After joining the Stony Brook football team as a walk-on in 2020, nobody could have predicted that running back Ross Tallarico would be playing meaningful snaps in a Seawolves jersey. For a program that has been riddled with injuries at his position, the team has received unexpected contributions from Tallarico this year. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the redshirt sophomore’s story embodies that of a true underdog.
Tallarico is a Long Island-native from West Babylon, N.Y. He began playing football at the age of four, thanks to his uncle who introduced him to the sport.
“It was really my uncle who got me into football in the first place,” Tallarico said in an interview with The Statesman. “He always just kept telling me, ‘Just try it out.’ So I did.”
Baseball and basketball were also staples in Tallarico’s life, but he was quick to figure out that football was his calling.
“I’ve always loved football,” Tallarico said. “Everything was really surrounded around football for pretty much as long as I can remember.”
Tallarico attended North Babylon High School where he was a standout on the football field, playing four years on the varsity team. Playing quarterback and free safety, he did not fill the role of a prototypical passer. His team implemented a run-heavy offense, and gaining experience running the ball as a quarterback wound up being beneficial to Tallarico’s future college football career.
“Our team was really ground-and-pound,” Tallarico said. “We ran the ball a lot, so I wasn’t really a passing quarterback. I was really a running quarterback … I wasn’t really experienced in the throwing aspect. That part helped me a lot when I got to college.”
Tallarico racked up over 2,600 total yards and 39 touchdowns over his illustrious high school football career. Tallarico was also a team captain in his junior and senior seasons. Not being a vocal person, Tallarico preferred to lead by example.
“I enjoyed being a leader,” Tallarico said. “I wasn’t really a vocal leader. I wasn’t the person to yell at anybody or give big, motivational speeches. I just did my thing and led by example. It’s not about just being vocal, it’s how you are as a person on and off the field.”
In high school, Tallarico was named All-Division three times and All-County twice. He also earned an All-State selection each of his last two seasons at North Babylon.
“That’s a huge honor … It’s nice to see those accolades,” Tallarico said. “It’s a great feeling when you have a bunch of guys working hard and they get the award they deserved.”
Despite his decorated football career at North Babylon, Tallarico did not receive any Division I scholarship offers. While trying to figure out what to do about college, Tallarico received news that would greatly affect his decision: he was going to be a father.
After his girlfriend told him that she was pregnant, Tallarico decided to stay local. He enrolled at Stony Brook University due to its academic reputation with hopes of joining the football team to continue his career.
“The reason why I stayed [local] was because my girlfriend had told me she was pregnant,” Tallarico said. “So that made me want to stay home more. I can be with my family and that’s really the main reason why I chose Stony Brook.”
After enrolling at Stony Brook, Tallarico decided to test his luck by reaching out to the coaches at Stony Brook to discuss walking onto the team. After touching base several times, his wish was ultimately granted by the coaching staff.
“I’ve always wanted to play football at the next level,” Tallarico said. “I reached out to the coaches many times and I kept pushing until I finally got on the team. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to play football.”
As a walk-on, Tallarico receives no financial compensation from the program. He pays for his tuition and does not live on campus like the scholarship athletes do. Tallarico commutes to school every day from the apartment that he shares with his girlfriend and his two-year-old daughter.
Tallarico’s tuition at Stony Brook is lower compared to others, as he is an in-state resident and a commuter. He also said that he receives financial aid to help him pay for school. However, Tallarico still has to work two jobs during the year to help him pay whatever is left of his tuition as well as his rent on the apartment.
“During my off-time from school in the summer and the winter, I have a job,” Tallarico said. “In the summer, I work as a lifeguard at the beach. During the winter months, I’m doing construction. That’s how I’m paying for all of this.”
This loaded routine of balancing work, family, school and sports has become second nature to Tallarico at this point. Considering the fact that he has been doing this since his true freshman year, it comes easier to him now.
“It’s not really difficult for me anymore,” Tallarico said. “It is a lot, but I am used to it now.”
His hard work has not gone unnoticed by his peers. Head coach Chuck Priore spoke highly of Tallarico and his hard work during a weekly press conference for Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) head coaches.
“I’m really proud of him,” Priore said in a press conference on Oct. 3. “He’s a walk-on who lives at home. He’s one of the brightest kids I’ve been around and really diligent with his work ethic and commitment.”
Other than the financial difficulties, Tallarico had a long hill to climb to see the field. He played in only two games through his first two seasons, with both appearances coming in garbage time. He did not let the lack of playing time get the best of him, as he continued to put his head down and work.
“Being a walk-on, not everybody really has high hopes for you, so I just kept doing the best I can and kept working hard,” Tallarico said. “I kept doing my best to make my teammates better and just doing everything I could to have coaches acknowledge me and see my maximum potential.”
After playing free safety for his first two years with Stony Brook, Priore had different plans for Tallarico coming into the 2022 season. During training camp, he was moved back to the offensive side of the football, where he wreaked havoc back in his high school days.
“He actually moved to receiver first; he wanted to get back to the offensive skill stuff,” Priore said in a weekly press conference. “Then, we coached him at tailback not knowing we would need him.”
Though he had experience running the ball from his high school days, there were five other talented running backs that Tallarico would be playing behind. With those guys there, he thought he would never play a snap for Stony Brook.
Unfortunately for the team, running backs Roland Dempster and Seba Nekhet both went down with injuries during the preseason. Things got even worse when starting running back Ty Son Lawton got injured in a game against UMass. Though these injuries raised Tallarico on the depth chart, it was still unlikely that he would see the field.
“Roland and Seba got injured during preseason, so I moved up just a little bit,” Tallarico said. “I just kept focusing, kept learning the offense. I kept doing the right thing and just waiting for my time.”
His time finally came when running backs Jayden Cook and Jadon Turner both suffered injuries in a game against Richmond, giving Tallarico the opportunity he had been waiting for. Coming off the bench, he rushed for 28 yards on 10 carries.
With the top five running backs down, Tallarico got the start against William & Mary. He finally got his chance and made the most of it, tallying 25 touches for 108 scrimmage yards and catching the first touchdown of his career. Tallarico was Stony Brook’s most lethal weapon on offense that day, something that seemed inconceivable just a couple of months ago.
“I just tried to calm myself down as much as possible and focus on my assignments,” Tallarico said. “I never pictured this happening and it just felt really good.
Tallarico’s performance was made even sweeter by the fact that his friends and family were in the crowd to share the moment with him.
“It was awesome,” Tallarico said. “My whole family was there, everyone was cheering, all my teammates came up to me. It was a great feeling. Seeing them in the stands so excited for me — it’s just a great feeling making my family proud.”
Tallarico rode the high into the next game against New Hampshire this past Saturday. In the second quarter, Tallarico threw it back to his high school days, tossing a 55-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tyler Devera on a trick play.
Tallarico was not done yet, adding a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. Tallarico ended the game with 96 scrimmage yards, 55 passing yards and the two total touchdowns. His skills from the multiple positions he has played in his career have proven him a legitimate weapon for Stony Brook.
“He’s awesome,” Priore said in a postgame press conference on Oct. 8. “He’s a walk-on, and he’s given us the chance to win the last two weeks. Unbelievable story.”
Despite his solid play of late, Tallarico believes that there are still holes in his game he needs to patch up.
“I need to work on my speed and maybe put on a few pounds to protect myself more,” Tallarico said. “Just get a little faster and that’s really the main goal for the rest of the season.”
Football has even influenced Tallarico academically. He is a mathematics major due to his interest in statistics, which was brought on by watching sports.
“I’ve always been intrigued by statistics,” Tallarico said. “I like watching ESPN and seeing all of those cool stats and stuff. Maybe this major can bring me something like that.”
Going from being overlooked by every Division I school in the country to showing out in a starting role for Stony Brook, Tallarico has toppled each obstacle that has gotten in the way of his dreams. His underdog story is not over yet, as he will continue to look to shed his “walk-on” label over the rest of the season.