Walker comfortable in new setting
ORLAND PARK, Ill. --
It was August 2006. Walker dropped the container in shock as he was greeted by two parents, five kids and four dogs. His new home was already overwhelming. The family had to hurry. A party awaited; they were bringing Walker along and he needed to shower because he just got back from a football game.
Quickly, the parents escorted him around the house, first to the kitchen and a closet full of food. Walker was in awe. He was 13 and for the first time knew food would be put on the table.
"Anything you could name was in there," Walker said. "It was like a buffet."
Walker, currently a standout sophomore running back for Brother Rice, a Chicago Catholic school, grew up in the predominantly black city of Robbins, Ill. -- one of the most economically challenged suburbs in the area.
Stability was a family concern. As one of 10 siblings, Walker moved around, living with whoever could afford him at the time: his mother, aunt and grandma several times over. At 10, he supported himself by babysitting younger children through a local organization during the summer.
The money went toward his essentials, including youth football. Walker quickly became a premiere youth football player and garnered the attention of coaches throughout the Chicago area. As word of his talents spread he met Tony, a union iron worker who moonlighted as a youth football coach.
Tony recruited Walker to play for him when he was 12-years old and paid for his enrollment and equipment, which he annually does for some five kids whether or not they have talent. Walker, who is black, had been over at the Novak home a handful of times for dinner after youth football games, but was still living in Robbins when Kim and Tony invited him to live in their home.
"I was kind of uncomfortable with the whole situation because I didn't really know these people," Walker said. "I think it's the best thing that ever happened to me now. From where I came from, it's a big jump step to moving on in life, to be successful. So, it's a big opportunity that I just couldn't miss."
The Novaks obtained legal guardianship in December 2006, realizing that they could improve his quality of life.
"Football and kids and stuff like that is a passion for me," Tony said. "As far as apprehension, no, there was none. I do stuff for kids every day. This is exceptional and I can't say I would do it again, but it was just [right] at that time."
Assuming legal responsibility for Walker included health insurance, fees for trainers, food, books and tuition at Brother Rice ($8,150 for the 2009-2010 school year), was second nature to the Novaks. The family regularly hosts up to 10 kids on weekends. They take pride in providing for others.
Two years prior to welcoming Walker into her home, Kim had surgery to eradicate colon cancer. She also was diagnosed with Muir-Torre Syndrome, a rare genetic condition. Kim says she was the 270th person to be diagnosed globally.
Muir-Torre Syndrome causes malignant tumors of the skin and other internal malignancies. Kim, 41, manages the incurable condition, but was uncertain of her ability to care for a sixth child. Understandably, she was unsure if Walker would have any special needs scholastically or otherwise.
It didn't take Kim long to realize the effect she could have on Walker who she now calls her son. She cooks his meals, drives him to school, picks him up from practice, teases him about their similarities.
"I told him I can't promise you're going to see your name in lights," she said. "I can't promise you're ever going to make it to the NFL, but I can promise that you will be loved, you will have food, you will have a roof over your head and you will have us."
While dreams of playing in the NFL are years away, during his short time at Brother Rice, Walker has already stamped his name in the school's lore.
Freshmen cannot play at the varsity level during the Catholic League's regular season. Walker, before being called up to varsity for the playoffs, led his freshman team to the first 9-0 season in school history. During the final conference game, Walker's 60-yard touchdown run became known as the "Rita Run," after two spin moves in the backfield helped escape tacklers before he used his blazing speed to outrun the rest of St. Rita's defense.
On his first varsity playoff carry against Sandburg High, Walker set the the school record for a touchdown from scrimmage with a 96-yard scamper.
Amidst his first full varsity season, Walker has carried the ball 103 times for 652 yards and six touchdowns in eight games played. He has also been prolific in the return game averaging 29.5 yards per kickoff return and 16.6 per punt return.
"Only being a sophomore in probably the toughest conference in the state [Catholic League Blue], to be able to compete at that level is pretty amazing," Nye said of Walker's first full season on varsity. "He's probably one of the most celebrated kids that we've had come in as a freshman and some of them [teachers] are unaware he's a football player. He's that unassuming."
Though Brother Rice fell short of the playoffs largely due to their highly competitive conference, the team has made it to the Catholic League Chapionship and if it wins will advance the Prep Bowl which crowns the city champion over Thanksgiving Weekend.
Walker has already received recruiting letters from UCLA, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Northwestern, Colorado, Iowa and other BCS-conference schools. He maintains, though, his dream would be to go to USC.
For the first time in his life, Walker has high expectations for his future.