June 30, 2006

Walker's death brings shock and unity

The shockwaves from the death of Northwestern football coach Randy Walker extended all the way through cyberspace.

WildcatReport.com, the Rivals.com site covering Northwestern, experienced more than 10 times as much traffic as usual before 1 p.m. Friday. It seemed that every football fan with a computer wanted to share his or her memories of Walker, who died of an apparent heart attack Thursday night at the age of 52.

"It amazes me how there are not only fans of Northwestern talking about how great he's been for the program and what a wonderful man he is, but there are condolences from it seems like every university in the country," said Ryan Morton, a junior at Northwestern.

Indeed, only about half of the posts on Northwestern's message board seemed to come from Wildcat fans. The rest were from fans of other schools who wanted to pay their respects.

An Iowa fan wrote, "52 is just too young," in one of the typical posts from rival schools. "It really puts things into perspective as to what's important in life. I'll remember him as a formidable opponent who you knew was going to give you a tough game, win or lose."

"It seems (Walker) had built an extended family with this program," said Timothy Nelson, an avid Northwestern football fan who posts on Wildcat Report message boards under the name Turk. "That includes the fans, the players, the players' parents. This board is like a meeting place. We all feel this great loss. For other posters to come to our meeting place - our community - and drink coffee with us, so to speak, and put their hands on our shoulder, it means a lot."

Northwestern has developed a relatively small but fervent Internet fan base that extends all over the world. The breadth of Northwestern's fan support and Walker's impact was evident by the way one fan learned of the coach's death.

A Northwestern graduate who uses the board name FloridAlum on the Wildcat Report message boards said he received a call at 3:45 a.m. from a poster named Eurocat, a fellow Northwestern fan who lives in Latvia. The European fan was in New York preparing to catch an overseas flight when he heard about Walker's death and immediately reached for the phone.

"Everyone was completely stunned," FloridAlum said. "This is a young man who was completely healthy. This is stunning."

Northwestern fans comforted each other online by sharing their favorite memories of Walker.

Some mentioned the 2004 victory over Ohio State or the 54-51 thriller over Michigan in the 2000 season. More of them discussed off-field anecdotes that revealed glimpses of Walker's personality.

There was the fan who sent pictures from last season's Sun Bowl to Walker and received a nice letter of thanks in return.

Or the poster who recalled the way Walker continually supported a walk-on player who had suffered a relapse of leukemia.

Another fan recalled how Walker approached a pregnant reporter to offer his congratulations, then proceeded to spend the next five minutes discussing his favorite children's book with her.

Emotional Opener
On Aug. 31, Northwestern opens its season at Miami University.

Oxford, Ohio, is not a normal destination for Big Ten teams, but it was home to Randy Walker. He was from Troy, Ohio, and played at Miami, starring as a fullback on teams that went 32-1-1 while he and current Illinois coach Ron Zook were teammates from 1973-75.

He was the head coach at Miami for nine seasons, and still is the school's all-time winningest coach.

Walker died late Thursday night of an apparent heart attack. He was 52. Now the two programs that meant the most to him will meet in what surely will be a highly emotional setting.

--- Bob McClellan

"The whole Northwestern family is grieving today, and I think all the Big Ten and college football," said Louis Vaccher, the publisher of Wildcat Report. "He's a well-respected, well-liked guy whether you're a Wildcat fan or not."

And he certainly was an approachable guy.

Morton Denlow went to law school at Northwestern and now works as a U.S. District Court presiding magistrate judge in Chicago. He lives about a mile away from Ryan Field and occasionally would see Walker walking his dog in the neighborhood.

"He loved the school, he loved the players, he loved the program and most importantly, he was a great representative of the university," Denlow said. "He did everything with class."

Morton, the current Northwestern student, works in the sports department of the campus radio station and remembered interviewing Walker for a pregame segment.

"After the 10-minute interview, I turned off the recorder and we talked for 30-40 minutes just about life in general, his playing days, my high school, the high school coach," Morton said. "Whether it was recorded or not, Coach Walker would keep talking. He cared about the person and not just the interview."

Nelson may have offered the most poignant testimony of all.

He told the story of how his 12-year-old son, Joey, was attending a Northwestern football practice and got the chance to participate in the team's huddle at Walker's request. When Joey was battling cancer, he received a signed football from Walker.

Nelson said the gift helped his son get through an extraordinarily difficult time. Joey's cancer is now in remission.

"Joey's favorite team is the Wildcats," Nelson said. "He thought of Randy Walker and NU football players as real high images. To get that gift from Randy meant a whole lot to him."

Northwestern's fans also appreciated Walker's loyalty to the school.

Walker arrived at Northwestern in 1999 after Gary Barnett left to take the coaching job at Colorado. Although Barnett led the traditional Big Ten doormat to back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995-96, his frequent flirtations with other schools kept him from winning the hearts of Northwestern's fan base.

By contrast, Walker never expressed any interest in leaving Northwestern. In fact, he recently signed a four-year contract extension.

Walker's desire to remain at Northwestern won him the everlasting support of longtime fans such as Denlow, who has attended Wildcats games since 1972.

"I bleed purple," Denlow said. "I'm bleeding a lot of purple today."

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