Von Walker — a Mill Hall native and Central Mountain product — left his mark at Penn State.
A former walk-on, Walker appeared in 46 games from 2013-16. Starting as a running back before converting to the defense side of the ball, he served as the Nittany Lions’ special teams captain last season while helping his team to a Big Ten title and eventual Rose Bowl berth.
But Walker couldn’t play in Penn State’s win over Wisconsin or epic game in Pasadena. He suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 19, 2016, against Rutgers in punt coverage.
But Walker — a leader of that beloved team — continued to make an impact. He joined us for this week’s “Five Questions” to discuss the devastating knee injury, his resolve afterward, what it was like speaking on the field at Beaver Stadium, and more.
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Q: You really did it all in your time at Central Mountain. As a walk-on at Penn State, what was that process like? You obviously had a tryout, but did you have to sell the coaching staff on any position or role?
A: Yeah, so Coach (Bill) O’Brien had that run-on thing. They recruited me out of high school, but with everything going on, they didn’t really have the money for scholarships. They gave them to the more highly-recruited kids coming out. Coach O’Brien and (former offensive line) Coach (Mac) McWhorter brought me up into their office, and they laid it out for me. They were going to give me the opportunity to be something, but nothing was promised. I just couldn’t say no. It was a dream of mine for a long time, growing up where I did and having the support system that I did. I said yes on the spot. And, hey, the hardest part was just digging deep and understanding just what it takes to make it at that kind of level. Every opportunity you got, you had to have that mentality that, “This is it. I’ve got to take my shot.”
Q: The season-ending knee injury at Rutgers as a senior, did you know right away that it was serious? And being helped off the field by James Franklin and Nick Scott, what were your emotions like in the moment?
A: As soon as it happened, I knew that something was wrong. I’ve never been seriously hurt in my life before that, but the aggressiveness of the pop in my knee, I just knew something was up. I just laid there for a second knowing that this could possibly be the end of my career here, which sucked obviously. Walking off the field, I got the diagnosis right after. Initially, like anybody, I was like, “Woe is me.” But it ended up teaching me a lot about myself and the effect you can have not only on the field, but also as a leader with your voice and your actions and how you carry yourself in those kind of times. In the end, it took me away from a lot of physical experiences — actually playing in the Big Ten championship and playing in the Rose Bowl. But it also gave me the ability to grow as a leader and human being and, overall, become a better person. It was tough though, man. I definitely feel for anybody who’s going through something like that.
Q: The experience of being out at the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl — you couldn’t play, but were there for your teammates. Was there a moment that sticks out there?
A: I think just stepping back. With football, it’s very routine and militant. Just stepping back and seeing your friends go through their day-to-day and the process and the excitement from some of the guys that I came in with freshman year when we couldn’t even go to a bowl game. I’m looking at some of the faces of these guys who are standing at the Rose Bowl, it was enjoyable. Seeing that excitement and camaraderie, not as an outsider, but someone who has the view of not wearing pads and a helmet. You get a big-picture view of how special the team really was.
Q: After Penn State beat Michigan State 45-12, you were brought up on that makeshift stage at Beaver Stadium to speak to the crowd after the team clinched the Big Ten East. How cool was that, and did you know what you were going to say, or were you winging it?
A: That’s a funny question. So there was like a minute and 30 seconds left in the game, and (director of football operations Michael) Hazel came up to me and said, “Hey, Coach Franklin wants you to talk after the game.” In my mind, I’m like, “OK, yeah, I can talk to the team. Whatever.” And he’s like, “Yeah, we’re bringing a stage out.” He jokes around a lot, so I thought he was just messing with me. He’s like, “No seriously, they’re bringing a stage out and you’re going to talk to everybody.” So until it actually happened, I didn’t know what I was going to say. I actually didn’t even believe I was going to be talking to a whole entire stadium. But it got really real really fast. I kind of just winged it. I think it turned out to be all right. But it was one of those spur-of-the-moment things where you’re about to talk to 100,000 people; think of something. It was weird, though, because I was talking to everybody, but it was almost like there was too many people to even fathom. So it was almost easier, feeling like I was only talking to a couple of people.
Q: How much do you credit your time at Central Mountain for your Penn State success?
A: I don’t know if it’s necessarily the school; I love my high school and I think the people there are great. But I think what really helped me out was my family, my friends and the amount of support I had from the community. There was some bias there. Playing Penn State football and being a captain, there would be some people who would do anything for you. ... The support system at home, they truly care about me and the development of me, more than how I did on the field. That’s what made me turn out to be as successful as I was.