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Pirate
Time
Machine
No. 22

With Ron Cherubini
©2001-2003 Bonesville.net


Kevin Walker

'Man with the hands' led
nation in interceptions in '85

By Ron Cherubini
©2003 Bonesville.net

Kevin "K.K." Walker during his
playing days at East Carolina.

(Photo: ECU Media Relations)

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 early-to-mid-1980s.

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 build.

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 East Carolina.”

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 Harris.

“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 Buccaneers.
Photo:
Tom Wagner/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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 day selection.

“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 third round.”

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 did.”

Whatever disappointed Walker about the later-than-expected selection, it disappeared when Walker called home.

“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 department).”

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 memorable.

“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 team.”

It took the entire preseason camp and schedule before Walker truly believed he would stick with the team.

“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 (see) guys 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 family.”

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 NFL.

“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 weeks.

“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 finished.”

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 opportunity.”

ECU and its faithful got plenty in return from Walker and his hands.

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Kevin Walker

.

KEVIN WALKER BIO BOX
Name:

Kevin "KK" Walker
 

Age:

39
.

Sport:

Football
.

Years at ECU:

1981-85
.

Position/Jersey No.

Corner Back/ No. 37
.

Hometown:

Greensboro, NC
.

Currently Resides:

Greensboro, NC
.

Occupation:

Recruiter, Tradesmen International
 

Degree(s):

B.S. Industrial Technology, East Carolina University
.

Marital Status:

Single
 

Children:
  • Requisha Barnes, 17

  • Kevin Martrell Walker, 10

  • Jessica Walker, 6

Quotable: 

“Funny story. You know, Ellis (Dillahunt) and I were so close when we played together. He was a year behind me. I got drafted by Tampa and the next year, Ellis went to Cincinnati. We actually played against each other and on the kickoff, I just wiped Ellis out. It was the funniest thing. Of course, he ended up going to the Super Bowl, so maybe he got the last laugh. It was funny, though, to play against each other (after being on the same team).”
.

TEN QUESTIONS

1. Who is your favorite current Pirate and why?

“Let me put it like this: Last year, Art Brown, I thought, ‘He has great talent.’ He’s a little timid at times. He has great talent and great vision. I’ve seen him give up at times. Great ability, great style. I remember against Carolina, he did some good things. I’m really pulling for this quarterback (Troth). I think he (had been) in the wrong system.... ”
.
.

2. What do you miss most about ECU?

“I think the one thing I miss the most, was that everyone was so genuine (at ECU). There were no uppity people. ECU was the best part of my life. It gave me the opportunity to grow up. There was no black or white, everyone was on the same playing field. The one thing I miss is all the people I knew and got to know while I was at East Carolina.”
.

3. Where is your favorite spot on the ECU campus?

“My favorite spot was in the wood shop, honestly. I spent more time in there than anywhere (else on campus) other than the football field. I love working with my hands. Dr. Davis, over there, he was my adviser. He really knew my passion for working with my hands and he followed my football career. He was very instrumental in my decisions in the industry. Dr. Davis helped me so much. He knew I loved it.”
 

4. What was your dorm room and favorite dorm story?

Belk 211-D. Ohhhh. I can recall a lot of dorm stories. In my suite was Jimmy Walden, P.J. Jordan, Damon Pope, Bernard Wynn… we had a real close group there and we were all suitemates for all four years. It was like a little family. One particular story I can tell you – and it was truly instrumental in my development at ECU – was that I got the opportunity to pledge a fraternity. (Fraternities) didn’t really mix well with football. The team was our own family and if you joined a fraternity, some of the guys took that as you were breaking out of the family, but it wasn’t like that. As a matter of fact, Me, EB (Earnest Byner), Damon, and Stefon (Adams) were the first line of football players to rush a fraternity at East Carolina. Kappa Alpha Psi. It worked out because the football team was my first family and was always my first family. Football was the reason I was there. They are still my family to this day.”
.

5. Greatest Moment as a Pirate football player?

“My greatest moment… Ohhhhh. Wow! That’s hard. I had some great moments. I was fortunate to start and lead the team in interceptions for three years. The game against Miami. I had three against (Vinnie) Testaverde. It’s funny how life is. I had a chance to play with Vinnie in Tampa Bay and we had lockers next to each other. When he first was signed, he asked me what college I went to and I told him East Carolina. I asked him what he remembered most about playing ECU and he said, ‘The gold stadium.’ I was like, ‘That is what you remember the most?’ And then he told me that he was color blind. That was the first time I found out about that. I remember thinking, ‘Here’s a guy that just signed for, like, $6 million and he’s color blind.’ People were wondering how he threw so many interceptions. Of course, I had to remind him that I intercepted him three times. Vinnie is a nice guy. Down to earth and not arrogant.”
.

6. Most disliked opponent?

“It would have to be Miami… they were just dirty. All of the Florida teams were dirty. All of those teams hated ECU and you would read in the paper where they were like, ‘Where is that little, dam East Carolina?’ Miami was one of the dirtier teams. Never forget that. We went down there and smacked them right in the mouth.”
.

7. Athletic Influences?

“My high school coach. He was also my best man at my wedding. He is one of the biggest redneck that you would ever meet in your life, Leland Hughes. He was so instrumental in my last couple of years at Smith high school. I will never forget after my junior year, I was a running back and All-Conference and Coach came to me and told me that he was going to make me the quarterback (in his senior year). I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You are my best athlete and I want you leading this team.’ He saw so much potential in me… potential that I didn’t know I had. He took me to Carolina, Virginia Tech, ECU, on the weekends. He did so much for me. When it came down to signing day, my final three were ECU, Virginia Tech, and N.C. State. My mother and father decided that they wanted me to go wherever Coach Hughes wanted me to go. East Carolina was the only school that offered Industrial Technology except for A&T. Coach Hughes said, ‘I want you go to East Carolina.’ He didn’t know what position, but he felt I could play there sooner. It was the best ting that could have happened to me. Some 10 or 15 years later, I located him and told him that I had talked it over with my dad and I asked him to be my best man. I told him, ‘If it had not been for you, Coach, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’ It was truly amazing. He’s white, I’m black, but we never looked at each other that way. Even to this day, he is still one of the most influential persons in my life. He saw lots of potential in me and brought it out of me.”
.
.

8. Favorite coach?

“I loved coach Baker because of the Christian he was and he kept me on my Christian toes. He also saw potential in me…

Most influential person was Ed Emory. He wasn’t there for you to like him. If you did what you were supposed to do, he would respect you… and he respected me. One saying he said… had a lot of them… but one that stuck with me. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. I was a true believer in that… I worked so hard.”
.
.

9. Best Locker Room Story

“My senior year, we were 2-9. We were always a great team for the first two quarters and then we’d suck in the fourth quarter. We were playing Auburn and Bo Jackson was up for the Heisman Trophy. He was unbelievable. We watched so much film on him. He had scored like four or five touchdowns against some team like Southwest Louisiana or something and we watched the film. I will never forget this, before the game in the locker room, nobody was saying nothing and it was never like that in our locker room. Nothing. You could hear a pin drop. Coach Baker comes in and has us gather up and get ready to run on the field. And we were all quiet. So, we go out and we’re bunched up by the end zone, getting ready to run onto the field. Coach Baker turns around to us and tells us to go back into the locker room. He tells us to get on one knee and we thought we were about to get blessed out for being scared or something. Instead, Coach Baker started to tell us a joke about a monkey. And he looks at everyone in the eye and at the end it was so funny, we all started laughing. We all started to jump around. We were going to war and were anxious and he broke the ice. He knew we weren’t scared, but we were uptight. A load was lifted off us. We went out there and we whipped Auburn in the first half. We took Bo out in second quarter.”
.

10. Best Emerald City hangout?

“I partied… but not too big. Being in the fraternity, I wasn’t out as much. Of course, we did go to the Elbo Room. But, I wasn’t really a big (downtown) partier.”
.

 
 

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02/23/2007 02:10:28 PM

 

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