Entering play on Sunday, Austin Walter had three rushing yards in his NFL career.
The 26-year-old running back had played in five games over the last two years, returning kicks for the 49ers a year ago, but had yet to earn an expanded role on offense.
That changed on Sunday in a big (and emotional) way.
Playing close to where he grew up in Texas—and where he played college ball (at Rice University)—Walter ran for 38 yards on nine carries, scoring the first touchdown of his career in a 21-14 win over the Texans.
"This was a homecoming for me," Walter told reporters after the game. "I got to see a lot of family members here, some people that I wasn’t even expecting to see that work in the stadium. Just being here my whole life, it meant a lot for this to be the place to get my first career touchdown. I know my dad is in heaven smiling down on me, so a lot of emotions, but they’re bittersweet emotions.”
With rookie running back Michael Carter out, recuperating from an ankle sprain, Walter said he knew earlier in the week that he was going to be active on Sunday. Accustomed to life on the practice squad, Walter suited up with an open mind, eager to capitalize on playing time if he got the chance.
"When you get your opportunity, you have to do everything you can to make it last," Walter said. "When coach kept calling my number I was like, ‘hey, you know what? If I want to stay up here, stay at the big dance, I’ve got to make the most out of my opportunity.’ And I hope I did that.”
Walter was everything the Jets could've asked for and more as their third back Sunday afternoon. In the second quarter, the Rice product dove into the end zone on a two-yard touchdown, the first score for New York as they went on to rattle off 18 unanswered points.
“He’s a fire plug, spark plug, whatever you want to call it," head coach Robert Saleh said, comparing his quickness to that of Carter. "Obviously he missed the first few with the injury being on IR and all that, but he’s a good back, and he’s proven that when he’s able to run the ball. He can create explosive plays. Just having that burst, that juice, that energy that comes from him, thought it would be a good addition.”
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson was impressed with Walter's effort out of the backfield as well.
"He had an amazing camp, I thought," Wilson explained. "Ended up letting him go after that and he ends up making his return and comes back. He’s a guy that’s going to take advantage of his opportunities, so I thought he did an awesome job tonight.”
Walter showed some emotion after the game, thinking about making his family proud after a long journey to this point. His father, Tony Walter, passed away back in 2017 and even if he wasn't in the building on Sunday, Walter assured that his dad had the best seat in the house.
"I know if he was right here, he would be smiling from ear to ear," Walter said. "He would just be so proud of me. He would be bragging to all of his friends. And at the end of the day, he’s the one that allowed me to get to this position, so I know he’s in heaven looking down like, ‘hey, you know, my hard work paid off.’”
It was his mother that predicted Walter would score a touchdown on Sunday, though. And for that, the running back made sure to give his mom a shout-out as well.
"She is the person who put me in football when I was three years old. I had to go to her first, and she went to my dad. So, without my mother, Diane Walter, I wouldn’t be standing up here.”
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