Kell Walker lifting Army and his station in life
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Kell Walker lifting Army and his station in life

AFAN newsletter on Army slotback and decision to play for the Black Knights

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.”
Follow Tom Shanahan’s stories on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."