Brian Walker (22) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the locker room before the game against the BC Lions at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, BC., on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
They get truckers and bikers, dreamers, schemers and big believers. And every once in a while, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers manage to unearth a diamond at one of their offseason free agent camps.
Rewind to May 7th this past spring at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North Carolina…
Brian Walker, a North Carolina transfer to Division II Fayetteville State, plopped down his $100 in cash just like any other wannabe at a free-agent camp at his old high school, just trying to catch the attention of the two men in Bomber gear – Danny McManus, the Bombers Assistant GM/Director of U.S. Scouting, and his brother Jerry, a long-time NCAA coach.
“That was my first CFL workout and I thought I did pretty well,” began Walker after Bombers practice on Monday. “I really just went out of faith. You just put down your 100 dollars and I ran a 40, did the broad jump, the shuttle, some 1-on-1s, individual drills…
“As long as you pay your $100, anybody can try out and I remember a lot of people showing up at all positions. I really didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out.”
Yeah, you could say that.
McManus said what first stood out was Walker’s speed, his cover skills, and his ability to close on the ball. But what really resonated was his compete level and his desire to jump ahead of guys in line to get more reps.
And that skill has served the 21 year-old – yes, just 21 – so well since his arrival in Winnipeg. Walker has essentially gone from a late pre-camp addition to a versatile starter on the rise in the Bombers secondary.
“After that free-agent camp, I didn’t hear back from them for a week, week and a half,” Walker recalled. “Then they sent me an e-mail and said they would contact me if a spot opened up on the practice roster or if somebody got hurt in camp. That was the last time I heard from them until maybe 3-4 days before rookie mini-camp. Then they called and offered me a contract.
“It’s an unreal feeling, honestly. I definitely didn’t even imagine getting this far. From that point at the free-agent camp to getting up here, to making the team, to having an opportunity to start… it really is unreal. That’s why I feel like I’m really enjoying this process and have learned to take it day by day. I’m enjoying everything; the practices, the reps, the games – everything – because I know not that long ago I wasn’t in the position to even be here. I’m grateful for it.”
It’s that maturity-beyond-his-years perspective that is one of the first things you discover during a chat with Walker. It might come from his late grandfather, Eugene Walker, a former pastor who was a well-respected leader in his community and a huge influence on his grandson. As a tribute to his grandfather, Brian has a tattoo of his face on one of his arms.
“I try to model myself after him,” said Walker of his grandfather. “He was all about listening and being open to change. And when I came up here that helped me a lot. I was open to change and the game here is different but I was able to adapt and gel with other teammates.
“I know I wouldn’t be here without him. He’s my inspiration.”
Listed at 5-9 and 195 pounds, Walker brings a physical presence to the Bombers secondary, flashing a ferocity in finishing tackles. And at just 21 and shining in his first pro experience, he’s exactly the kind of talent that might have slipped through the NFL cracks, but soon get a look.
Walker, for the record, wants nothing to do with that talk. Not here, not now, not after the massive steps he’s taken from that tryout in May at his old high school to the Bombers starting lineup.
“Looking ahead… I won’t do that,” he said. “I’m worried about now and winning games. I’m thinking about Edmonton and that’s all. How could I predict that anwyway when I wouldn’t have predicted being here? I want to be here for as long as I can, for as long as they’ll have me.
“I know this is where I’m supposed to be, whether I slipped through the cracks or missed out on an opportunity. I know this is where I should be. I’m so happy to be a Blue Bomber.”
BOMBERS REPORT – August 14, 2017
BRING ON THE ESKS: The Bombers will play just one home game this month, and it comes this Thursday against the unbeaten Edmonton Eskimos, a perfect 7-0 to start the season.
“Oh, I can’t sleep. I’m excited,” said Bombers offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick. “It’s just another game on the schedule, but it’s a big game on the schedule. They’re the big dogs coming in… I guess.”
It was at this point where the legendary Bob Irving of CJOB asked: “You know what their record is, right?”
Answered Hardrick: “I just want to know what it’s going to be Friday.”
Head coach Mike O’Shea was asked after Monday’s practice if playing against an unbeaten team is something his squad relishes.
“I don’t know that record has anything to do with it. You want to play top opponents, you want to play top players, you want to match up against top guys. That’s just the natural, competitive instinct in any pro athlete, no matter what the sport. But I don’t think we had the 7-0 or perfect record into that. It’s about that competitive fire.”
OUCH REPORT: Working on a short week, the Bombers held a lighter walk-through type practice at the soccer complex on Monday. At first glance, the club doesn’t look to have exited Hamilton on the weekend with any major injuries, although safety Taylor Loffler didn’t participate.
ESKS HURTING: The already banged up Eskimos had two more starters fall in last week’s win over Ottawa, Almondo Sewell and Marcus Howard – both D-linemen – exited with what head coach Jason Maas initially referred to as ‘devastating’ injuries.
Edmonton is already without receivers Adarius Bowman, Brandon Zylstra and kicker Sean Whyte, while their injured list includes the likes of LBs J.C. Sherritt and Cory Greenwood, RBs John White, Travon Van and Kendial Lawrence, OL Simeon Rottier and DE Phillip Hunt.
“They’re coached well and they have good schemes,” said Bombers QB Matt Nichols when asked about the possible changes to Edmonton’s D-line. “It seems like any time anyone goes down over there they’ve got a new guy that you’ve never heard of that comes in and is getting after it. Whoever’s in there we fully expect to get their best effort and we know they’re going to be good players, well-coached players.”
And here’s Nichols on facing the 7-0 Esks and attempting to be the first team to spoil their record:
“I honestly don’t think of it that way… we’re not worried about records, just like we haven’t been worried about records all year. We’re worried about knowing we have a tough team coming into our house and it’s going to be a tough four-quarter game and we want to walk away with two points and have them walk away with none. That’s always the goal, especially against a Western opponent so record aren’t even a factor for us.”