Making of 'The Franchise': Northwestern's Anthony Walker takes hard road to stardom
- An average recruit who seemed destined to become an oversized bust, Anthony Walker now could be the first Northwestern player to leave early for the NFL in 20 years.
EVANSTON, Illinois — In December of Anthony Walker Jr.’s redshirt season at Northwestern, Randy Bates touched base with the linebacker and his father on an informal conference call. Walker's position coach wanted to take stock of the freshman's progress; the 18-year-old had sat out the season in small part due to the team’s depth but largely because he’d bulked up to the size of a defensive end in the months before he arrived on campus.
Walker, who at his heaviest had weighed close to 240 pounds, was probably still too big, Bates told the father and son. He was certainly still too stiff, encumbered by the extra pounds of muscle he’d added the previous spring. Anthony Walker Sr., a former high school offensive coordinator, understood the implication of the coach’s words.
“Well, do you think he can play?” he asked from Miami.
“I don’t know,” Bates replied.
“Should he transfer to a I-AA school where he could play?”
In that, Bates was emphatic. It wasn’t time to cut bait. “We have strength coaches; let these guys do their job,” he told Anthony Sr.
“And to be honest, I was kind of puckered up,” the coach recalls now, “because I'm the one who wrote the [scholarship] check.”
Three years ago, Walker was hardly a big-name recruit set to go bust. The 6’1”, 195-pound linebacker had been ranked No. 61 at his position in the class of 2013 and was an undersized but versatile player when Northwestern discovered tape of him at Monsignor Pace High in 2012. Coaches loved his feet and his versatility, and it took just one visit to Miami to convince Bates that Walker could play linebacker in the Big Ten. With his 4.7 GPA, Walker was a perfect target for a rigorous school that struggles to compete for recruits in SEC country.
When Walker picked Northwestern the summer before his senior season, it was over Minnesota, Purdue, Florida International, Bowling Green and Buffalo. A lifelong Miami Hurricanes fan, he’d been overlooked by Florida’s major programs until the last minute. But not long after Walker committed to the Wildcats, Mario Cristobal approached Anthony Sr. He’d just left FIU for Miami, where he was set to be the associate head coach. Cristobal had previously recruited Walker, and he wanted him to visit the Hurricanes. When Anthony Sr. told his son the news, he advised against doing so. Walker agreed. He’d given his word to Northwestern.
A year later, Northwestern did the same. Coaches gave Walker their word, hoping for a Big Ten linebacker, without a clue they’d end up with so much more.
In 1995, the year he became a father to his namesake, Anthony Sr. started coaching little league football. He was an accountant by trade, but after just a few games coaching peewee, parents told him he’d make a great high school coach. That wasn’t possible, he said, with his job in corporate America.
His stance didn’t last long. Around the time his son came to live with him in 1997, Anthony Sr. began teaching math and coaching at the high-school level. He got his MBA with a focus in sports administration, and in 2001, he started at Monsignor Pace. Stephen Morris, a former quarterback at the school who’s now a Colts backup, says Anthony Sr. was a sort of father-figure to many of his players, who could count on the coach to tell them the truth, no matter how gritty. And he almost always had his son in tow.
Little Ant, as players called the boy, was a fixture at practices. He tried to run and do conditioning work with the team, pushing himself to keep up. "He was always an athlete,” Morris says, “but his body was just so different from everyone in high school. It was funny to see him. He wanted to be there. He wasn't scared of the opportunity to work out with guys a lot older than him."
Anthony Sr. and his son’s mother, Michelle Daniels, split before Walker was born. A full-time single father from the time Walker was two, Anthony Sr. developed a routine structured around football. "It was a two-man show working together,” Walker says. After school, there was practice, then a home-cooked dinner, football talk, homework, laundry, ironing and bed. The two split chores, and to this day, Walker is a stickler for cleanliness, gets impatient with friends who showed up to college unable to do laundry and can cook as well as anyone. Saturdays were for attending Hurricanes games, and on Sundays the two would settle in for the Cowboys game on TV and catch some extra sleep. America’s Team was as nonnegotiable as schoolwork. "He said if I was going to stay in his house,” Walker says, “I had to be a Cowboys fan too."
When Walker was 10, his father coached him for the first time. Later, at Monsignor Pace, the two worked together occasionally; Anthony Sr. was the offensive coordinator, and his son played receiver at times but was primarily a linebacker and defensive back. At school, they were coach and player, but when they got home, the relationship was strictly father-son. What might have been a tough switch to flip, the two executed close to perfectly. "I coached him hard when he made a mistake, and after practice, we'd talk it out,” Anthony Sr. says. "We never let that coach-player relationship get in the way of anything."
The day Anthony Sr. dropped his son off at Northwestern, he told him to call if he needed anything. “No, Dad,” Walker replied. “I’m going to call you every day.” Anthony Sr. was incredulous and flattered, but he told his son that wasn’t necessary. "To this day, he's kept his word,” Anthony Sr. says. “We've talked every day for four years."
Safety Godwin Igwebuike is the clown of Walker’s friend group, a foil to the linebacker’s subdued personality. Igwebuike doesn’t so much discuss his friends as he roasts them, and when it comes to Walker, the opening dig is easy. “I almost didn't want to be his friend,” he says conspiratorially, “after I saw his toes." At first, Igwebuike pretends to falter, as if he’s been tortured into confessing a state secret. He acts perturbed, upset that he’s let it slip. And then he continues. Walker’s toenails, by some trick of biology, happen to be green.
When Igwebuike arrived in Evanston in 2013, he thought his classmate was a senior who’d stopped by to orient the freshmen. He was so muscular, Igwebuike says, and the shadow of a beard he sported didn’t hurt the illusion of age. But then coaches arrived and told the freshmen when to eat, when to practice, when to lift—except for Walker. He would not lift. He would stretch. After spending the spring and summer working out intensely in a Miami weight room four times a week, he’d lost the mobility that had initially caught the Northwestern coaches’ eyes and gained about 40 pounds of muscle. "I think a lot of people probably told him he had to get big to be a Big Ten linebacker,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald says, “and his strength was his speed and his athleticism."
Walker maintains that it wasn’t bad weight, but that didn’t change the work that lay ahead. "One thing I didn't focus on was flexibility and mobility, which is the biggest thing, especially in college where everybody's fast, everybody's strong,” he says. “Being able to play laterally and stuff like that, that's definitely big for a linebacker, and I didn't focus on that until I came here." That focus came in the form of special side sessions with trainers during freshman weight room time. They stretched, used bands, did squats and worked on mobility, and it was excruciating. In December, at the time of Bates’s call, the position coach says he was almost sure Walker wouldn’t be able to play in the Big Ten. He was still stiff, slow and heavy. Teammates good-naturedly made fun of his alternative training regimen. "He was so inflexible,” cornerback Keith Watkins, Walker’s best friend, says. “He was too big. He couldn't move."
What Walker remembers most about those days is the pervasive boredom. He longed for the weight room, and he chafed as he watched his teammates getting stronger. That’s what drove him. So by the next spring, he was himself again, back down to about 225 pounds and ready to earn reps at linebacker. “Thank God it worked out,” Bates says. “I was a little bit concerned, maybe I should retire."
That spring, most of Walker’s close friends were in roughly the same position as he. Only Matthew Harris, a cornerback who retired this season after suffering the third concussion of his career, had played as a true freshman. The others—Watkins, Igwebuike, receiver Marcus McShepard and safety Kyle Queiro—had all redshirted. They’d spent the year bonding over a shared love of video games and chicken wings, and they attempted to take the same classes to have built-in study buddies as they faced the daunting workload.
Watkins and Walker roomed together, with Watkins insisting the linebacker was far too big to take the top bunk, and it was he who captured on Snapchat the group’s favorite video of the year. It was the day of the winter’s first snow, the first snow Walker had ever seen. Practice was cancelled, but the roommates had class, forcing Walker, who impersonates a hermit in the winter, to go outdoors. There, he freaked out, Watkins says. He touched the snow, ran through it, tasted it. But before long the polar vortex sapped the snow of its novelty, and Walker was ready for spring. It was finally time for football.
Walker logged his first career tackle in Week 2 of the 2014 season against Northern Illinois, but his reps were limited until Northwestern’s fourth game, against Penn State. Starter Colin Ellis missed the game with an injury, and Walker replaced him, finishing the day with eight tackles, a pick-six and a pass defensed. He was a one-man highlight reel, but most impressive was his read of the Nittany Lions’ offense. On some plays, he was the first to jump, the quickest to the quarterback, and on others he seemed able to predict how the play would develop, finding lanes other defenders missed and using that anticipation to make the tackle. On his fourth-quarter pick-six, Walker picked up Christian Hackenberg’s desired route from the second the quarterback stared it down and took just a few side steps to the right to snag the pass. As he ran the ball back 49 yards, no Penn State player came close to tackling him. "He was born, then,” Igwebuike says. “The Franchise was born on that day."
At first, Walker hated the nickname, bestowed by running back Auston Anderson. Ant was fine, or A-Walk, even just plain Anthony. The Franchise, though? He begged coaches and teammates to stop, but in the second half of Northwestern’s 2014 season, they had no reason. In the Wildcats’ final six games, Walker logged 39 tackles, 1.5 sacks and another interception, this one for a 65-yard return. Still, it was to little national fanfare as his team finished the year 5–7.
In 2015, Northwestern, unranked to begin the season, opened the year with an upset of No. 21 Stanford. That afternoon, Walker recovered a fumble, broke up two passes and had 10 tackles, at the time a career high. Two weeks later against Duke, he finished with 19 tackles, on his way to 122 on the season, good for third-most of any player in the Big Ten. Thanks to Northwestern’s 10–3 finish—it rose as high as No. 12 in the AP poll before dropping its bowl game—Walker entered the national conversation, earning All-America and first-team All-Big Ten honors. There was reason to believe he might declare early for the NFL draft a year later.
"What made him so good last year was he read his keys and he reacted,” Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz says. “He went downhill and he used his speed and quickness and there wasn't any hesitation. He was in the top five in the country in tackles for loss, and not many of them were on a designed blitz. They were more just being an outstanding linebacker. You don't want him to lose sight of that. Defense in its simplest form is beating blockers and making tackles."
From day one last season Walker looked the part of a future NFL linebacker. His speed to the ball and tackling strength in the running game caught scouts’ eyes, as did the ball skills he’d developed playing receiver at Monsignor Pace. "My dad, being an offensive guy, watching film with him when I was younger and seeing what he was trying to do to the defense was great,” Walker says. “Me being a defensive guy now, it's kind of easy. I know what kind of coverage we're in and what can beat us."
Watch closely, though, and there’s another layer to Walker’s game. Like any middle linebacker, he functions as a coach on the field, but teammates and coaches say Walker takes the matter a step further. "He's grown up in the game,” Bates says. “He doesn't just see the things the average football player sees. He sees it more as a coach does. So he can visit with players in a different light than maybe the average player does."
Northwestern’s coaches appreciated that element of Walker’s game in 2015, but they didn’t quite recognize the scope of it until this summer, when he injured his knee and missed two weeks of camp. With a younger and less experienced defense due to graduations and injuries, the Wildcats needed Walker’s voice as much as his explosive presence, and they had neither. When the season started, he was still working his way back into shape, and teams had wised up. They were scheming for him, and without defensive end Dean Lowry, a fourth-round pick by the Packers last spring, Northwestern was shakier up front. By late September, it seemed there might be cause to worry; in four games, Walker had logged just 23 tackles.
As 2016 progressed, there was no real breakout game, but Walker eased back toward the player he was a year ago. The outsize numbers weren’t there, but as October rolled on, it was impossible not to feel his presence as Northwestern’s defense tightened. Against Indiana, he was everywhere, a constant nuisance as the Hoosiers offense was stifled. “I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to,” Walker says of the early season, “but I wanted our defense to be effective.” If he could just direct it and help the unit move in sync, he thought, that would ease the stress of the slow start.
Despite losing three of their first four games, the Wildcats finished the year 6–6, and as they prepare for Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28, Walker’s future remains uncertain. He’s set to graduate this year, and though he’s submitted his name to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, he swears he hasn’t decided if he’ll return for his senior season. That choice will come after the bowl game, and even if it isn’t the no-brainer it might have been had he replicated his sophomore season in 2016, there’s still an argument for Walker to be the first Northwestern player to head to the NFL with eligibility remaining since Darnell Autry in 1996. (The running back finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting that season and was a fourth-round pick in the ’97 draft.)
According to an area scout, Walker can “definitely be a starter” in the league. “He's still a little raw, but enough tools are there,” the scout says, citing the linebacker’s quick burst, ability to read quarterbacks’ eyes and strength against the run. His subpar early-season tape this year certainly won’t boost his stock, but it also may not hurt it should he declare and have a strong combine.
As far as stresses go, though, Walker seems far more concerned with his enrollment in a cognitive science class next quarter. He’s heard it’s a beast.
Walker can trace most things about the person he is today to the childhood days he spent with his father in Miami sitting around the table talking about football and watching games on the couch. From an early age, he knew he would do anything to be a part of the game, but his dreams then look little like his life today.
He wanted to play, sure, in high school and in college. But as Anthony Sr. finished his MBA and pushed his son to excel in school, the boy began to think. He was six months old when his Cowboys won their last Super Bowl, but they’d made the playoffs regularly in his early childhood. When Walker was 10, Jerry Jones broke ground on his masterpiece of a stadium. The boy was fascinated with team-building and evaluating players and with the aura of success that shrouded the franchise. That was the world he wanted to work in, he decided, but not as a coach. He saw the hours his father put in, and he wanted something that was rewarding in a different way. For a time, Walker decided he wanted to be a scout. But even that wasn’t enough.
"I always wanted to do bigger stuff,” he says. “I want to own an NFL team, be a GM. That's what I want to do: get a front office position, whatever it takes. I've got to start somewhere, and wherever I can get my foot in the door, I'll go, but by the time I'm done I want to be a GM or an owner."
Which is how cognitive science class trumps worries about the draft. To play in the NFL would be a dream come true, but only the first dream of many. For Walker, football is as much a game he loves as it is a business that fascinates him. It’s endless conversations about everything from tackling to negotiations, and on those afternoons three years ago as he twisted and squatted and stretched and nearly died of boredom, this is where his mind wandered. Could he play? Maybe. Was he going to find success in the game? Always.