It's the kind of thing that makes Dallas Walker laugh. It's not the first time someone has thrown rocks at his NFL dreams, nor will it be the last.
Only a couple of days after the former Western Michigan University tight end and current Chattanooga resident signed a three-year free-agent contract with the San Diego Chargers in April, this blurb appeared on a fantasy football website:
"Walker is a long shot to even crack the practice squad, let alone the 53-man roster."
The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder, who caught all of 16 passes in three collegiate seasons, isn't concerned with his impact in the fantasy world. He doesn't need to be reminded that very few undrafted free agents -- especially those who did not go to an NFL camp the year they graduated from college -- make opening-day rosters.
The only thing Walker has on his mind as he runs pass routes with University of Tennessee at Chattanooga quarterback Jacob Huesman in the 90-degree heat at Baylor is that his chance is now and this long shot won't go away shortly.
"From the first time I put pads on, it's something I wanted to do," Walker said of his NFL dream. "Just because I didn't get the opportunity the first go-around wasn't going to stop me. One thing after another kept happening for me, so I stayed after it. You'll always have people who will tell you it's time to move on and find a job, but it's one of those things where you have to put blinders on and focus on what you want to do.
"I always believed I would get an opportunity."
The oldest of four brothers in a single-parent home, Dallas had to grow up quickly, according to his mother, Debi. He grew up in Memphis, moved to Atlanta for six years and went to high school in Mississippi.
After graduating in 2007 following a successful prep career that included 800 yards receiving and 3,000 passing, he signed with Memphis as a quarterback and receiver. Following a redshirt season he transferred to Georgia Military College, where he passed for 1,155 yards and 17 touchdowns before landing a scholarship at Western Michigan, where he was moved to tight end.
Though the Broncos were a passing team, the tight ends were used mainly for blocking, so when Walker graduated in 2012 he was an unknown to NFL scouts.
"I didn't have a lot of recognition coming out," said Walker, who talked to a couple of NFL teams following the WMU pro day but did not get a camp invitation. "I didn't get picked up anywhere, but I kept training and praying. It's hard to explain, but I believed I could play at the next level and I asked God that if this is what he wanted me to do with my life to give me a sign."
Later that summer Walker received an email from an agent with whom he had never spoken, suggesting that he look into attending one of the 10 regional combines scheduled around the country for potential pros who had gone unsigned. Two hundred of the more than 2,400 players would be invited to the final combine in Dallas and one last chance to impress NFL teams.
"It was a long shot but I knew I was supposed to do this," Walker recalled. "I had asked God for a sign, and he gave it to me."
Walker, now living here with his bride Regan, signed up for the combine in Chicago and immediately went to work with trainers Ty Watson and David Reynolds. He also played a couple of games with the Ultimate Indoor Football League's Georgia Rampage. Fifteen weeks later, now up to 250 pounds and with a better 40-yard-dash time, he made the cut to the final combine.
So did 18 other tight ends.
"There were a lot of hungry guys there, guys with dreams like me who had not gotten a shot yet," he said. "It was pretty intense, but it was a great experience and I did well."
After he interviewed with several teams following the combine, Walker's agent, Todd Peterson, called him the next day with the news that the Chargers were offering a three-year contract.
"I didn't hesitate to say yes," he said. "It was an unbelievable moment."
The family behind the dream
Debi Walker said she always has been truthful to her sons, even about things they didn't want to hear. So when she told Dallas that he should ignore those who said he should give up his NFL dream, she meant it.
"Since he was in flag football in the fourth grade the NFL has been his dream, and he's always believed that until God shuts the door he would not give it up," said Debi, a successful real estate agent with Crye-Leike.
"There were close people in his life telling him he should give it up. They should know we don't give up."
It was a lesson Dallas learned at home. Wanting a fresh start for her family, Debi scoured the state of Tennessee for the right school for her three youngest sons. She showed up at McCallie one day unannounced, and after spending two and a half hours with then head football coach Rick Whitt, she decided she had found the boys' new home.
Trace Walker graduated in 2009. Cameron will be a senior this year and already has a couple of college football offers, while the youngest, Wesley, will be a freshman this year. Debi is proud of them all and realizes the role her eldest has played.
"The boys are amazing," she said. "They've been without a father most of their lives, and the younger three have been very reliant on Dallas. He carries a lot of weight with them, and he sets an exceptional example. God has always come first with him, and they see that. They also see what hard work can accomplish."
On this day, Cameron joins his older brother for the first time running pass routes. The 6-3, 215-pounder is making the transition from defensive end to tight end. Dallas beams when he talks about the chance to add coach to his role as big brother.
"It's a tough transition to go from high school to college, so I'm just trying to help them along and be there for them when they have questions," he said. "We're very close because of our family situation, so whenever I get the opportunity I'm going to help them in any way I can. Cam has never really played the position before, but he's very athletic and he's already getting offers."
Family always has come first for the aspiring pro athlete, especially now that he's married to his high school sweetheart. Regan is yet another member of the Walker clan who isn't about to let the NFL dream die.
"I don't know many women that would handle that in the first year of marriage," Dallas said with a shake of his sweat-soaked head. "She's been with me the whole process, and she's been behind me 100 percent. That means so much to have her, my mom and brothers support me. There are always going to be doubters, but my family never doubted me."
Most players will take a few weeks to relax and recover following mini-camp and organized team workouts, but there is no time to relax for Dallas Walker. He heads back to San Diego on July 24 for the opening of training camp, where he will be one of five tight ends trying to earn a backup spot to veteran star Antonio Gates.
He knows the dream could be derailed in a matter of weeks. He knows every play he gets in camp and every drill he runs will be crucial. His contract may be for three years, but nothing is guaranteed.
"It's going to be a competition every day, and it's one of those things you can't worry about," Walker said. "When the opportunity to make a play comes up, you just do it and let the chips fall where they may."
The long shot finally gets his chance.
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...
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