HOUSTON -- Austin Walter stepped to the podium after the game, still wearing his stained football pants and sweaty undershirt. Eye-black was smeared all over his face and emotion filled his voice. It almost cracked a couple of times as he talked about his late father, how this day wouldn't have been possible without him.
What a day. What a story.
Walter, an anonymous member of the New York Jets' practice squad until Saturday, was activated for Sunday's game and played a key role in the 21-14 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. He scored his first NFL touchdown to help spark the Jets' comeback, which probably had casual Jets fans wondering, Who?
Is it Austin Walter? Or Walter Austin? (Not to be confused with Walter Alston, the late Los Angeles Dodgers manager.)
On this day, he was Austin Power. Yeah, baby.
"There are a lot of emotions that I'm feeling," the diminutive running back said. "This is a homecoming for me."
Walter was born in nearby Crosby, Texas, where he played high school ball. He attended Rice University, only a few blocks from the stadium. When he looked into the crowd Sunday, he saw friends, family members and stadium workers that he knew from his past. It was all so perfect. And unexpected.
If he were a character in the movie "Rudy," they'd say he was 5-foot-nothing. (Truth be told, he's 5-foot-8.) On the Jets' running back depth chart, he'd be listed as fifth-string. Starter Michael Carter (ankle) was placed on injured reserve, so they needed a body to join Ty Johnson and Tevin Coleman in the three-man rotation.
Coach Robert Saleh played a hunch, bypassing 2020 draft pick La'Mical Perine (stuck in mothballs) and elevating Walter from the practice squad. No one outside the organization actually thought he'd play, but Walter finished with 38 yards on nine carries. And, of course, he scored the Jets' first touchdown, a 2-yard run late in the second quarter.
"I wasn't going to be denied," he said. "It was going to be my first touchdown. My mother said yesterday she could feel that I was going to score -- you know, mother's intuition. Mother always knows best."
Walter, cut by the Jets in the preseason, knows that opportunities like this are precious. Guys like him don't get many of them. He was undrafted out of college and played only briefly with the San Francisco 49ers (one rushing attempt), but he caught the eye of Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, both former 49ers assistants. So they brought him to New York.
On the 12th week of the season, he got the ball at the goal line.
"Coach kept calling my number," Walter said. "I said, 'You know what? If I want to stay up here, stay in the big dance, I have to make the most of my opportunity. I hope I did that."
Sometimes rotten seasons produce good stories. A few weeks ago, quarterback Mike White came out of nowhere to deliver an electrifying win. People love the underdog, and they don't get much bigger than Walter, who also had a cup of coffee in the XFL.
"He’s a fireplug, spark plug, whatever you want to call it," Saleh said. "He’s got great initial quickness and burst, similar to Michael in his running style. ... He can create explosive plays. Just having that burst, that juice, that energy that comes from him, [I] thought it would be a good addition.”
Walter's cheering section included his mother, his stepfather, his grandparents and friends. After the game, he took a moment to acknowledge the person who wasn't there to witness his best day -- his father, Tony, who died in 2017.
"I know he had the best seat in the house," Walter said. "I know if he was right here, he'd be smiling ear-to-ear. He'd be so proud. He'd be bragging to all his friends. At the end of the day, he's the one who allowed me to get in this position, so I know he's in heaven, looking down and saying to himself, 'Hey, you know what? My hard work paid off.'"