Few athletes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) -- and particularly at Howard University -- have achieved the level of success that Jay Walker did in the mid-90s, and no other player at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school has come close since. A native of Los Angeles, Walker transferred from Long Beach State to HU after Long Beach State dropped its program. In only two seasons, Walker received All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference honors both years (in 1992 and '93), and was selected as the Offensive Player of the Year in 1993. Furthermore, he led the Bison to an undefeated season in 1993 -- winning the MEAC and the Black College National Championship.
Walker was taken in the seventh round in the 1994 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, where he played for two years before moving on to the Minnesota Vikings, where he played another two.
"I got four years in the league," said Walker, who graduated from Howard with a political science degree and has been a member of the House of Delegates in Maryland since 2007. "The NFL provided me with opportunities in life that if it wasn't for the game of football I wouldn't have gotten. I was very thankful. It was just a start of my life. I had a great time playing the game. I graduated with my degree in political science. I did everything I could to prepare myself for life beyond football."
Walker is a shining example for student-athletes at HBCUs, particularly those competing in the Sept. 2 MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney. Most of them have NFL aspirations, but the large majority will not be suiting up on Sundays. And, when Walker, who is also a college football analyst for ESPNU who will be the color announcer for the game between Alabama State and Bethune-Cookman, addresses both teams at the Welcome Reception, he'll have to look no further than his own life as Exhibit A.
"You have to know where you're going," says Walker, who has now been added to an impressive line of speakers at the event, including former NFL coach Herman Edwards, NFL Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow and longtime Detroit Lion Robert Porcher. "What's your Plan A? What's your Plan B, Plan C? It's important to be able to adjust when your original game plan doesn't pan out. I'm hoping to be able to point some people in the right direction."
Walker played during a great era for black college football. Actually, Walker and the late Steve McNair, ex-Alcorn State and NFL standout, were two of the best signal callers in the country. Both had all the tools: Big, strong, agile, able to read defenses, throw the long ball and extend plays.
"It was big playing against Steve McNair," said Walker, Howard's single season leader in passing yardage (with 3,508) and pass completions (223). "I give him all the credit, make no doubt about it. He was black college football. In order to elevate your game, you need a great competitor. Steve and I competed against each other. He knew who I was and I knew who he was. You talk about black college football in the '90s, and you talk about the Howard and Alcorn State rivalry."
The argument has been made that those days are long gone. It's been said there's been a major dip in terms of talent, interest and excitement. And, though there's no debating that Howard has fallen on hard times -- Howard hasn't had a winning season since 2004, when it went 6-5, and it has had only two winning seasons in the past 13 years. Even so, Walker believes otherwise.
"Week in and week out, I see great players who can play," he said. "I think the talent pool has been diluted by not only the big [FBS] schools, but by other small schools like Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and programs like that. HBCUs aren't the only answers right now. The other schools are starting to get players.
"For HBCUs, I still think the pageantry and the rivalry is still unmatched throughout the country in terms of what you get with experience and growing young African American men preparing them for society."
Players at HBCUs, Walker adds, are getting a good foundation at the FCS level, and coaches have put players in a position to succeed in the NFL.
"We have some great coaches," Walker said. "Some of them are ahead of their time coaches in terms of HBCU football. The kids have to be able to play and get out on the field. Like defensive backs, you have guys that play man-to-man. So when they go to the NFL and they ask them to play man-to-man they can do it. Whereas at the larger schools, they play so much zone coverage, you're going to struggle in the NFL -- unless you know how to play man-to-man. I think the little nuances like that have helped these players once they get to the NFL."
As an analyst, Walker has stayed close to the game that brought him notoriety -- but his education and contacts helped move from the sports arena to the political arena. His transition to the House of Delegates was relatively smooth.
"I thought this was something I wanted to pursue," Walker said. "When you're a quarterback people see you as a leader. Some people thought I had that quality about myself. I accepted the challenge."
Walker is admittedly "a football guy -- first and foremost," and likes that HBCUs are receiving good coverage on national television stage. He didn't get a lot of exposure from national TV with the exception of a few games -- back when everybody called him "Sky" Walker for his aerial exploits.
"I'm a little jealous," said Walker of his keynote speaking opportunity. "I would have to have played a [ESPNU] Thursday night game on primetime TV. That's going to be one of things I'm to mention when I get [to Orlando]. You have a game like the MEAC/SWAC Challenge on national TV. It's time to play big so that all of America can see you play. I will try to let them know that this is a unique opportunity that a generation [before] of them didn't have."