By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Darnell Walker Sr. went with his son and eight other University of Tulsa cornerbacks to dinner the other night.
Dad’s involved his son with his job before.
There’s those days when Walker Sr. was a cornerback on the San Francisco 49ers, part of an eight-year, multi-team NFL career preceded by a standout period at Oklahoma where he won all-Big Eight honors in 1992. His son remembers him playing dominoes with 49er teammates Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice, though barely young enough to absorb it.
“I’d get to hang around the dressing room before a game or during the week,” Walker Jr. said. “I didn’t realize then who those other guys were but I’ve come to appreciate it.”
And, that father-son bond that grew from it.
These days, Walker Sr.’s NFL career is a distant memory, his retirement coming in 2001. In effect, his son works for him, the salary being the value of a scholarship at the University of Tulsa. And dinner occasionally involves eight others who are bonded by the same characteristic.
The younger Walker was an emerging standout as a Rougher who lettered his sophomore season. Walker Sr. joined then-head coach David Ross’ football staff at Bacone. Walker Sr. and his wife D’Elbie Walker were divorced here and eventually, Walker Sr. would end up on the staff at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., coaching the defensive backs.
Walker Jr. would eventually follow.
“I didn’t like moving but being able to stay near him and learn from him was worth it,” he said.
Walker Jr. started at receiver and cornerback, returned kickoffs, averaged over 15 yards on occasional rushing plays, threw for a touchdown on his only passing attempt, and led his team in blocked kicks.
Over two seasons at Bolivar, he had 16 pass interceptions, over 3,200 all-purpose yards and 24 TDs. He signed with Tulsa in February 2012, spurning offers from Colorado and Missouri. Part of that decision came out of a nurtured bond with then cornerbacks coach Van Malone, who left for Oklahoma State just days after Walker had signed with the Hurricane.
“I just told him (at the time) they’d find another good coach,” Walker Sr. said. “I didn’t have any clue it would be me.”
But that’s who TU coach Bill Blankenship called. And it threw a wrench into Walker Jr.’s senior year. He was planning on playing both baseball and track at Bolivar.
“This was a Tuesday. He told me ‘we’re moving Saturday,’” Walker Jr. said.
Instead, his diploma said Muskogee High. The OSSAA allowed Walker to compete in track at Muskogee but not baseball.
Walker Jr. redshirted his freshman season and used it to develop academically, both in the classroom and in the locker room. In the weight room, he improved his squat thrust from 315 to 425 in five-rep sessions.
He also played receiver on the scout team.
“He was better than any receiver we had over there,” Walker Sr. said. “He made our guys better.”
It’s those times that Walker Sr., feels the conflict of being a dad and a coach.
“You want to praise him and there’s times I don’t think I’ve encouraged him enough,” Walker Sr. said. “At the same time, he’s come to know more about this game than most pros do because he’s had the benefit of my experience. “
Bottom line, he’s looking for excellence at both. Such a test came early this spring.
“First 3-4 days I wouldn’t let them press (coverage),” Walker Sr. said. “He was playing off a man and got beat on the play. The next time he tried to press. He wasn’t on his game and he let his emotions kick in.”
Dad let everyone else press. Not his son.
“He looks up after (practice) and said you’re holding me back,” Walker Sr. said. “I told him you still got to follow directions. That didn’t have anything to do with him being my son. That had everything to do with him hitting and missing and being a wild card and kind of taking chances out there and doing his own thing.
“I took the option (of pressing) away because I wanted him to learn something. There will be times when things don’t go your way in a game. You still have to be locked in on what you’re supposed to do.”
Walker Jr. calls his dinner mates brothers. He’s primarily competing with two – Midwest City junior Dwight Dobbins and another redshirt freshman, Darrell Williams out of Spring (Texas) Westfield – for a starting spot on a defense that must replace seven starters, three in the secondary.
At the table or in practice, it’s only natural to see only one among them who has blood ties to their coach – and with that, a lot of years understanding what dad wants, both as a son and from a football standpoint.
“We (players) work on that bond outside of football and no one really says anything about him being my dad unless we see him on a TV highlight,” Walker Jr. said. “He taught me a lot, sure, but I look at it like I can’t ever learn enough, so I’m listening just like they are. In the end, we all know that the best guy is going to play regardless of who is who.”
Walker Sr. knows that could be his son, but that’s the dad in him. Yet it’s backed by history.
“He’s three inches taller than I was (5-foot-11 now to 5-8 in the NFL) and I made it on ability,” he said. “He’s got the ability and he’s got a football IQ. But he’s still got to take that and apply it.”
Walker Jr. was asked if his road might have changed had he never left Muskogee.
“I see it like I do my whole life, weighing the positives and negatives,” he said. “I got to experience the lifestyle that having a dad playing in the NFL gives, where my mom could buy anything she wanted. I’ve seen a middle-class existence and then mom working two jobs to take care of me when I was in Muskogee.
“Not having a father figure at all, I could have been in the streets like a lot of kids in Muskogee grow up in. When I moved up there with him, I didn’t like waking up at 5 a.m. every day to do my workouts. It was a grind for me but look where it got me. And how many kids get to get coached by their dad at this level?
“I consider myself pretty fortunate to have the experiences I’ve had.”