Aug. 22, 2002
By Alan Wasielewski
One of the more memorable verses the venerable Grateful Dead rock group crooned during its legendary streak of concerts was, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Those words fit the persona of the road-weary rock group and also match the description of Notre Dame senior cornerback Shane Walton’s career on the football field.
His transformation into the #42 opponents will see patrolling the defensive backfield this season is more than just the well-documented soccer player to football player journey Walton has been on the last three years. It is also a transformation from unknown walk-on to key member of the defense and silent workhorse to vocal leader.
Walton planned for this season, his fifth at Notre Dame (he played soccer during his freshman season), as the final step in a progression from high school receiver to premier college cornerback.
“I had a plan from the beginning,” Walton says.
“The first year, I wanted to learn. I didn’t really mind if I played a lot or not. The second year, I just wanted to play. The third year, I wanted to improve and the fourth year, I wanted to be great. I’m on the right track for that.”
Take a glance at the last three years and you will see that Walton followed his plan to perfection. As a sophomore he played in nine games as a special-teams performer, making 61 appearances and seeing action as a cornerback against Purdue, Arizona State and USC.
Year two he stepped up to start all 10 games he played (he broke his arm against Rutgers causing him to miss the rest of the season), record 40 tackles and score a touchdown on an interception return of a Drew Brees pass against Purdue.
The third year, Walton led a much maligned pass defense into a top-10 ranking as a unit that effectively shut down most opponents passing games. His improvement goal was accomplished.
Now, in Shane Walton’s mind, it is time to be great.
To be a great cornerback, Walton says you have to “have a short memory, good hips and a knowledge of the game.”
Walton’s knowledge of the game has already been proven. His interception of Brees during his junior season was just the beginning. The memorable plays Walton has been a part of include a blocked punt to set up the lone score against Nebraska last year, a forced fumble against Pittsburgh in 2002 and stopping a USC fake punt to set up another offensive score.
How does Walton seem to end up in the right place at the right time?
“It is the discipline of doing everything right,” Walton says.
“Even the little things. The coaches place an emphasis on the little things and trusting your teammates to be in the right place.”
Walton is among the most trusted on the Irish team, a trait that enables the former walk-on to be one of the team leaders this season. Head coach Tyrone Willingham will have game captains this season, leaving the Irish without team appointed season-long captains for the first time since 1946. It is a decision that Walton agrees with.
“Captain is just a title placed on someone,” Walton says.
“The true leaders, whether they are captains or not, will rise to the occasion. That is the measure of a true leader.”
More often than not, Walton is that player who can rise to the occasion. He was tasked with covering the best receiver on the opposing team last year and had the confidence required to get the job done.
“It is a combination of experience and confidence,” Walton explains.
“I think I really improved my technique and coverage and knew that I could ‘d up’ against the best of them.”
A perfect example of the transformed Walton is on page 35 of the 2002 Notre Dame Football Media Guide. Celebrating a play during last season, Walton is pictured with his arms stretched out as if to say, “Here I am, right where I want to be. Watch me be great.”
It might have been a long, strange trip, but every Irish football fan should be glad Shane Walton decided to begin the journey.