'Man with the
nation in interceptions in '85
Kevin "K.K." Walker during his
playing days at East Carolina.
Kevin Walker always knew that
he liked to work with his hands. So it should come as no surprise that
as a football player, Walker – better known as K.K. – was ultimately
defined as a player by those hands.
Yes, there was speed and
physicality, but it was his nose for the football and his receiver-like
hands that stood out to the Pirates fans who watched him play in the
By his senior year, in 1985,
Walker was one of the top corners in the country and he finished as the
nation’s interceptions leader.
It's important to note that
those picks came against some of the best quarterbacks in the nation as
the Pirates shied away from no-one when it came to scheduling.
Regardless of who was lining up under center for the opposing team,
though, the INTs kept coming.
It was the hands…
In many ways, Walker's hands
have helped drive his life, metaphorically speaking. It was his hands
that brought him to ECU, landed him in the NFL draft and took him to the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And with those hands, in his last game as a pro,
almost by fateful design, Walker intercepted two passes.
Finally, it was his hands,
the desire to use them, that led Walker, after a number of years in the
pharmaceutical industry, to embark on the career he always wanted – to
Surprisingly, his East
Carolina experience is less marked by All-America status and leading the
nation in interceptions, but more, the degree that he received, albeit
slightly later than he’d have liked.
“Honestly, one of the main
reasons I went to East Carolina was the Industrial Technology program,”
Walker said. “I always loved working with my hands.”
K.K. Walker came to ECU in
1982 after being recruited by then-defensive backs coach Ricky Bustle.
Coach Ed Emory was building toward the 1983 season and he saw in Walker
– a Greensboro prep star – a perfect cornerback. Speed, smarts, desire,
and hands like a pillow.
“The first time I went to
East Carolina, I was like… this place is too far away,” Walker said. “All
I saw were tobacco fields. I remember thinking, no way am I going to
But Bustle and Emory made
Walker a priority and got to know the Walker family.
“They recruited me so heavy,”
he recalled. “Coach Bustle was at our school all of the time. My mom
would cook for (Bustle and Emory). I remember them telling me that there
was a lot for me to gain, but that I would have to perform to get it.
Everything ECU promised me, they delivered.”
Walker would end up leading
the Pirates’ secondary in interceptions for three straight seasons,
finishing his career second only to Jim Bolding in career picks with 19.
But in his first year, he dreamed, really, of simply earning the
opportunity to go on the road with the team.
“My goal was to make the
traveling squad,” Walker said. “Only seven of us (newcomers) made it and Coach Emory
played us all. That is one thing that I loved about Coach Emory. If you
could play, he played you. He didn’t have favorites. But, he did work us
like dogs. We were the hardest working team in the NCAA. I remember
there was a Sports Illustrated article about it. I can tell you that my
knees are living proof of how hard we worked.”
Walker played his freshman
year and felt that he was primed for the 1982 season to solidify his
spot in the lineup.
“Man, I thought my sophomore
year was going to be my year,” he said. “We were about to play Tulsa and
I had a freak accident in practice. It was going to be my first start,
but I tore cartilage in my knee and had to redshirt for my entire
sophomore season. I was devastated. I thought my career was over. But,
as it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise. I rehabbed and came
back stronger for the 1983 season.”
As a redshirt sophomore,
Walker came into the 1983 season firmly locked into one of the starting
cornerback positions in a defensive backfield that revolved around Clint
“Clint was our leader,”
Walker said. “He was a true 4.3 (in the 40) guy and he was tops on a
team that was the fastest team in the NCAA that year. All the Florida
guys would tell us that after we played. We had linemen running 4.7s.
Coach Emory had put together the best team and we knew how good we were.
“Kevin (Ingram) was our
leader on the offense. He was probably the best quarterback in the
country that year. We were so fortunate to get him (from Villanova). He
was a great leader and I had so much respect for him.”
With all of the talent on
that team, particularly in the defensive backfield, it was Walker who
was the leader on the INT tally sheet.
“I led the team in
interceptions for three years in a row, but all of us took care of each
other back there,” he said. “We had a great system.”
What was Walker’s secret?
“The interceptions?” he
pondered. “You know, I always had a feel for the game – a true feel.
Coach Emory used to always say, ‘Visualize it and it will be.’ I always
visualized interceptions. It was a gift, I think.”
The statistics were always
there for Walker. So, despite a downturn after 1983, the NFL did come
calling. Mainly because Walker not only was the model of consistency
over his three years as a Pirate starter, but also because his nine
picks in 1985 lead the nation. Namely, his three interceptions of
Miami’s Vinnie Testaverde highlighted his knack for finding the ball
first, ahead of the receiver.
But the NFL experience would
not be the easiest of paths for Walker.
Walker in his days with the Tampa Bay
Photo: Tom Wagner/Tampa Bay
Walker had worked out for the
Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs even flew him down
to Florida just two weeks before the draft. Walker had performed well at
the combines, so there was no indication that Walker wouldn’t be a first
“Coach (Art) Baker called me
into his office and told me that Tampa Bay and Dallas were both looking
to draft me,” Walker said. “Then, the night before the draft, Coach
Baker came to my dorm room and told me that it would be Tampa in the
But, as it often goes, the
third round came and went without the selection.
“Draft day comes and we’re
all sitting around in the (dorm) room and the first, second, and third
round goes by and I am getting nervous. My agent calls me and says that
Tampa called them and were going to take me in the third, but then I
hear them trade the third rounder to New England. Then (Tampa) took
Craig Swoope (a safety) in the fourth. They didn’t have a fifth-rounder.
Finally, the sixth round came and they picked me.
“The secretary (in Tampa)
called me and told me. (The pick) was late and I was really upset about
it. But, when she called, I started to get excited again. It was a dream
coming true and all of the guys stayed there the whole time with me.
Tony Baker was there and we were both supposed to go in the first four
rounds. The draft is a weird thing. Look at EB (Earnest Byner). He was a
10th-rounder – a 10th-rounder! And look what he
Whatever disappointed Walker
about the later-than-expected selection, it disappeared when Walker
“My mother (Daisy) and father
(P. Mack) were at home waiting for me to get called,” he said. “When
they picked up the telephone and heard me talking, they knew. It was one
of the best moments in my life.”
The magnitude of the moment
was never lost on Walker, who cherished every minute of his ultimately
short career in the NFL.
“I looked back on my entire
career since I was seven years old and realized how much I dreamed of
the NFL,” he said. “But, I continued to go to class because I wanted
that degree. Everything was normal, except that I was getting a lot of
congratulations from people, even teachers like Dr. Davis (in the IT
Though it was lost on Walker
at the time, it was his performance at
the NFL combine, more than the nine interceptions, that got the attention of the pros. After all the tests
were said and done, Walker was rated the seventh best player among
corners and safeties in the country.
“You know, I didn’t even know
that until one of the guys at ECU came in and showed me the newspaper
article about it,” Walker said. “I was really excited. I got an agent
through Stefon Adams. Stefon had come back to ECU and I signed with his
agent. I remember when Stefon took me to the (auto) dealership and told
me to pick out a car. I’ll never forget that. It was a 1986 Fiero. It
was red and the agent paid for it. It was amazing. Of course, I had to
pay him back – nothing is for free. But it was a great experience.”
Though injuries would cut his
career to just two NFL seasons, Walker’s time in the League was no less
“I remember hitting the field
the first time in Tampa,” he said. “You first get down there and go over
all your testing. The first thing I looked at was my helmet and it had
that Buccaneer on it and I realized I was there. To be in that
lockerroom and see guys like Jimmy Giles, who played with Doug Williams,
and Kevin House. I remember watching these guys as a little boy and I
was there thinking, ‘I’m here in the same locker room with them.’ I was
in awe and I was really stressed out because I still had to make the
It took the entire preseason
camp and schedule before Walker truly believed he would stick with the
“You know, you go through
camp and then the first preseason game goes by and you start looking for
the Turk,” he said. “(The Turk) starts coming around and he doesn’t come
to you. Then the second game goes by, the third and he still hasn’t come
around. I was the deep man on the kickoff return team and after each
game coaches would come up and tell me that I was doing fine, but I
didn’t ease up. The only time, really, that I felt like I had made it
was after the last (preseason) game.”
Lehman Bennett was the coach
then for the Bucs and he never hesitated to cut a player – veteran or
top rookie alike – if he felt there was a better player on the
roster. He saw potential in Walker.
“Coach Bennett had some nice
things to say,” Walker said. “I remember reading an article – and I
still have it – where Coach Bennett said some really great things about
the four (top draft selections). Bo Jackson, Jackie Walker, Craig Swoope,
and me… he called us all top-100 players in the draft. To be mentioned
like that felt really good.”
He had earned a roster spot
and was proud of it, though he was acutely aware of how fragile the
career of a mid-rounder can be.
“You look around and you
like Steve DeBerg who had been around and Steve Young – everyone knows
how it went for him – and you wonder (how long will I be here),” Walker
said. “The first thing I didn’t do was go out and spend money. My first
year salary was $110,000, which is not that much when you don’t know how
long you’re going to be around (in the NFL). I wanted to help out my
Walker was quick to point out
that in Tampa, everything was first class. The health benefits, the
stipends, the travel… all top notch.
“It’s hard to (get) acclimated to,”
he said. “You have to learn how things work. I didn’t know anything
about Tampa and you are completely into football from morning to night.”
As it was, after all the work
to make the roster, it took one play to end Walker’s first season in the
“First year, first game,
first play and it was such a freak accident,” he said. “I was the deep
man on the kickoff return team. We’re there with 70,000 people in the
stands, television cameras, playing the St. Louis Cardinals and I was in
complete awe. I get the ball and make a 27-yard return which was pretty
good. I got hit on the shoulder but I shook it off and played the rest
of the game and even got some nickel time in. The very next day, I had
the biggest lump on my shoulder. It was dislocated and I was out.”
Walker would miss the next 14
“The injury really devastated
me,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘everything I was building for and I
am already washed up.’ I did come back at the end of the season and
played the last two games and finished up the year. I wanted to rehab
and focus on the next season and then…”
Looking back, Walker must
have felt that the world was conspiring against him. In the short life
of an NFL player, many can’t afford even the slightest of setbacks and
Walker’s injury paled in comparison to the news he was dealt in 1986.
The NFL Players Union went on strike.
“You make the team and you go
through the injury, and then come back and make the team again and they
strike right at the beginning of the season,” Walker said.
As a second-year player,
Walker felt the sting of the strike right out of the gate.
“Yeah… I was a ‘scab,’” he
said. “Most of (first and second year players) and all the free
agents who had made the team were scabs. And, it hurt really bad to
(cross the picket line), but you had to take care of your family. The
players knew what you were going through and it wasn’t that bad in
Tampa. Longevity is not on your side in the NFL. Most of us could not
afford to give up four of five games (checks).
“We only lost one game as
scabs and players started coming back over. We knew it would not last
long. More and more guys came back when they started hurting from
missing their game checks.”
As it turned out, rather than
the scab reputation, it was an ankle injury that ended Walker’s career.
In his final game as a pro, Walker showed the same hawkish pursuit of
the football that first gained the attention of the scouts while he was
at ECU. In his last game – against Minnesota – he had two interceptions,
returning one for a touchdown, and was named the NFC Player of the Week.
Ironically, it was a former
Tampa teammate, receiver Willie Gillespie, who was the Viking who fell
on Walker’s ankle, spelling the end for the corner.
“That ankle injury was the
last play of my NFL career,” he said. “And, I couldn’t have picked a
better ending with the interceptions and the (NFL) honor. It was the
best way to end it. I tore up every ligament in my ankle. I
thought I had broken my leg, which would have actually been better for
me. I rehabbed and it took six months. When I came back, Tampa cut me.”
Walker hooked on with Detroit
and had an impressive preseason and camp.
“It was great, especially,
because one of my close high school buddies was in camp there,” Walker
said. “Renard Brown. He played (in college) at South Carolina. We had a
great time together in Detroit and we both got cut together, which made
it a little easier. It was mainly a numbers game. The roster limits had
been cut to 45 players, not the 53 (people are used to). I think I would
have made it by today’s standards where teams keep six defensive backs.”
Though he sensed his career
was over, Walker did try and get on with other teams and even considered
the Canadian Football League.
“After playing in the NFL, it
seemed wrong for me to go to Canada,” he said. “I had to make a decision
to either try and go back to play or go back to school and get my
degree. I chose my future… I went back to ECU.”
Walker returned to where it
started in 1989 and finished his degree.
“I went on with my life,” he
said. “I didn’t look back and never tried out again. It was too painful
and very tough, but I have great memories from the NFL and ECU. I got to
do what very few ever get the chance to experience.”
Finishing school, in fact,
was on his mind even on the day he was drafted into the NFL.
“I wanted to make sure that I
finished,” he said. “I was only 12 hours short and I finished up strong
that semester (when he was drafted) because I knew I would come back and
finish. Of course, I thought it would be 10 years later. I didn’t think
it would be as soon as it was, but I always knew that I would finish.”
In the big picture, Walker
has always seen himself as blessed.
“I really can’t complain,” he
said. “I had a wonderful (football) career. Life is not always fair, but
I am so thankful that I got my degree. I know guys I played with who
never went back. A college degree is just average today and I couldn’t
envision not having that (degree). I am proud that I was not a
statistic. I’ve never been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I
After completing his degree,
there would be a number of years before he finally found himself using
his hands again, at least the way he dreamed. He worked in the
pharmaceutical industry for a number of years, stopping at Burlington
Industries, Bayer, and Eli Lily before he finally went for it.
Today, he is a licensed
General Contractor with an ultimate goal of building houses full time.
He had always dabbled in remodeling projects, but he is now looking
forward to wholesale building in the spirit that first led him to ECU
and its IT program.
“Building things, using my
hands, it has always been my first love,” he said.
Walker is very happy these
days, spending time with his children and working with his hands. It was
never lost on him what ECU contributed.
“There was a time when I was
in high school that college was so far out of reach to me,” he said.
“And ECU made it happen. And there is something about ECU fans. They are
so loyal. It was my privilege to play there. I am so thankful for that
ECU and its faithful got
plenty in return from Walker and his hands.
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