May 26, 2014

Campbell: Walker goes from the pitch to the gridiron

Scott Grant/

On a rousing night to celebrate the return of CFL football to the Capital, a young, aspiring football player, maybe no more than 10, bravely took to the microphone to ask a stage full of Ottawa REDBLACKS the simplest of questions.

“I want to know,” began the kid sheepishly, the players towering over him in their REDBLACKS jerseys, “when did each of you start to play football?”

Star quarterback Henry Burris went first and could barely remember a time when he didn’t play, starting out at maybe six years of age back in Spiro, Oklahoma, about the time Canadian kids first begin organized hockey.

As the microphone passed from player to player, another spoke of playing minor football for the Kanata Knights as a tyke or a peewee, and still another, the Myers Riders.

From player to player, the story was pretty much the same until the mic reached Chevon Walker, who was last in line.

Walker began by telling the youngster how he had never played a down of football until he reached high school, how soccer was his primary sport and track his second, and how his friends kept saying he should play football and how he kept saying no.

The part of the story Walker neglected to tell the kid about was just how difficult it was for others to even get Walker on a football field.

Others go willingly. Walker just about had to be dragged to the field screaming because on the campus of Riverdale High School, in Fort Myers, Florida, Walker was the reluctant one before he became the big man on campus.

“Chevon really didn’t want to play,” recalled school chum Jeffrey Fields, now an aircraft hydraulic expert with the United Sates Air Force at Minot (North Dakota) Air Force Base. “He had just moved (from Jamaica) and I guess he just wasn’t comfortable with it.”

Expectations high in Ottawa

“He is dynamic. I have not been around him enough yet to know him real well but from what I’ve seen on him on film, he brings an interesting dynamic to us.”

– Ottawa REDBLACKS GM Marcel Desjardins

“He was more fond of soccer and didn’t understand how American football worked.”

“But his speed and agility on a soccer field . . . man, he was just so fast.”

Walker, himself, said he was happy just playing soccer, though he now admits it didn’t take him long to learn that finding the end-zone far is far more exciting than just kicking a ball into a net.

“At first, I was skeptical,” said Walker, who is expected to be the go-to guy in the REDBLACKS backfield this season. “My friends kept saying ‘you should try it . . . you should try it’ . . . but football was just not something I grew up playing.”

“I was a kid from Montego Bay and I’d never really heard of football. I never got to play Pop Warner football. I grew up on soccer.”

Fortunately for Walker, his friends would not take no for an answer.

Fields hounded Walker and so did Riverdale’s freshman and junior varsity head football coach Mike Greenwell, the former Boston Red Sox star. Other kids at school kept on Walker to at least give football a shot.

Finally, either to shut them up or to see what all the fuss was, Walker gave in and found the game came easy to him.

“The first game he played, he broke out on a 60-yard run and left everybody behind,” said Fields. “He just ran straight ahead and nobody could catch him.”

“Early on, he used to break runs and we’d be amazed and then he started doing it so often that after a while we just expected it of him.”

“I really think he had more trouble understanding English than he did knowing what to do on a football field.”

Said Walker: “I guess I caught on quick.”

By his senior year, Walker was named Fort Myers Press 2005 Offensive Player of the Year, leading all backs in his school area in rushing (2,027 yards) and touchdowns (31) while catching 16 passes for another 234 yards.

That was fresh off a junior campaign where he rushed 299 times for 1,505 yards and nine majors.

His best game was a 199-yard, five-touchdown game against a vaunted rival.

Then there was that game-winning touchdown in overtime against North Fort Myers, when he rushed for 139 yards and two scores in a game Riverdale had no business even being in.

“We were supposed to get crushed and here we were in overtime,” said Fields, like it was yesterday. “It was an option play to the right and the QB pitched it out to Chevon and he had absolutely nowhere to go. So he turned and cut back against 3-4 guys and just kept going, diving into the end-zone on the pylon. It was one of the greatest plays I ever saw.

 “And what was amazing was he had practiced that play over and over. He would keep trying against four of five of us in practice to just get up into the air and land inside the pylon. And then he did it in a game.”

With numbers like Walker posted, all the big schools were after him and Walker elected to state in-state and head north to Gainsville, choosing the University of Florida Gators over schools like LSU, Auburn, Georgia and Michigan.

After three seasons as a Gator, it wasn’t working and he headed to the Midwest to the much smaller University of Sioux Falls, in South Dakota, playing NCAA DII football in the obscure Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, light years away from the SEC.

 “I had an issue and I felt I would get a better opportunity at Sioux Falls,” said Walker. “So I rushed for like 1,000 yards and 10 TDs but I never got to finish games because we’d always be so far ahead.”

His next big break came in a workout for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Tampa, Florida, which led to an invite to training camp in 2012, and an eventual roster spot and decent rookie rushing numbers of 656 yards. Reduced to a lesser role last season, Walker ran for 193 yards, including one scamper of 70 yards.

The REDBLACKS expectations are high.

“He is dynamic,” said REDBLACKS GM Marcel Desjardins. “I have not been around him enough yet to know him real well but from what I’ve seen on him on film, he brings an interesting dynamic to us.”

It’s been a busy off-season for Walker.

Selected by the REDBLACKS in the CFL expansion draft from the Tiger-Cats, Walker spent an extended period back in his birthplace visiting mother Cassandra.

Then it was back to Florida’s West Coast to see his father Henry, who moved with his then 11-year-old son in 1998.

He also found time for his boys, 10-year-old Chevon Jr. and three-year-old Caden. 

“I wonder if I had went to a different state than Florida, where soccer is even bigger, if I might have stayed with soccer,” said Walker. “I played it all time and I was so competitive.

“You just never know what might have happened. But I do plan on going to Fury practice if they’ll let me.”