November 14, 2019

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Running the right route now

Kenneth Walker III happy to be on Bombers' practice roster after clearing life-altering hurdles as a kid in rough neighbourhood, later as a college athlete

Kenneth Walker III has a story in mind.

A still-unfinished documentary film about his life will take you from his hardscrabble roots in the Iron Triangle neighbourhood of Richmond, Calif. — one of the most dangerous cities in the United States — to UCLA, where he starred as a hurdler and football player and then on to a yet-to-be-determined future in the CFL and beyond.

Earlier this week, on a football field more than 3,000 kilometres from home, Walker talked about getting his life back on the rails after nearly fumbling it away by neglecting his academics in college. 

Kenneth Walker III takes part in drills during a practice at IG Field on Tuesday. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kenneth Walker III takes part in drills during a practice at IG Field on Tuesday. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

The 25-year-old wide receiver is currently a member of the Blue Bombers practice roster but Richmond is never far from his thoughts.

"There's a lot of gang violence, drugs and all types of things people can get into," said Walker, adding that while his childhood was difficult, it was never irredeemable. He developed a reputation for fighting in school, skipping classes and long, unexplained absences from home.

By Grade 7, with his parents living separately, his mom Patricia Jones was at her wit's end. She was also raising two older sons under difficult circumstances when she sent her youngest to live with his father, Kenneth Walker II, in Oakley, Calif. It was only an hour's drive but it was a world away from Richmond.

Living in Oakley, young Kenneth took up football and track at the insistence of his father and began to thrive.

“I had to send him to live with his dad.... He was getting in a lot of trouble and he was getting suspended from school. There was just a lot of stuff that was building up. I had to let him go, let his dad teach him how to be a man. It was too much for me.” -Patricia Jones

"The neighbourhood he grew up in was a really bad neighbourhood," Jones said  from her home in California. "I had three boys, I pretty much raised them by myself so I had to be tough with my boys. Not coming home from school, fighting, acting up at school; Kenny did it all...

"I had to send him to live with his dad.... He was getting in a lot of trouble and he was getting suspended from school. There was just a lot of stuff that was building up. I had to let him go, let his dad teach him how to be a man. It was too much for me."

But old habits die hard and by 10th grade, Walker found himself back at his mom's place in Richmond. Some things were different though; he starred in track and football at Kennedy High School, becoming an A student along the way.

Walker is wide open for a touchdown pass in the 2014 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (Luis Sinco / Tribune Media files)

Walker is wide open for a touchdown pass in the 2014 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (Luis Sinco / Tribune Media files)

Heavily recruited, he first committed to the University of California Berkley before opting for UCLA, where he enjoyed a productive freshman season. But as a sophomore, he struggled in the classroom and also suffered a serious back injury while playing for the Bruins football squad.

The combination became too difficult to overcome. His grades were miserable —  "I had all F's at one point," he said — and that led to being suspended for UCLA's appearance at the 2014 Alamo Bowl.

Watching that game on television with his mom was a humbling experience for the then-19-year-old. 

"Kenny wanted to party," Jones said. "He did pretty good his freshman year but that (next) season, he started messing up in his grades and partying too much and almost got kicked out of UCLA. He sat on the couch right beside me and we watched (the bowl game) together. It was hard for him. He hated that." 

But the disappointment became catalyst for change.

"It was more like what do I do now?" Walker said. "And my back, I was barely walking — I messed up my L5-S1 disc. So was my sciatic nerve. I was all messed up down my right leg. So I could barely walk and mentally, it was hard for me to say I'm going to class. I messed up in a lot of classes. Before that I got kicked out of one of my bowl games, I couldn't go because of my grades."

Walker after a pass reception during UCLA's pro day for NFL draft prospects in 2017. (Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press files)

Walker after a pass reception during UCLA's pro day for NFL draft prospects in 2017. (Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press files)

A first step was to write letters to the dean, the athletic department and the financial aid office, pleading his case for reinstatement. Then he got healthy.

"I was actually going to drop out, but I had a talk with my mom and she was like, 'You can either come back here and who knows what's going to happen? You could get killed, be in a gang selling drugs,' and she helped remind me that I (was at UCLA) for a reason."

Some maturation and a more lasting commitment to better himself were required.

"I would say the hardest thing I felt like was building a schedule and sticking to that schedule," he said. "I think I was real undisciplined with school and football at the same time and I was also doing track. So balancing all that was pretty hard."

He eventually found that balance.

Soon, success followed in the classroom and on the gridiron. He was named to the athletic director's academic honour roll for his final three years at UCLA and earned his degree in Afro-American studies in 2016, becoming the first person from his family to graduate from college. At the same time, he decided to team with filmmaker Bobby Mardis and Stephen Ashford, a cousin, to create a documentary about his life.

The film is still in production but Walker collaborated with Mardis last year on a children's book — Never Give Up: the Kenneth Walker, III Story — based on some of the material written for the film. The book, an age-appropriate account of the obstacles Walker overcome as a youth, is intended to inspire young readers.

Walker has been been pushing himself since leaving UCLA, despite a failed free-agent tryout with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and a short stint with the Arizona Hotshots of the ill-fated Alliance of American Football.

Released last year after a tryout with the Calgary Stampeders, Walker gained a foothold in Winnipeg in the spring when he earned a spot on the practice roster. The odds of succeeding don't bother him but his seriousness of purpose and athletic skill set — he ran an astounding 4.22 seconds in the 40 at his pro day in 2017 — make him a very intriguing prospect for the Blue Bombers.

Walker is a very intriguing prospect for the Blue Bombers. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

Walker is a very intriguing prospect for the Blue Bombers. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Honestly, I thought it was gonna be tough but I don't feel any pressure," he said. "I don't think it's tough because it's the first team I've made. When I was in Jacksonville I had an opportunity and didn't make the team. When I went to Calgary, I didn't make the team, so those are the things that prepared me for this.

"I love being on the practice squad, helping out the team, and once I get my chance... I'm just waiting for it."

Mom agrees.

"That’s a start," she said. "His mind is clear now."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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