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Darrin Walls: Calvin Johnson, BCS

Andrew Owens | Thursday, November 11, 2010

Many times life does not go as planned, even for a highly recruited football player. Irish senior Darrin Walls has constantly faced adversity over the past several years, but he has overcome it and contributed with four years of playing time, three as a starter.

In fact, Walls’ football career nearly came to an abrupt end before he even had visions of running out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium.

“My sophomore year in high school I had shoulder surgery and I thought my career was done,” he said.

Walls fought through the pain and rehabilitation to return to the team his junior year. While things were starting to return to normal on the football field, he experienced tragedy in his personal life. Two of his cousins, ages seven and 30, died within a year of each other. Once again Walls experienced hardship and needed support and mental toughness to fight through it.

His senior year, as a five-star cornerback and prized recruit, he needed shoulder surgery again. Despite the setback, he received offers from Florida, Michigan and in-state schools Pittsburgh and Penn State, before eventually deciding that Notre Dame was the institution best suited for him.

When he stepped on campus as a freshman, he did so as one of the top 30 players in the nation from the previous recruiting class, according to most websites. The expectations were high, and Walls was pressed into action from the get-go. He earned playing time during his freshman season in the secondary for the Irish, who entered the 2006 season ranked No. 2 in the country.

In his collegiate debut, Walls had the difficult task of covering All-American wide receiver Calvin Johnson of Georgia Tech.

The Irish freshman held the future second overall pick in the NFL Draft to two catches and 16 yards in the second half. The shutdown of Johnson was crucial in helping Notre Dame earn a hard-fought 14-10 victory in Atlanta.

Walls immediately had to perform at a high level not only on the field, but also in the classroom. As a double major in psychology and sociology, he quickly learned how to balance academics and athletics.

“I mean it’s been tough, especially my first couple years, because it was an adjustment to academics and having to juggle football at the same time,” Walls said. “It was difficult coming out of high school. Here you have so many things that demand time, but it’s been good. Notre Dame has so many academic services for student-athletes to help with the transition.”

One of Walls’ most memorable moments occurred in his fourth game at Notre Dame. The Irish, fresh off a 47-21 loss at home to Michigan, were in East Lansing and trailing Michigan State 37-21 in the fourth quarter under extreme weather conditions. Walls and the Irish pulled off a dramatic comeback to win the game, 40-37, and save the season. Had Notre Dame lost that game, they would have fallen to 2-2 on the season and would have had to win their final eight games to earn a BCS berth.

While Notre Dame finished the regular season 10-2 and reached the Sugar Bowl, the fortunes of the Irish would soon change. The team endured a nightmarish 3-9 season in 2007 after the graduation of several stars, including quarterback Brady Quinn and wide receiver Jeff Samardzija.

Despite the team’s struggles in the 2007 campaign, Walls’ top memory from his time at Notre Dame occurred in the second week of the season. As the starting cornerback in a difficult environment at Penn State, he recorded his first interception on a pass from Anthony Morelli and returned it for a touchdown, the only time the Irish would reach the end zone that evening.

“It was a special moment for me,” Walls said. “I was able to record my first interception and touchdown in my home state. My entire family was at the game and was able to see it.”

When the Irish players returned to campus in the fall of 2008, their starting cornerback from the previous season remained home. Walls remained in Pittsburgh for the entire semester and sat out the football season due to personal reasons.

“I was at home for a semester,” he said. “Basically I took some time off and tried to bounce back. I learned a lot from that experience. I learned to avoid taking anything for granted. It’s important to appreciate what you have in life and I learned that Notre Dame is a special place and that I’m fortunate to be here.”

But adversity was nothing new for Walls. He had been through it before and, once again, overcame it.

He returned to campus for the spring semester and regained control of the starting cornerback position. With much of the squad returning and what many considered to be a favorable schedule, the Irish headed into the 2009 season with high expectations, despite the many questions surrounding the program following a 7-6 season.

Walls started eight games and played in all 12 as an important member of the defense. Once again, hope turned into despair once the Irish finished the season 6-6 and fired coach Charlie Weis. It was another turning point for both the program and Walls.

Shortly after terminating Weis’ contract, Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly to take over the football program. The change at the top also meant a completely new defensive staff, meaning Walls would play under his second head coach and fourth different defensive coordinator in his four seasons. Rather than use the experience as an excuse, he turned it into motivation for his final season with the Irish.

“I feel like sometimes it’s good to have a new start and new beginnings,” Walls said. “Every coach I’ve had has been a great coach and I’ve learned a lot. Good things are going to happen with this program.”

He entered the season as the most experienced member of the secondary, having started 21 of 32 games for the Irish. His 16 pass breakups ranked ninth in Notre Dame history at the start of the 2010 campaign.

Once the final snap takes place Saturday evening and the seniors sing the Alma Mater for the final time as players in Notre Dame Stadium, reality will sink in and they will realize that their collegiate careers will quickly come to a close. Walls, however, is intent on making the most out of the lessons he has learned and making a bright future for himself.

“I’m not really sure where the future will take me,” he said. “We’ll see what happens after the season and how everything turns out. I’d like to try to go to the NFL. If my football career is over I’d like to work with kids somehow and coach football at the high school level.”

During the difficulties he has faced over the past several years, Walls has received the full support of others to help him overcome the setbacks.

“I’d say the support and the caring of everyone including the students and professors at Notre Dame has been great,” he said. “Everyone cares about each other and it is a loving place. They tell you that when they’re recruiting you, but it’s true.”

Not only has the Notre Dame community enabled Walls to fight through difficult times, but so has his family.

“I’d say my brother and sister don’t know this, but they are my greatest inspiration for playing well and playing hard,” he said. “They don’t know, but I play for them and I just want to be a good role model for my family.”