North Texas Daily

Former offensive lineman Walker forced to choose between football and career path

Former offensive lineman Walker forced to choose between football and career path

April 14
02:29 2016

Scott Sidway | Sports Editor

@ScottyWK

Donning a black North Texas Football sweatshirt, broadcast journalism junior Dominick Walker walked into his sports journalism class, towering over everyone with his 6-foot-5 frame. With an immense weight lifted off his shoulders, his heart remained heavy.

Just weeks before, Walker was faced with what he called the most difficult decision of his life: Maintain his football scholarship but abandon his dream of being a sports broadcaster, or quit football and pursue his passion.

He chose the latter.

“Football is something I’ve grown up with that’s helped develop my character and who I am as a person,” Walker said. “But I also know being a journalist is something I want to do for the rest of my life.”

The problem

Walker was forced to make his decision because of a rare combination of conflicts between football practice schedules and required coursework for a broadcast journalism degree. Football practices typically take place in the afternoon Tuesday through Friday during the fall semester, with the spring posing a similar problem.

But a handful of upper level classes required to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast Journalism exclusively meet during football practices in both the fall and spring, with no summer options, nor the ability to substitute other courses – something other degree plans offer.

Broadcast journalism junior Dominick Walker had to give up football because of conflicting schedules with class and practice. Colin Mitchell | Senior Staff Photographer

Broadcast journalism junior Dominick Walker had to give up football because of conflicting schedules with class and practice. Colin Mitchell | Senior Staff Photographer

According to Mayborn director of advising Stephanie Garza, the courses in question would have Walker missing full practices multiple days a week, going beyond the reasonable level of flexibility that coaches often have.

“It’s a challenge because a lot of our classes have labs with them,” Garza said. “If you have football practice four days a week right smack-dab in the middle of the afternoon and you’re going to be totally wiped and exhausted, it’s hard to balance everything to where you’ve got that perfect scenario.”

The biggest course in question for Walker is one involving production of a newscast for North Texas Daily Television. According to Garza, the Mayborn School of Journalism only has two professors qualified to teach the course, limiting the number of sections the school can offer.

Walker said he was told he could change his major to print journalism and graduate with no conflict, but with a print degree Walker would lose the opportunity to create a Mayborn-influenced demo reel – a tool many deem necessary to break into the competitive broadcast job market.

“[The class] would give me a feel in front of a camera and how to set up getting interviews, so I’d be better prepared to get a job,” Walker said. “If I’m able to present myself, I feel like it’d be a lot easier to obtain a job rather than just saying, ‘Here, I have a degree.’”

Walker was pragmatic from the moment he knew he would have to drop one of the two things he loved the most. But the emotional rollercoaster remained in full swing.

“I was thinking either I would graduate and have a degree with no purpose, or I’d have to quit football to pursue education, not have a way to finance it and end up losing both,” Walker said. “I didn’t know how to react to it at first. I was angry for a little bit about the whole situation, I was sad because I didn’t know how things were going to turn out and then confused with what I was going to do next.”

Bad timing

Garza said she and Walker have been discussing how the pursuit of a broadcast journalism major with a full football schedule could cause a collision course since last spring. Before then, Walker had spoken with different advisors, who he said never warned him.

“That’s whenever I first had issues setting up classes for the fall,” Walker said. “I had to switch classes around, which ultimately pushed my graduation back.”

And the timing for Walker couldn’t have been worse.

He had been a left guard for Mean Green football since coming to UNT as a freshman the summer of 2013. He arrived as a highly-recruited prospect out of the Houston area, ranked as a Top-100 recruit by the Houston Chronicle in 2012 and one of only three players to be named a unanimous pick to the 23-5A first team.

This early success led Walker to believe he had a chance in pursuing something few athletes have been able to do – a professional football career.

“When you have your name in the Houston Chronicle, you feel like, ‘Ok, I have a shot after college,’” Walker said. “But when you get to college, everybody’s on that same level. It’s not just like you’re the best where you’re at anymore. You’re in a group of people that are just as good as you are.”

Walker redshirted his freshman year, and never played a single snap in either of the following two seasons. But there was a moment during the 2015 season when Walker believed he had a chance to resurrect his career –  Oct. 10, 2015.

Walker was one of many football players who was shell-shocked by the 66-7 Homecoming loss to Portland State University, which resulted in the firing of former head coach Dan McCarney. The team was floundering, but Walker knew a change at the top meant a golden opportunity to reinvigorate himself on the gridiron.

But the stars did not align in Walker’s favor.

“I felt like it was a chance for me to present myself again and make myself a new person and show the coaches that I should move up on the depth chart,” Walker said. “But at the same time the new coaches were coming in, it was the exact same time the whole class schedule thing started happening.”

Walker never experienced a full spring practice under new head coach Seth Littrell and only participated in off-season workouts before making his decision.

But even if he had gotten the chance to turn his football career around, Walker knew he had to prioritize.

“The thing that helped me make the decision was, under any circumstance, NFL or not, football is going to be temporary,” Walker said. “Either I could have gotten hurt in practice during the spring, or I could have not gone to the NFL after college, then I’ll have only played two years.”

Financial concerns

Losing the privilege to play was only half of Walker’s struggle. At the end of the spring semester, Walker’s football scholarship will be voided, leaving him to fend for himself on tuition costs.

“Football was the only real way I had to come to college, financially,” Walker said. “I wasn’t going to be able to come to a four-year university right out of high school if I didn’t have football.”

Finances also created a temporary rift between Walker and his immediate family. Being a first-generation college student, Walker said he comes from a family that has experienced a lot of debt in the past.

“At first, the only thing they saw was, ‘If you quit football, how are you going to pay for it?’” Walker said. “So a lot of the responses I got were, ‘You should stay in football anyway and just graduate, then come back afterward and get a degree that you actually want.’”

And they weren’t the only ones laying options on the table. David Bekker, assistant director of student-athlete services, said the option of getting a different journalism degree wouldn’t have suited Walker.

“He could just do the regular journalism and I don’t think there would be any conflict. But it’s not the pinnacle, and I sense Dom has talent,” Bekker said. “I think he needs to have a reel and hands-on experience if he wants to go into reporting.”

Bekker’s job is to understand student-athletes and their intense workloads – something Walker said his parents couldn’t quite grasp. While Walker said he’s had cousins who were former collegiate football players in similar situations, he’s the only student-athlete in his immediate family.

“It was hard for them to understand,” Walker said. “But for them, the biggest thing they saw was that I was going to have to start paying for college, and that wasn’t a decision that they wanted to have to make.”

Walker said his family supports him, but he is on his own financially. He said he’s applied for nearly 30 scholarships and has already received one from the Mayborn.

He is also applying for multiple jobs, but that comes with its own set of hurdles. He doesn’t own a car, meaning many places Walker has applied to are gas stations and restaurants within walking distance of the UNT campus. And then there are student loans.

“If I had stayed in football, finishing school, I would have been debt-free,” Walker said. “But I’m putting myself now in a situation where I’m going to have that type of responsibility.”

Looking forward

It’s been just over a month since Walker made his decision, and he said he is now at peace with it all.

He’s still enrolled in 15 hours of classes, like he has been every fall and spring he’s been at UNT, and is on track to graduate next spring with his B.A in broadcast journalism with minors in Spanish and social science.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been a tough pill to swallow. The last month for the former offensive lineman is something he said he doesn’t want any future student-athlete to ever experience. Unfortunately, there’s not much to suggest change is imminent, according to Bekker.

“If it’s a whole college and just one or two students, they’re probably not going to do much about it,” Bekker said. “And it’s not that they’re mean – it’s funding and resources. They don’t have enough justification to make a big change.“

Garza said Walker is only one of two student athletes to ever have this conflict. The other is also a football player – a freshman still too early in his coursework to understand Walker’s situation.

Senior associate athletic director of student services Cinnamon Sheffield said what bothers her the most about this is how unpredictable coursework can be. According to Garza, the amount of sections in upper-level broadcast journalism classes fluctuates from semester to semester.

“It’s a bigger issue across the board, but I don’t know if you can make one big swoop across campus and fix it,” Sheffield said. “Because next year or two years from now, maybe the courses he can’t take now will be available.”

Still, Sheffield said she thinks one student being put in this predicament is one too many.

“When you come here to major in journalism and then play football, your whole world is disrupted because of the options changing,” Sheffield said. “It’s frustrating to see that a student has to make that choice. And that’s a tough choice.”

Walker said he wants to send a message to future student-athletes to do their own research, regardless of what they’re being told.

“Coaches will tell you everything will be alright because that’s what they know,” Walker said. “A bunch of people didn’t know this would happen to me when I came here. From a coaching standpoint, they thought everything was going to be fine, until this situation came up. Doing research on your own will be something that helps [future] students out.”

As challenging as it’s been, Walker has continued to mount support for his decision, from both the Mayborn and the athletics department. Above all, Walker is embracing the challenge with open arms and has confidence he will come out wearing a green cap and gown, in prime position to make his mark.

“I feel like finishing won’t be a problem,” Walker said. “I just know that making this choice, and it was a hard choice to make, that I’m going to start off in a situation that I wouldn’t have been in if I had stayed in football.”

Featured Image: Broadcast journalism junior Dominik Walker played offensive tackle before leaving the team. Colin Mitchell | Senior Staff Photographer

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