It wasn't the way Charles Walker had dreamed of making headlines.
Last November, Walker—a redshirt junior from the University of Oklahoma—gained widespread media attention when he announced his decision to depart from the Sooners football team and focus on training for the NFL.
The 6-foot-4, 310-pound defensive lineman had recently suffered the third concussion of his collegiate career. When OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was questioned by reporters about Walker's decision, he painted Walker as a quitter. "Quitting on your teammates, that's hard to take as a coach. Everything we stand for is our commitment to one another, and for whatever reason that wasn't there for him," Stoops said at a press conference. Stoops's comments made the situation seem black-and-white—Walker quit on his teammates in favor of the fame and fortune of the NFL. Of course, many fans bought into that simple narrative.
But the real story is more complicated. It's about a young man with great talent and even greater responsibilities making a sacrifice for those he holds dearest.
This is Charles Walker's unlikely path to the pros.
Charles Walker was born on Nov. 1, 1994. He spent his childhood in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a working class area that's almost exclusively African-American. There, Walker learned the meaning of hard work. He said, "[That neighborhood] made me who I am today. It made me grind for whatever. Because I seen my momma grind, my pops grind, my grandma grind."
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. Since much of it sits at or just above sea level, the lower Ninth was the most flood-prone area of the city. In fact, its lowest point is actually 4 feet below sea level. Devastation ensued. According t0 The New York Times in 2013, "There was no place in the city where the destruction was more thorough, and the recovery more lacking."
"Katrina was a big, big deal for everybody. There were people who left and people who stayed, everybody had their choice," Walker said. "It was like God was pushing us out of the city, you know what I mean?"
After Katrina, Walker's family bounced around from Mississippi to California to Texas. He eventually returned to New Orleans but soon moved to Dallas where he attended South Garland High School. Until his sophomore year, he was too obsessed with basketball to give football any serious consideration.
Roman Alexander—a defensive line coach for South Garland's football team—noticed Walker's size and athleticism (he was clocked at a 4.7 in the 40-Yard Dash during high school) and convinced him to come out for the squad. "Once I tried football, I was like 'OK, I can do this.' I didn't have any technique and I didn't know anything, I just knew to go forward," Walker said.
Walker made a quick impact for South Garland and began garnering interest from college programs in the area.
During his senior year of high school, Walker received news that would change his life forever. "I got the news that I was going to have a kid," Walker said. "Once that happened I was like 'man, OK, I gotta do this. I gotta feed her. I gotta show her what a man should be, a man who's gonna make sacrifices for his family.'"
Walker began taking his schoolwork more seriously, because he knew that poor grades could prevent him from playing at the next level. At his mom's behest, he started regularly taking the ACT the morning after Friday night football games. He continued to elevate his level of play on the field, eventually earning a three-star rating from Rivals. In the late stages of his recruitment, Walker received an offer from the University of Oklahoma. He committed during his visit there in January of 2013.
After redshirting in his freshman year, Walker played in eight games during the 2014 season. Meanwhile, he stayed in constant contact with his daughter—Jade Chanel Walker—and made a point of visiting her whenever he could. "[When I get home] to see her, I'm like a ghost to the world. I don't want any distractions, there's nothing else. I'm just with her," Walker said.
In 2015, Walker had a breakout year. He racked up 10 tackles for loss, 6 sacks and a forced fumble en route to an All-Big 12 Second Team selection. However, a concussion caused him to miss Oklahoma's Orange Bowl game against Clemson. Last season, Walker totaled 2 tackles for loss and 4 pass break-ups in four games before he was sidelined by another concussion in early October. The effects of this latest concussion lingered into November, prompting Walker to make a tough decision. Should he stay at Oklahoma and risk suffering another concussion, or should he step away from the team so he could give himself the best possible chance of getting to the NFL and providing a better life for his daughter?
"I knew I was going to have to make some kind of decision. I had to make my decision over the weekend. I was talking to my friends, calling my family, talking to my coaches. I didn't even sleep that Sunday night. I was just up all night thinking, 'do I stay, or do I listen to that feeling in my stomach?'" Walker said. "I'm the one who has to provide for my daughter. The NFL is my way out. I can help my family get out of the position we're in. I can't risk her future."
The following Monday (which, ironically, was Jade's third birthday), Walker informed the OU coaching staff of his decision. According to Walker, his teammates and the majority of the coaching staff was understanding.
"All my guys know I didn't just up and quit. Everybody who truly knows me and who's been with me in this process knows. I don't have to defend myself. I know what my reason was—my daughter," Walker said. As for [Mike] Stoops' comments, Walker says he holds no grudges. "I don't understand [his comments], but I have nothing against him. We never had a relationship where I told him what was going on in my personal life. But I love him and appreciate him for everything he's done for me."
New Chapter, Same Book
Shortly after Walker made the decision to step away from OU, he began training at Proactive Sports Performance in Westlake Village, California. After seeing him train in person, it's no wonder NFL scouts are enamored with Walker. His incredibly broad shoulders might give the impression he's little more than a space-filler, but Walker is impressively mobile for his size. At over 300 pounds, he can still throw down slam dunks with ease.
"[Charles is] an explosive athlete, he can move well and he's got a big frame. He's still a little untapped, so we're excited to continue to watch his progress," said Ryan Capretta, founder and director of Proactive Sports Performance.
Training so far away from his family isn't easy, so Walker spends hours each day FaceTiming with his daughter. "My daughter is my world. She's 3 years old now. Without her I couldn't wake up every morning and do this. I sometimes want to be there to just hold her, you know? But I know that I'll be able to do that soon, so I just gotta grind, keep pushing and deal with all the ups and downs," Walker said.
As for draft day, Walker envisions it being a low-key affair. He just wants to be surrounded by his family in Texas, eating good food and taking it in with the people who've been with him from the start. There will be plenty of joy when his name is called, but he says he'll quickly focus on his next goal—making an impact in the NFL.
"It's a whole new chapter, but it's the same book," Walker says. "[No matter where I go], I'm going to work as hard I can to put something on the table for my family."