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Walk-on Kai Money seizes his moment in Texas rout of UTEP

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Walk-on receiver Kai Money earned a measure of notoriety Saturday when he caught a touchdown pass in the Texas football team's 59-3 rout of UTEP in the season opener (photo by Caten Hyde / University of Texas Photography).

A moment unfolded Saturday night at Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium, a moment that got the crowd, the Texas sideline, and those on social media in to Texas’ 59-3 rout of UTEP. 

No, it was not one of Sam Ehlinger five touchdown passes, or an interception by the Longhorn defense. It was a little-known walk-on, who had just pulled in his second catch of the game, and his first touchdown of his collegiate career. His last name alone caught the eyes of many. 

It is hard to think of a better name for a receiver than “Money," a term often used when an athlete comes up clutch in a big situation, when the lights are shining brightest. 

“He was certainly the personification of his last name on Saturday night,” said head coach Tom Herman Monday when talking about receiver Kai Money.

But it was not just his name that turned heads. His superb route running to get wide open surprised many, especially considering the fact that he had walked on to the team in the spring of 2019. It is typical at big programs like Texas that walk-ons get in for a play or two throughout the season, as a token of appreciation for playing on the scout team all year. But very few walk-ons make it to the point where they are scoring touchdowns. While Money’s touchdown might have been unexpected for some, Ehlinger, like many of his teammates, was not surprised in the least. 

"I wish you guys could see the work that Kai Money puts in every single day," Ehlinger said Saturday. "What an incredible team guy. (He) puts the team before himself and works hard every single day. It seems like he's always open. For that to pay off today, I couldn't be happier for him."

Kai Money made the somewhat unorthodox from star high school quarterback to walk-on college receiver (photo by Caten Hyde / University of Texas Photography).

Many underestimate the challenges facing walk-ons. Of course, the famed film Rudy brought attention to that group of behind-the-scenes players who chase a dream throughout college to suit up and play, even if it is just for one play. While those in the crowd were excited, even inspired, by watching this David conquer Goliaths to reach this point, few know the work put in by the sophomore from South Padre Island, Texas. One of those few is his father, Phillip, who is described by Money’s high school coach, Tino Villarreal Jr., as Kai’s “biggest hero," and was in the stands for Saturday’s game, along with several other family members.

"It was just unbelievable," Phillip Money said. "It was for real. It's been such a long, tough journey for Kai because he got hardly anybody wanting him at the collegiate level, except for D-III schools. So for him to say, 'Hey, I'm going to go walk on — not even a preferred walk-on, just a team tryout ...' Everyone knows who everyone else is. They know, 'oh, he was a three-star (recruit), he was a four-star or a five- ...' Everybody knows. So he basically is at the bottom of the barrel, and for him to work his way and get the opportunity ... I didn't like the way the opportunity came about, because you hate to see anyone else get hurt, but I always told him, 'when your opportunity comes, you have to seize it' ... and he did."

It would be correct to say football — or more specifically, playing quarterback — is in Kai Money’s blood. Phillip Money was the starting quarterback at Rice in 1983. Kai was the starter at St. Joseph Academy (SJA) in Brownsville, for four years, setting multiple passing records while starring for the Bloodhounds at the TAPPS level. 

"It is not every day that you get to coach talent like his, but more than that is everything Kai does off the field," Villarreal said when asked about his favorite part of coaching Money. "Those were my greatest moments of Kai: his ability to be the greatest student of the game, to always be a coach on the field. He wanted to be the smartest guy out there, know exactly what the gameplan was and why we installed the gameplan that way. He knew what every single person including the (offensive) line was supposed to do. He spent a lot of time mastering his craft, and still was so humble about it."

Which begs the question: why is Kai Money a wide receiver, and not a quarterback for the Longhorns? 

It is a question with which Money had to wrestle long and hard coming out of high school. How does a player who puts up video-game numbers — 155 career touchdowns, 7,500 passing yards — and has a work ethic that elevates above the rest and understands the ins and outs of the sport better than some coaches get overlooked? Physical characteristics — more than a few schools passed up on Money because of his 6-foot height, although he had more than proven himself at the high school level. 

"It hurt," Phillip Money said. "I know it hurt him, and frankly, it hurt me too that he just didn't get any offers. I think Kai finally realized, 'Well, nothing is coming to me, so might as well go and try to get it myself.'"

That resulted in the University of Houston nearly nabbing the all-state quarterback ... to run track, and which sport was his best was a matter or legitimate debate. After all, as a sprinter in track, he set multiple school records that still stand today. On the basketball court, he averaged 10 points per game his senior year, and also spent time on the soccer field. 

“A kid like (Money) really doesn’t take days off,” said Villarreal, who has watched Money play since he was eight years old. “He was always present in the weight room, he is always the first guy here, getting extra workouts in, he asked me all the time to open facilities for him when it was possible, and the last two years since he walked on to Texas, whenever he is home he’s always here in our weight room.”

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Football was his favorite sport, and while Houston presented an opportunity to walk on to the UH football team, Money did not envision himself a Cougar. From the age of 10, he had wanted to become a Longhorn. Sammy Lucio, the current offensive coordinator at SJA, remembers coaching Money in peewee football and asking his team about their future goals. Money quickly responded, “I want to play football for the Texas Longhorns." Money did not want to allow anything to fall short of that goal, even if it meant switching positions. 

"It was a dream of his to play for the Longhorns," Villarreal said, "and if quarterback wasn't the spot they were going to give him, he was going to make whatever spot available to him and make it happen."

Money switched to receiver from quarterback, where he had played since he started throwing to his father at age 8 and even calling audibles on his youth team at age 10. Suiting up as a wide receiver, his new goal became switching positions and try to earn a spot in the rotation. 

"It’s hard to make that transition, period," Villarreal said. "When you’re playing at (the high school) level, you have guys who can play two or three different position. But at Texas, you’re talking about one of the top Power 5 conference teams in the nation and you’re having to run routes against five-star recruits. "

Money seems passionate about the sport, but his goals involve more than football. An aspiring dentist, Money wanted to attend a university with a top biology program ... which, coincidentally, exists at the school he grew up wanting to attend.

To adjust to his new position, Money reached out to former UT wideout Jaxon Shipley, who has the third-highest number of receptions in school history. Shipley tutored Money through 2019, and helped him develop his route-running skills that were on display Saturday night. 

"To have to learn that position, I thought it was going to be very difficult for Kai, but he immediately started working on that, he knew he was not going to be able to do it on his own," Villerreal said. "He hooked up with Jaxon Shipley and started getting private workouts in order to find ways to master route running and get film on himself running routes."

To accelerate the transition to his new position, Money reached out to former Texas receiver Jaxon Shipley (photo by Don Bender / Horns Illustrated).

In addition to his time spent with Shipley, Money worked out at home, running routes on the sand on South Padre Island, catching passes from his father.

At UT, one of Money's biggest motivators and role models has been wide receivers coach Andre Coleman, a former NFL wide receiver, who is in his first year as an on-field coach at Texas.

"Kai has said (Coleman) has helped him so much," Phillip Money said. "He is super-knowledgeable and has really taught Kai a lot, as well the other coaches."

When Phillip Money speaks about the walk-on group at Texas, it is evident how much he respects them. Maybe it is because his son is one of the group, or maybe it is because he remembers everything the walk-ons did as members of the scout team to prepare him and his Rice teammates for games. Regardless, he has a point. The walk-ons might be a group seldom thought about by the Texas faithful, but one that nonetheless plays a pivotal role in the Horns’ game day preparation. 

"All those walk-ons are in the same boat," Phillip Money said. "They all lean on each other. There's a lot of walk-ons there and they're working hard too, just like Kai. Hopefully they get their opportunity too. But some of them won't. They're still out there pumping it because they want to be part of it, and you got to give people a lot of credit for that because first of all, they're paying their own way. They're getting beat up, maybe a little more than the other guys because they're on the scout team and they're going to school and having to set up their own classes. You've got to want it."

It is unclear as to how much Kai Money will play going forward, although Herman did note that, “Kai has proven that he is a guy who can help us and if circumstances dictate, we have no problem putting him in the game and knowing that he'll deliver."

Money's touchdown against UTEP earned him a measure of notoriety, and his influence in his hometown remains especially strong. Watching Money get his chance Saturday night motivated the team at SJA, according to Villarreal.

"We have less than 300 kids in the high school ,and we're a private school, so sometimes down here we get overlooked a lot and taken for granted," Villarreal said. "Of course the Kai Money story is all credit to Kai and we love seeing him up there, but it also sheds a little bit of light on our school and gives our kids a part of that uplifting spirit that even in a small school dreams are possible."

Money reached his goal Saturday of taking the field for Texas, but according to his father, has bigger goals for his team. 

"Just know that Kai is super-happy to be part of the Texas football team and he'll do whatever he can to help the team and he wants them to win," Phillip Money said. "He's like, 'Man, we want to win a national championship.' That's what his real focus is. He wants to win and he wants to be part of that team."

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