Photo: Kell Walker
We’ve reached a place in American sports when generational wealth stories have become run-of-the-mill yarns spun at every NFL Draft.
The narrative: A prospect from an impoverished background is called to the stage. Having won the athletic gene pool lottery at birth, he develops into a high first-round draft pick. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell embraces him. The TV announcers gush over the money the gifted athlete is about to bank and be able to pass on to his family’s next generation.
It’s all true, but Army sophomore slotback Kell Walker is traveling another path to upward mobility. He found it running through West Point once Army head coach Jeff Monken recruited him out Decatur, Ga.
“I didn’t think the military was for me when I was recruited, but I’m fortunate I came here,” Walker said. “My family situation was a broken home. I came from poverty. When I visited on my recruiting trip, I saw the brotherhood. I saw I could earn a degree and have a better life for myself and my family.”
Army officers don’t earn millions of dollars, of course, but they graduate free of college debt and have a guaranteed job awaiting them. That’s to be treasured in the 21st century. Many civilian college graduates enter the real world saddled by college loan debt. The job market pay scale doesn’t reward their degree.
It doesn’t take first-round talent to play at West Point, but another wealth of special characteristics is required. He must have enough talent to play Division I college football, the ability to handle the academics at an elite institution and the grit to survive boot camp and military training as a future officer.
Walker checked all those boxes.
Now he’s the second-leading rusher on a team that leads the nation running the ball with 365.4 yards per game. The Black Knights (7-2) are enjoying their finest season in two decades as they prepare to face Duke (4-5) Saturday at Michie Stadium. The Black Knights finished 10-2 in 1996, the last time they won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy with wins over Air Force and Navy.
“Coach Monken believed in me, and I believed in him that this was the best option for me,” Walker said. “It’s a blessing I can graduate from here and provide my kids with opportunities in the future.”
Walker, a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder with speed, is averaging 67.3 yards per game and 7.8 per carry with six touchdowns. In last week’s 21-0 win at Air Force, he ran 15 times for 67 yards and two touchdowns on runs of 27 and 4 yards. Army doesn't throw the ball much, but Walker leads the team in number of receptions (four) and is second in yards (69).
Walker spent a year at the Army prep school improving his academics before his admission to West Point as a freshman last season. He broke into the starting lineup and enjoyed his breakout game in a win over Navy that ended Army's 14-year losing streak to the Midshipmen. He led the team in rushing with 16 attempts for 94 yards.
"The biggest difference for me this year is I'm a lot more comfortable," Walker said. "I worked on my speed and vision, and I'm seeing the lanes better."
Senior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw leads the team with 125.8 yards per game and eight touchdowns. He’s had five 100-yard outings. His 265 yards and one touchdown at Air Force were aided by blocking from Walker and other backs that are a key to the triple-option offense’s success.
“He is having a great year, and we’re getting big-time blocking up front from our offensive line,” Walker said. “We’re blocking as a team as a whole.”
In addition to Bradshaw rushing for 1,132 yards, Army’s fullback-by-committee has combined for 1,259 and 15 touchdowns. Darnell Woolfolk (497) is the starter, but when he missed three games with injuries, Andy Davidson (381), Calen Holt (202) and Connor Slomka (179) have filled in.
With the fullback dive as the first option and the quarterback keeping the ball the second, so far seven defeated opponents haven’t found a way to stop both. That means Army has yet to unleash the full fury of pitches to Walker or the other slotback, a position shared by John Trainor and Jordan Asberry.
“If they force (Bradshaw) to pitch the ball, we’ll have a group of running backs that are ready,” Walker said. “If the pitches come my way, I’ll be there for it.”
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