Sept. 14, 2006
By Katie Stuhldreher
Reporters. Cameras. Bright lights. Digital voice recorders. And of course the always imposing media mob waiting outside the locker room after practice when all you want to do is take a shower and go home to do your homework. The bane of all college athletes.
Well, almost all college athletes.
Junior Irish running back Darius Walker loves the cameras, the attention, even the hype.
Although he is one of the fastest, most slippery ball carriers for the Fighting Irish, he always slows down enough to take a few questions after practice. In fact, he is often laughing and joking with reporters, smiling for the camera.
“I’m one of the few players you’ll hear say that I actually like all the hype. I think that if the papers aren’t saying anything about you, aren’t expecting anything from you, then you must be doing something wrong,” he says.
While most of his teammates say they don’t like to read all the press coverage in the newspapers and deal with all the media pressure, Walker admitted that he enjoys the attention.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be an actor. I used to watch Will Smith on the Fresh Prince of Bellaire and all that. I thought, `I can do that too. I can be like him,'” says Walker.
Of course, anyone who watched Notre Dame play long-time rival Michigan in 2004 knows Walker can certainly put on quite a show.
In his freshman debut on the collegiate gridiron, Walker catapulted himself out of obscurity when he ran for a team season-high 115 yards on 31 carries, bagging two touchdowns and helping defeat the Wolverines, 28-20.
Facing off against a bitter rival in a packed Notre Dame Stadium as a rookie might give anyone else cold feet. But for Walker, it was the greatest stage he’d ever set foot on.
And talk about a standing ovation. The student body rushed from the stands to celebrate the win on the field with the team, a tradition reserved only for the most exhilarating victories.
“It was incredible. It’s hard to really put it into words. I still can’t even put a finger on what clicked and made all that happen for me in that game, but it was really great,” says Walker.
And we can’t forget about the encore. Walker racked up more than 100 yards in seven games that season, including a whopping 186 against Stanford. He set the freshman rushing mark at Notre Dame, breaking Jerome Heavens’ record by 30 yards.
. Junior running back Darius Walker came into the 2005-06 season with 1,982 yards rushing on 438 carries for a 4.5 yards-per carry average. (photo by JD Smith)
By the end of his sophomore year, he’d passed the 1,000-yard mark in rushing yards and recorded one of the top-receiving years in Irish tailback history. He also set a new school record by opening the season with four straight games of 100 rushing yards or more.
“I always liked acting a whole lot and when I first came to Notre Dame, I wanted to go into performing arts. But now I think I’m a different kind of performer,” says Walker of his impressive record.
In fact, he chose Notre Dame over numerous other schools specifically for the enthusiastic Irish “audience.”
Walker made his college visit to Notre Dame on what originally seemed like the most unfortunate of weekends. He watched as the Irish were shutout 37-0 in their own stadium by rival Florida State, in one of the most devastating losses in years.
But it wasn’t the game that made up Walker’s mind. It was what happened afterwards.
Walker watched as the tired, muddy, sweaty, and defeated Irish marched across the field to the corner of the north end zone, just in front of the student section. The players raised their golden helmets to their fans, and the students applauded them, chanting “We are ND!”
Walker knew he was home.
“You really can’t say no to something like that,” he says. “Looking back, I know I’m really at the right place here at Notre Dame.”
Accordingly, Walker mentioned his close friendships with his many co-stars on the field.
“I have so many friends on this team. I love hanging out off the field with all the guys, especially [senior quarterback] Brady Quinn, [senior tailback] Travis Thomas, and [senior wide receiver] Jeff Samardzija. We like to go to the movies or just go over to someone’s place and cook dinner,” Walker says.
“I know I’ve got my own biases here, but I think I’m the best cook,” says Walker, with a chuckle. “I love cooking all kinds of things like chicken, and ribs are always good.”
But since his biggest fans–his parents–moved from Georgia to South Bend to be close to Walker, he’s gotten some home-cooked meals from mom now and again, too.
“I really like them being here. Now I don’t have to worry about getting mommy-sick or missing home-cooked meals or anything. If I ever need anything, I can just come over. It’s really the best of both worlds. I haven’t found any negatives to having them here,” he said.
Walker mentioned that having his father close has its advantages, too. Jimmy Walker was a defensive lineman for Arkansas under former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz.
When asked if his father likes to talk X’s and O’s with him, he said, “Well, yeah, sometimes we do that. It is really helpful to have a father who has played college ball and even beyond and knows what it’s like, what I’m going through. I’m really grateful for that.”
The strong Walker football tradition was passed on to Darius when he was just five years old. He said even then he couldn’t settle for anything less than the big leagues.
“I have a brother who is four years older than me, and I always wanted to play with him and his friends. I never wanted to play with kids my own age. I always wanted to go play with the big kids. I didn’t want to wait,” says Walker.
Watching the success of another famous Walker also spurred his dreams of someday playing college football.
“I’ve always looked up to [former University of Georgia running back] Herschel Walker. I think the name thing helps. But he’s definitely one of the greats, so I wanted to be like him,” says Walker.
Unfortunately, Walker hasn’t had a chance to meet his role model yet.
“I’ve tried. When I did TV interviews and stuff like that I gave him a few shout-outs, hoping he’d look me up, but I still haven’t gotten to talk to him. I’d still really like to meet him someday,” he says.
The two have something in common. During his high school career at Buford High School, Darius Walker eclipsed his idol’s high school record of rushing touchdowns, racking up 46 compared to (Herschel) Walker’s 42.
“My whole high school career was just incredible. It was a lot of fun. I was really lucky to get to go to the state championships four years in a row. It’s something I still look back on,” Walker says.
Looking forward to graduation next year, Walker said he hopes to play in the NFL. However, he said further down the road he’d like to put his marketing degree to use and open his own advertising firm.
“Maybe even do a little TV work,” Walker said with a grin, refusing to let his childhood dream of becoming the next “Fresh Prince” pale next to his football ambitions.
Yet he admits those dreams remain far into the future. The only camera time Walker plans on having any time soon is on the evening sports reports, and he says for now he will only be performing on football Saturdays.
Whatever you do, just don’t tell him to break a leg.