Texas A&M's Chris Walker has become College Station 's favorite underdog.
By Joshua Cooley
Hometown: Grapevine, Texas
Future Plans: Walker recently accepted a position with IBM in Dallas . The job will be waiting for him when he finishes school this spring.
To hear Texas A&M University basketball coach Billy Gillispie talk about Chris Walker's natural talent, you'd probably think the senior was a benchwarmer, not a guy who started 23 games last season. But to hear Gillispie gush, in the same sentence, about the "intangibles" that Walker brings to the Aggies, you'd think hewas a sure-fire NBA lottery pick.
"We called him a 6-foot, 2 ½- inch powerless forward in the Big 12 [Conference]," Gillispie said. "He doesn't rebound much, he doesn't score much, but [last season] he always defended the best player on the other team. He always battled. When he wasn't on the court, our play declined...He's not a great basketball player, but he's a great guy as far as helping the team win games. And that's what we want."
Non sequitur? Not really. Actually it's a perfect summation of Walker , College Station 's ultra-popular underdog.
"It's kind of like [the movie] Rudy ," Don Walker, Chris' father, said, "but Chris gets more playing time."
Walker is the walk-on wonder boy on a Texas A&M team that is experiencing a swift basketball renaissance under second-year coach Gillispie. After a 19-11 season in 1993-94, the Aggies fell into a sub-.500 rut for most of the next decade. But in his first year on campus last year, Gillispie led the team to a 21-10 record and an appearance in the NIT quarterfinals. Walker , whose everyman persona has given hope to Division I wannabes across the Lone Star State , is at the heart of the sportscrazed city's Cinderella story.
"He perfectly embodies the 12th Man Foundation we have here," Gillispie said. "The guy was considered a walk-on hero from the start, and his legacy continues to grow."
Walker, for his part, doesn't mind Gillispie's bluntness. When told of Gillispie's assessment, he laughed.
"It's not a surprise to me," he said. "He'll tell me in front of the entire team that I stink. I love it when he says that because it motivates the other guys. They think, 'If this guy who stinks can do it, so can I.'"
Walker 's road to Big 12 fame started at Grapevine ( Texas ) High School, where he went virtually unrecruited despite a fantastic senior season in which he won district player of the year honors. He missed most of his junior year, the most vital in the college recruiting process, with a cracked vertebrae, and the only college program to show interest was the University of Texas at Dallas, a Division III school.
Starting all 25 games as a freshman for UT-Dallas in 2001-02, Walker averaged 11.9 points and
5.3 rebounds per game and won American Southwest Conference Freshman of the Year and Division III National All-Freshman honors. But he wasn't happy at the mostly commuter school and transferred to A&M as a sophomore. After a failed walk-on attempt for then-Aggies coach Melvin Watkins, he took his skills to the campus rec center, where he played in obscurity for two years.
When Gillispie replaced Watkins last season, Walker , spurred on by his old Grapevine coach, Darryn Shearmire, who is a friend of Gillispie's, gave it another go and won a roster spot.
Adjusting from pick-up ball to Gillispie's hardcore program was exhausting at first. But it soon became evident to the coaching staff that what Walker lacked in raw ability, he made up for in tenacity. By the sixth game of the season, he got his first start at power forward and ended up starting 23 of 31 games, averaging 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game for the resurgent squad.
The self-described "6-foot-4 slow guy who can't jump or rebound" was an instant hit.
"Words can't describe what he's about," Gillispie said. "His makeup is so right and strong. He's not a false guy. He has goals that he wants to achieve, and he works hard enough to achieve
those goals. He's an inspiration to everyone around him. He's just a stud kid. The way he works and the way he treats people, everyone who comes in contact with him loves him. He's got a tremendous future in whatever he does. He's the kind of role model we need in sports and society."
Walker 's affability and genuineness- and the implausibility of his journey to a starter at a big-time Division I program (he's still non-scholarship)-hit a chord with College Station residents.
"We go to dinner after every home game," Don Walker said, "and there have been times when people start applauding when he walks into the restaurant. He's pretty well known around there. While we're sitting there, it's very common for folks to come by and say, 'Congratulations,' and ask for an autograph."
Ironically, it was basketball that played a large part in Walker 's salvation. During his injury rehabilitation in high school, he struggled to cope with the idleness. Before long, at a youth group meeting, Walker was "crying on my knees" in a state of spiritual humility.
"I was basically crippled," Walker said. "I realized I couldn't do it on my own. I had been going to church since I was young. I knew about God and Jesus Christ, but that's when I really gave my life to Christ and started to grow. I slip every now and then, but I'm continuing to grow."
Walker is living out his faith, in many ways, through FCA, where he has a unique platform because of his success at A&M. Besides faithfully attending his campus Huddle, he has also spoken multiple times at local junior high and high schools and at FCA events. On Nov. 17, he spoke at a major student rally at A&M's Reed Arena that involved two other colleges and many local schools.
"What draws people to him-the fans, what they like about him, and what his teammates look to-is his heart," said Bill Johnston, FCA's area director for Brazos Valley , Texas . "You can see it out there. He gives it selflessly and does it for the betterment of his team. That's a leadership quality."
And according to Sandy Isbell, the local FCA event coordinator, Walker 's witness has greatly increased this season.
"He really has a heart for the other guys he plays with," she said. "He has verbalized with groups that probably no one knew he was a Christian last year. But this year is different. He's making a verbal stand. It's very obvious that God has a hold of his life."
In the midst of his rapid ascension to hoops fame in eastern Texas , Walker has remained humble. A torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last summer forced him to start this season on the sideline, where he relished the chance to rub off positively on his teammates.
"Christ is my role model," Walker said. "I try to live my life like His and the example that He set. I want to be an example for the team. Besides going to practice every day, throwing my body around for loose balls and sacrificing my body, I'm trying to help guys because there are a lot of struggles student-athletes have. The enemy is always trying to knock on the door. I'm trying to lead them in the right direction. I'm trying to be the kind of guy that gives advice and tells them that Jesus loves them."