Timing, hard work have steered Von Walker’s journey at Penn State
With one foot on the 35-yard line, Von Walker is waiting.
He is waiting for Joey Julius to raise his hand into the air and for the official to blow the whistle. Then comes the moment he is most prepared for.
“My foot is on the line and I am just waiting,” said Walker, “I look across the line and see Nick Scott smiling at me the whole time. I run as fast as I can down the field, avoid the block and locate the returner. My job: to get him on the ground. I just want to do my job, because if one guy isn’t in the right spot, it throws the rest of [the coverage] off.”
Walker has had a knack for being in the right spot.
When former assistant coach Mac McWhorter traveled to watch Walker play during his junior year of high school, he immediately knew the 5-foot-11, 190-pound mobile quarterback/defensive back would be a perfect fit for the then-short-on-scholarship program.
Though not many Division I athletes have come out of Central Mountain High School – Robbie Gould is among the shortlist – and Walker had not received even one Division I scholarship offer prior to Penn State’s preferred run-on proposal, that didn’t shake his confidence.
“I remember sitting in Bill (O’Brien)’s office with Von, his parents and Coach O’Brien,” said McWhorter. “Bill told him we wanted him to run on and [Von] was excited. His parents asked Coach O’Brien if there would be an opportunity for him to earn a scholarship later on and without hesitation Von spoke up and said, ‘I’ll end up with a scholarship.'”
For Walker it was about the opportunity to play football at Penn State, a program he grew up rooting for.
Growing up between Mill Hall and Lock Haven, he attended games with his father when he was younger. When he wasn’t at the game, Walker could be found in front of the television on Saturdays watching the Blue and White.
Fast forward to July 2013 and Walker found himself moving into Nittany Apartments to take part in his first fall camp as a Nittany Lion football player. He entered camp like many other freshmen, expecting to redshirt and learn the ropes of Division I football.
“(Playing early) was really unexpected,” said Walker. “Like a lot of guys I came in with, I expected to redshirt my first year, but sometime things just fall into place.”
Walker found himself on the field in the season opening win over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium, covering punts, and since then has owned his role as a special teams guru.
“Special teams are something I take very seriously,” said Walker. “I pride myself on my performance on special teams. Everyone wants to come to college and evolve as a player and grow into a bigger role, and I have expanded my role in a variety of ways… I just count my blessings and am thankful for what I have.”
From a solo stop covering a punt in his first career game, Walker has worked his way on to all four special teams units.
He has seen time as a punt and kickoff returner, running back and safety, and that just covers his freshman season, as well as starting games at linebacker – once as a sophomore and twice during his junior season.
All along, though, special teams have been his calling card and that doesn’t upset him one bit. He talks about that role as one he “takes to heart.”
That heart was molded by his parents and drives the work ethic that was instilled in him by the two people he cares the most about.
“My mom and dad taught me that if I wanted something to happen, I was going to have to work hard for it,” said Walker.
Originally listed at running back to start his freshman season, Walker moved to safety midway through his rookie campaign. The following spring, he made the move to linebacker, a position his father predicted he would one day play at Penn State, but none of that fazed him.
Walker continued to embody the four core values of Penn State football: positive attitude, unrivaled work ethic, compete in everything you do and sacrifice. If his proclamation to a former head coach didn’t come true, that would be alright with Walker, but head coach James Franklin and his staff awarded their hard-nosed special teamer with a scholarship during a team meeting in April 2015.
“I work hard because I want to find a way to help this program and if that meant four years of no scholarship that was fine with me,” said Walker. “When it happened, I just remember putting my head down – I didn’t hear anything for like 10 seconds – and then I heard all of my teammates. What meant the most was watching the video afterwards, seeing that all of my teammates standing up and being so happy for me. That means more than they will ever know. Besides my family back home, this team and this program mean everything to me.”
The first call went to his mother, Angela Harding, who has not missed a game in his four seasons – including a trek to Ireland for the Croke Park Classic.
He didn’t want to even imagine how mad she would be if she wasn’t the first call.
The call wasn’t emotional, but the message to her son was pointed: keep working hard.
Then the call to his father, Timothy Walker. That’s when the emotions kicked up a bit for the younger Walker.
“You know it is that father-son connection,” Walker remembered. “He always told me that I would play linebacker at Penn State. I was always a little smaller, so I told him, ‘that’s not going to happen.’ It was weird calling him and telling him – now as a linebacker – that I got a scholarship.”
The story doesn’t stop there, and why would it for a kid that would run through a brick wall just to help a teammate get to class on time so the rest of the team wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences. That attitude isn’t just something his teammates notice, either, as associate head coach/defensive coordinator Brent Pry points out his love for the game of football is what makes him such an easy guy to root for, and reward.
“The most important thing to know about Von is that he loves, and I mean loves, football,” said Pry. “His teammates love him because he gets out early to practice; he’s punting, throwing deep balls, running routes…he loves the game with that school yard mentality. He brings fun and energy to practice every day and is an extremely likeable guy.”
Walker’s team-first attitude resonates with his the players in the locker room, which is why just months after being added to scholarship, he was elected team captain for the first time. He led the special teams unit as its captain in 2015 and, just before the 2016 campaign, was named just the eighth two-time captain in Penn State’s 130-year history.
To think about what that means takes the usually talkative Walker into a moment of quite reflection.
“To be labeled as a two-time captain makes you realize how lucky you are to be doing what you love,” Walker said with a smile. “You just try to be the best teammate you can, and when the guys that work just as hard and put in just as many reps as you, vote you to be a team captain, that is something special. For them to do it twice, I can’t put that into words.”
No need for words, just show up to Beaver Stadium or turn on a Penn State game and you will see why his teammates think so highly of him. Von Walker embodies what the Penn State program is. He bleeds Blue and White.
The opportunity to wear the basic blue uniform and wear the iconic white helmet with its simple blue stripe isn’t one that Walker takes for granted, so sitting in a chair inside the Lasch Football Building, Walker donned white Penn State logo sandals, team issued sweatpants and a white pullover with a grey hooded sweatshirt underneath.
He is nearly done with his undergraduate degree in advertising and public relations, and with no class on the schedule he took time out of a Wednesday for a sit down in the football facility.
Simply asked about his time at Penn State, he grinned from ear-to-ear before saying;
“It goes fast, this journey, and you just have to learn how to embrace it. It may sound clichÈ, but these were the best four years of my life. It’s more than just the Saturdays, its finding a way to have fun every day and building relationships with everyone you come in contact with.”
Greg Campbell is assistant director of strategic communications at Penn State University.