaches.
“Coach Pruitt is a really good man,” Rinke said. “My parents trust him, I trust him, and I trust the coaches he has brought to the team. He was real enthusiastic when he talked to me. He said 'We found you late and want to give you an offer, but we don't have enough.' I told him I understood and we continued talking from there.”
Gross said Rinke is one of his favorite players to have ever coached due to his love for the game and natural leadership ability.
“To me, he's one of those once-in-a-lifetime guys that you coach, because he loves football,” Gross said. “I don't know, when you get right down to it, how many of these kids really love football. They love the social media stuff and all the attention and the things that go with it. Ethan doesn't give a crap about that. He loves football, he loves his team, and he loves his coaches, and to me, that is very refreshing.”
Gross said having a player like Rinke makes it easier on him as a coach.
“He was a leader for us, and he doesn't talk much,” Gross said. “You don't have to talk to be a leader. He definitely led by his actions. Here's a guy getting recruited, getting all the attention, and he just works his rear end off. The other guys see that.”
Rinke said walking on at Tennessee wouldn't be possible without his parents, who he said have helped him greatly throughout his football career.
“My parents were able to fulfill what I wanted to do,” Rinke said. “They've done so much for me. There have been many times where we could have gone on a trip with my sisters, but instead they were taking me to colleges or driving me around to football camps in the summer. It was really tiring for them, and I can't thank them enough for all they've done.”