30 September 2006

Walker's untimely death unifies Northwestern program

From the Daily Collegian via Yahoo Sports:

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As a kicker and fifth-year senior, Northwestern's Joel Howells perhaps knew the late Randy Walker better than any player on the Wildcats' football team. So, there was no surprise when he was chosen to say a few words during a July 6 memorial service held for Walker.

Looking back on that speech now, Howells remembers telling those in attendance how Walker was a good friend to him and a father figure to the team.

"The biggest message that I was trying to say was that he really cared about us as people before he cared about how good we were at football," Howells said.

"Just tears of happiness," Sutton explained. "You've got one of his guys talking about him and saying all the truthful things about him. There's nothing bad to say about Coach Walker and Joel let us know that."

By now, most people familiar with college football have heard the story of Walker, the by all means healthy Northwestern football coach who shockingly passed away June 30 of an apparent heart attack.

But Saturday when Northwestern travels to State College for a matchup against Penn State it will be exactly three months to the day that Walker passed away, and everyone in attendance will be reminded of all Walker did for Northwestern.

Coaching at a school better known for its academics than football, Walker was never blessed with the best athletes in the country. But he always knew a way to make them fit into his system.

"If you want go by what the media what Rivals.com ranks, we get the average guy," Sutton said. "We get the three-star guys. They all come out here and become all-stars."

Sutton himself wasn't highly ranked by any recruiting service. In fact, Northwestern was the biggest school to offer Sutton a scholarship. Last year, Sutton was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,474 yards and 16 touchdowns.

But Walker did more than help his players on the field. He taught them the importance of becoming a family and good people, even using a mentoring program within his team to help younger players adjust.

Now three months after Walker's tragic passing, it appears as if Walker would be pleased with his "family's" progression. According to the Sutton and Howells, the team has drawn together during a tragic time and continues to play with passion.

"When tragedy like that hits in the center of your house you have no choice but to go to your family members," Sutton said. "And that's what we did."

The loss of Walker wasn't only felt around Northwestern, either. Illinois head coach Ron Zook played with Walker at Miami of Ohio and said that it's impossible not to be affected when a member of a coaching fraternity passes away.

"It certainly made me step back and look at how I lived my life," Zook said in an e-mail statement. "I already exercise pretty regularly. But I think it made me put life into perspective. Randy said to me the last time we played each other that I needed to enjoy this and that really has rung true lately."

And though Walker was 52 at the time of his death, it's impossible for me as a 20-year-old kid not to be affected, either.

So Saturday, enjoy the football game. But also enjoy the fact you're able to watch. And don't forget to remember Randy Walker.

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