Anthony Walker announced he was foregoing his senior year to play in the NFL next season. He leaves behind a legacy that puts him among Northwestern’s best.
What speaks more about Anthony Walker?
Is it his play on the field? The crazy amount of tackles he would pile up during the game. The interceptions and turnovers he would force. The presence that commanded the defense’s attention to open everything else.
Or is it something else? Was it the number he wore his final season for the Wildcats. Did that say more about the junior linebacker who will forego his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft?
The answer is yes to both. Anthony Walker meant everything to the Northwestern program the last two years, especially, but also including his first two years (the one he redshirted and the one where he burst onto the scene as a freshman linebacker).
From the moment Walker stepped on the field against Penn State to his final game at Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl, Walker was the center of attention and shined in the spotlight. And he did more than that. It is why for his final year he was given the honor of wearing the No. 1 jersey, an honor awarded to the player that embodies hard work and everything Northwestern wants to be as a program.
What he did to earn it was nothing short of stellar. It was perhaps the best overall defensive career in a Northwestern uniform since Pat Fitzgerald was wearing a uniform — all due respect to Corey Wootton, Sherrick McManis, Vince Browne and Tyler Scott. Walker was the first defensive All-American since Fitzgerald.
My Decision. pic.twitter.com/4RGatih4OC
— Anthony Walker Jr. (@__AWalkJr) December 31, 2016
Walker made an immediate impact when he first got his opportunity to step onto the field. Against Penn State that afternoon at Happy Valley, Walker made his presence known quickly. With each hit, each tackle and each big play.
He had a pick-6 and eight tackles in Northwestern’s surprising upset over Penn State. The Wildcats’ season that year did not end the way they wanted it to — finishing 5-7 and out of a bowl game for the second straight year. But a new defensive identity and era had begun.
Walker still needed some development after that first game as a star. The conference knew his name.
As a redshirt sophomore, though, Walker became a true star. He earned All-American honors while averaging 8.6 tackles per game and totaling six games with 10 or more tackles. That included a 19-tackle game against Duke.
There were times Walker was the best player on the field, seemingly able to diagnose and stop a play on instinct.
He turned heads quickly anchoring one of the best defenses in the Big Ten and the country. His leadership and eye-popping play carried Northwestern to a surprise 10-win season, just the second in school history.
Quickly that offseason, draft buzz grew. Everyone at Northwestern knew they had a special player in Walker. Now the rest of the NFL world did.
At one point, there were NFL Draft projections sending Walker to the first round as one of the top linebackers in the country. He may still very well be there. His jump to the NFL after his junior year — the first Northwestern to declare early for the NFL Draft since Darnell Autry in 1996 — certainly suggests he is heading for a high draft pick.
Walker’s 2016 season was not his strongest. Perhaps expectations were too high. And an early-season knee injury slowed him down early in the season.
Walker still made incredible plays and had incredible games. He literally stole the ball from a Duke offensive player to force a red-zone fumble. During the Pinstripe Bowl, he chopped down James Conner on a fourth-and-goal from the one to prevent a score. He finished with more than 10 tackles three times to help anchor Northwestern’s defense once again.
More than that, Walker became the team’s first star honored with the No. 1 jersey. Last year he wore the honorary jersey for his leadership and embodiment of Northwestern. It usually goes to a grinder on the bench and not the team’s star.
Awarding it to Walker was as much a symbol of his leadership as it was a statement of his play. It was a sign he was the hardest working player on the team.
That example is as much his legacy as anything else. He was a star recruit to begin with and he delivered on the field. Walker will set the tone and influence Northwestern defenses to come. That will be his lasting legacy.
And that is what made Walker special. It was not just his play on the field but his effect off it too.
Walker’s legacy with Northwestern will last long beyond his short three years in Evanston. They were three great years — a 10-win season and a bowl win — and Walker will still have a big impact on all those remaining in Evanston beyond. Someone will have to step in and fill those big shoes next year.
Walker leaves a big hole. And that is what program-defining players do. They make their impact on the field and then leave a legacy behind.
Walker’s legacy with Northwestern is as big as any player in Northwestern’s history. The program will look for the next Anthony Walker just like they looked for the last Pat Fitzgerald before him.
And everyone is excited to see what Walker does at the next level.