While Neyland Walker’s senior football season has been shortened to seven games next spring (plus potential playoff games) by the COVID-19 pandemic, he knows his final game as a Bear won’t be his last football game.
Last week, Walker fulfilled a long-held dream when the offensive lineman announced his commitment to play college football at Charleston Southern in the 2021 recruiting class.
“The biggest thing with Charleston Southern for me is their coaches were so genuine and really hold a lot of value in family,” Walker said. “For me, it was a no-brainer because of the people. I would rather go somewhere with great people. They just turned out as a program who focused on God and family. That’s all I could ask for.”
While the pandemic created a major disruption in the recruiting cycle, with the loss of summer recruiting camps on colleges and in-person visits, Walker did have a major leg up in the process.
His older brother, Kameron Walker, a redshirt freshman tight end at NC State, had been through the process in 2018 and was able to help guide Neyland through it.
“He played a major role,” Neyland Walker said. “I called him a lot throughout the process. The recruiting process is a weird thing. Nothing’s black and white. I think it’s a big game. So having him there to call whenever I got stressed out or call when I had a question, and just knowing what to expect, played a huge role.”
Playing college football is a dream that the Walker brothers shared from a young age.
Two years after Kam fulfilled his end of it, Neyland Walker now knows he’ll join his older brother in the collegiate ranks to complete the picture.
“Me and my brother promised each other we were going to play college football,” Walker said. “That was when I was in third grade. I remember watching on TV, the guys who were 6-5, 300 pounds and you’re like ‘Wow, that’s a big boy.’ And now we’re here. It’s just crazy to live out that dream.”
While Walker still has a season left to play in Mill Town, he took a moment to reflect on what his time in the Pisgah program has meant to him, and mentioned head coach Brett Chappell and assistants Jody Mathis and Zach Gibson among those who have helped him get to where he is now.
“It’s meant the world to me,” Walker said. “I grew up in Candler, and we moved out to Haywood County when I started kindergarten. The atmosphere’s just unreal. I’ve been to so many high school games that Pisgah hasn’t been a part of, and it really isn’t the same anywhere else. The atmosphere that Pisgah brings to any game, whether that be away or home.
“We played a game at East Rutherford, and the atmosphere that Pisgah brought, we travel well. There’s no fans like it anywhere in the world. I just think having the whole county behind you is unreal. Most kids don’t even get to experience that.”
Some might have been surprised to hear Walker, when asked what he was most looking forward to about his senior season, rather than talk about a last playoff run or possible eighth straight win over rival Tuscola, answer that he’s most excited about guiding the younger players and seeing them get those experiences.
Chappell would not be among those surprised. Beyond his prowess on the field as a 6-foot-5, nearly 300-pound lineman, and off it in the classroom, Chappell has always seen Walker as a natural leader and example for younger players.
“The thing that I would say about Neyland is that he goes beyond what we ask of him,” Chappell said. “He’s a young man who does things on his own. He’s very self-disciplined, very dedicated. He understood what it was going to get to that point. I’ll be honest, I think Charleston Southern’s getting a steal. I think he’s a very high-caliber player. I think he’s going to have an outstanding senior season. We’re just excited for him to be a part of our program.”
Walker will join a growing list of former Pisgah players in college that includes his brother Kam at NC State, Western Carolina defensive end Terran Brown, Mars Hill long snapper Travis Shuford and Miami fullback Michael Parrott.
Chappell knows that, while he and his coaching staff can tell kids what they need to do to be successful over and over, at the end of the day words are just words. Seeing it in action, and seeing an example like Walker of a kid who put in the work to get where he wanted to be, provides an invaluable example for the Bears’ coaches.
“We have kids who come in as a freshman and the goal for them is to try to get to that collegiate level,” Chappell said. “That’s something they want to reach. To be able to point to Neyland and the other young men that we’ve had come through the program that have had the chance to come in and play, it’s easy to point and say ‘Look at this kid, look at what this kid. Look at the time and effort that he put in and the work ethic that he had, those things that he did beyond what we asked of him. Those are the kids that really understand and improve themselves.”
And, for Walker, he knows that at the next level he’ll be a representative of the Pisgah program and the kind of players it can produce.
“That’s going to be awesome,” Walker said. “I feel like the people who went before me who play college football is like a community in and of its own. Jacob Hannah, Jody Mathis, there’s others. You’ve got Michael Parrott most recently and my brother. It just shows that no matter where you’re at, no matter what high school you’re at, if you’re good you can make it. You’ve just got to put in the work.”