THE PEAK OF INSPIRATION – The remarkable journey of PSU’s Von Walker: From walk-on to leader

Von Walker (25) had a remarkable career, from graduating out of Central Mountain and walking on to the Penn State football team, ultimately to receive a scholarship and become an important leader on the Nittany Lions squad. (FILE PHOTO/THE EXPRESS)

When he first arrived at Penn State back in 2013, Von Walker joined the Nittany Lions as a walk-on without a scholarship or guaranteed position, just a year removed from the darkest period in the school’s history.

At the time, there was little doubt that Walker, who set 14 school records at Central Mountain as a standout that played multiple positions on both sides of the ball, could have had his pick from many Division II and smaller Division I programs – schools that could have offered him a full scholarship, and regular playing time.

But never one to shy away from a challenge, Walker insisted on pursuing his collegiate career with the team that he had spent his whole life watching; for the crowd that captured his imagination as a child.

Since making the decision to join PSU, the senior has experienced a lot with the team.

He’s had two different head coaches (Bill O’Brien and James Franklin) whose personalities couldn’t be more starkly contrasted, played positions on both sides of the ball, and proven himself to be a special teams standout – first returning kickoffs and punts as a true freshman, and then becoming a top tackler on kick and punt coverage teams over more recent years.

Walker has watched the Lions go from an unranked team with a record of 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten) in his inaugural season to the No. 8-ranked team in the country headed into Saturday’s regular season finale with Michigan State, as the group now sits at 9-2 (7-1 Big Ten).

But most impressively, Walker – a player who joined Penn State under the most uncertain of circumstances – proved to be such a leader on and off the field that his coaches elected to name him as a team captain in back-to-back seasons, and ultimately gave him the scholarship he had forgone at other schools.

Speaking with Walker for even the shortest amount of time makes it easy to understand why Franklin made the decision to bestow that honor upon him. He’s a true team-first player, who puts as much emphasis on the “student” part of “student-athlete” as he does on the “athlete” part; those qualities radiate off of him.

And that takes me to the best story I’ve ever heard about Von Walker, which I was told during a CM baseball game last spring, just prior to the Blue-White game.

The person telling the story – who shall remain nameless – mentioned running into Walker at a grocery story (or something like that) and asking him, “How’s the spring been going for you so far at Penn State?”

Walker simply responded, “Great! I got three A’s and a B!”

The person telling that story was no doubt expecting their question to be met with a remark about spring football practices and how the team was looking, but was instead met with an answer to the much more important query, “How are your classes going?”

That kind of perspective is rare to come by.

It’s easy to forget that playing a college sport requires as much energy in the classroom as it does on the field, and a player who isn’t working equally hard in both is not really helping their team. Penn State has been fortunate to have a guy like Walker, who never loses sight of that, around to show younger guys on the team how to do things the right way and approach the game from the right point of view.

Those invaluable lessons will undoubtedly reverberate in the program for seasons to come.

Sadly, Walker won’t be on the field against the Spartans today, after suffering a career-ending knee injury last week at Rutgers, ending a streak of 28 straight games that he’s played in. It’s just the third game in his collegiate career that he will miss due to injury.

On Tuesday, Walker released a statement on Twitter saying that his career at Penn State has come to an end, also taking time to thank his teammates, fans, and coaches.

“It has been an unbelievable ride and I’ll never forget my time here at Pen State,” Walker concluded in the message. “WE ARE!”

Walker and the rest of Penn State’s senior class will be celebrated with a pregame ceremony prior to kickoff with Michigan State.