Johnny Walker ’24 always wanted to play tackle football. 

Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was a very good flag football player as a pre-teen, and he loved watching the NFL on television, rooting on his favorite team, the New York Giants. 

There was just one problem. Even by the time he entered ninth grade at Poly Prep Country Day, in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood, Walker weighed just 99 pounds. 

“I really wanted to play, but my mom never wanted me to,” Walker said. “She was just looking out for my safety, but it was a bit of a source of tension growing up.”

Defensive football player Johnny Walker of Brooklyn, N.Y., poses for a portrait on Garcelon Field on Sept. 22, 2023.

#21 Johnny Walker
CB 6' 0" Senior
Too small to play tackle football in high school — but always loving the sport — Johnny Walker ’24 has gotten his chance at Bates. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Before high school, Walker’s parents, Will Walker and Amy Walsh, had offered Johnny a deal: He could play tackle football in eighth grade, as long as he found a different sport to play in high school. 

So at Poly Prep, Walker took up wrestling to go along with his spring sport, baseball, which he’d played his whole life. Wrestling turned out to be a great fit for a kid his parents describe as “relentless.”

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“Amy, in particular, convinced him that wrestling would be a great sport to do because it’s all weight-based, so he’s wrestling his own weight class,” Will Walker said. “He could battle as hard as he wanted to, but the kids would be the same size.” 

Walker’s parents don’t remember him raising the topic of playing tackle football again throughout high school, but for Johnny it was always on his mind. 

By senior year, Walker weighed a whopping 135 pounds, not exactly the weight you need to survive on the gridiron, especially in a competitive program like Poly Prep’s, which regularly sends players to top NCAA football programs.

Johnny Walker ’24, seen at age 14 in a blue Rangers hockey shirt during a high school service trip to Nicaragua, was a little kid during much of high school. But physical growth — and pandemic disruptions to Bates athletics —opened the door for him to play for the Bobcats. (Photograph by Global Works Travel)

He graduated high school in 2019 and took a gap year, during which the soon-to-be politics major gained valuable experience working on Capitol Hill and on the Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign. 

Walker also gained something else that would help him in his future plans: weight. 

“Ben said, ‘Dude, just come out and play football,’ and that was the seed of the idea.” 

~ Johnny Walker ’24, walk-on Bates football player

Now weighing in at 155 pounds, Walker matriculated to Bates in fall 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. No varsity games in any sport were played that fall, and only a handful the rest of the year.

“Initially, I was planning on playing for the club rugby team,” Walker said. But during Orientation, he got talking to a classmate who was a football player, Ben Conrad of Ivoryton, Conn. “I said that I actually didn’t know anything about rugby, I knew way more about football.” 

Johnny Walker ’24 (left) loved to play flag football as a pre-teen, but his parents said “no” to tackle football. (Photograph courtesy of the Walker family)

“So Ben said, ‘Dude, just come out and play football,’ and that was the seed of the idea.” 

Walker started showing up to the team’s informal practices — no coaches, just small groups of football players, in masks, making the most of a season without games. 

Walker figured he would make a good wide receiver. He’d always been athletic; now he had the height (6 feet), and his weight was getting to the point where he was confident he’d be able to take a hit.

“The guys were incredibly welcoming about me potentially joining the team, which was a little surprising,” Walker said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But they were like, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely.’” Classmates like Jarrin Sato of Honolulu and Anthony Morton Jr. of Philadelphia were “super supportive, super helpful.” 

Walker keeps a video clip of one of those COVID-era workouts on his phone. “I gave one of the guys a double move and just cooked him,” Walker said. “And that one video kept me going for weeks, even though I wasn’t hearing back from coaches. I was like, ‘Ah, I can do it. I can do it!’” 

By spring 2021, the dense fog of COVID was lifting, and Bates athletics teams could start practicing and playing again — with coaches. Walker soon realized that even though he had been working out with the players every day, he wasn’t actually on the team yet, nor did the coaches have any idea who he was. 

So a classmate, Liam Foley, a quarterback from Foxborough, Mass., introduced Walker to one of the Bates assistant coaches, who told Walker that he knew the football coach at Poly Prep — which only meant that he knew the coach, not Walker’s coach, since Walker hadn’t actually played in high school. 

The Bates coach told him to show up a 6:45 the next morning. “I’m there,” Walker replied. The coach sensed Walker’s nervousness, and reassured him, saying, “This offense should be very similar to what you ran in high school.” Walker just looked at him, shrugged, and said, “Sounds good.”

Walker figures that he “passed the eye test,” meaning a coach’s quick visual evaluation of ability. “The next day we ran some routes, and I got a jersey number and soon enough my name was on the website.”

His parents spun toward Johnny. “They just turned around and said, ‘What!?’” 

According to the NCAA, just over 7 percent of high school football players will play college football. We could find nothing about how many athletes play college ball without playing in high school, but we assume Walker is one of a tiny group. 

So by spring 2021, Walker had a Bates jersey and a name on a website — but he hadn’t yet told his parents.

“I went home for Mother’s Day, and I’m sitting with my grandma, my aunt, my mom and the rest of my family,” Walker recalled. “My aunt unknowingly teed up the surprise by asking me, ‘Are you playing any sports?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, well, actually, I’m playing football.’” 

His parents spun toward Johnny. “They just turned around and said, ‘What!?’” 

By that time, Walker had increased his weight to around 175 pounds. He was physically a different person from his high school days, and his parents had a different reaction to their younger son playing tackle football: They were proud that he was able to achieve his dream of playing the sport in college.

“I thought it was super cool,” said Amy Walsh. “His perseverance to work his way onto the team was impressive, and now that he was bigger, he wasn’t going to get crushed every play.”

As a sophomore in 2021, Walker started out as a wide receiver, but the coaching staff decided to move him to defensive back. With that video clip still on his phone, the switch bothered him at first. “I really wanted to be a receiver, and I was struggling in practice at safety,” Walker said. “But one day they tried me at cornerback, and that went much better.”

After joining informal practices during the pandemic, Johnny Walker ’24 officially joined the football team in 2021. By then, he was 6 feet tall and 174 pounds, and soon earned playing time as a cornerback and respect from his teammates. (Brewster Burns for Bates College)

Walker’s mentor and supporter in his move to the defensive side was Owen Straley ’23, a standout defensive back for the Bobcats who is now a graduate assistant at Springfield College. “We told the coaches that Johnny was the real deal and that we needed him on the team,” said Straley.

Initially, Walker was on the “scout team,” which comprises players who line up opposite the starters in practice to mimic that week’s opponent. Players on the scout team don’t often play in games, but Straley talked with Walker about his own experience on the scout team back as a younger player.

Straley emphasized opportunity: Doing well on the scout team will get the coaches to take notice quickly. Walker was more than ready to get people’s attention. “I think what separates Johnny and what makes him a really good player is that he’s fearless,” Straley said. “The NESCAC can be sort of tiered, some teams get more ‘respect’ from opponents than others, but Johnny is ready to challenge anyone.”

Johnny Walker ’24 (No. 21, center) and Jack Morrison ’27 (No. 23, right) of Manchester Center, Vt., rush the Wesleyan kicker during an extra-point attempt on Sept. 15, 2023, at Garcelon Field. (Theophil Syslo/Bates College)

In a twist of fate, Walker’s first playing time as a Bobcat came in a memorable road win at Bowdoin in 2021. The Bates defensive coordinator at the time would briefly take players out of the game when they made a mistake. Straley missed a tackle, and Walker was sent into the game to replace him.

Naturally, Bowdoin noticed the newbie — especially since he was still wearing No. 85, a wide receiver number — and immediately tried to burn him. Walker and Straley both laugh at the memory.

“Coach told me I was going back in the next play, and I said, ‘That may be one play too late, coach,’” Straley recalled. “Sure enough, they attacked Johnny with their best receiver. But honestly, that was a learning moment because that was the first time he had ever really gotten beat in a game. That’s going to happen, every game you play, that’s the reality of being a corner. It’s the toughest position mentally in football.” 

Bates went on to beat Bowdoin, so all turned out OK. “The coach did say we had to get me out of that jersey number,” recalled Walker.

Last season, with a new coaching staff in place, Walker was wearing No. 29, and making plays as the “boundary” cornerback, who lines up on the side of the field with less space between the sideline and the line of scrimmage. He recorded his first career interception against Tufts in front of the home crowd at Garcelon Field. 

“It was third and long,” Walker recalled. “I actually got beat on the play, so I was going in for the tackle and the ball bounced through the receiver’s hands. Without even looking, as I rolled over making the tackle, I realized the ball’s in my arm, and I jumped up and started running to show everyone.” 

His parents back home in Brooklyn were watching the web video feed and showed everyone as well. 

For his senior season, Johnny Walker ’24 chose uniform No. 21 as a nod to his mentor and supporter, Owen Straley ’23. (Brewster Burns for Bates College)

“We were all screaming and yelling for him,” Walsh said. “It’s really nice that Bates has the video streaming of the games. Because the Tufts game we were watching where he got the interception, we were able to film it with our phones, and then text the clip to all our friends, and that was great.” 

Straley and Walker played alongside each other last year, a season that saw Bates defeat Amherst for the first time since 1999. On the final play of the game, as Amherst went into a lateral frenzy, Walker forced two fumbles, helping preserve the victory for the Bobcats. “I got blessed by the statistician,” Walker said.

In this clip, Johnny Walker ’24 (No. 29) forces not one but two fumbles on the final play of last year’s victory over Amherst:

Now a senior, Walker has once again switched jersey numbers. He is No. 21, in honor of Straley, who wore the number for most of his Bates career. “Straley’s just a great football mind,” Walker said. “I always text him and pick his brain. He was like a coach last year to me, honestly.” 

Walker forced and recovered a fumble during the season opener against Wesleyan. He missed the Tufts game with an injury but is expected to return to the field this week against Colby.

And yes, the Bates coaching staff, both past and present, eventually learned he hadn’t played since eighth grade. “It’s not something I bring up much with them,” Walker said with a laugh. “I’m just trying to blend in. But yeah, they know.” 

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