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Shane Walton moves from soccer to coaching

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Irish were getting off the bus in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a game against Air Force in 2002.

Cornerback Shane Walton, clad in a suit and tie, stepped down to the pavement and began to loosen his tie. That’s when he heard a voice – former Irish coach Tyrone Willingham.

“He said ‘Why is your tie undone?’ I said ‘Coach, we’re almost here.’ He said ‘You never know who’s looking,'” Walton said in a phone interview with The Observer. “That has always stuck with me in my mind and in my brain. … You never know if you have the ability to impact someone.”

Walton, who played for Willingham for one season, said Willingham was very different than his predecessor Bob Davie.

“I still remember a lot of the quotes [Willingham] said, I still hear him in my head when I’m getting ready to do things,” he said. “A lot of life lessons he taught me, I still carry with me.”

Walton, Notre Dame’s most recent All-American cornerback, is now finding a way to impact lives by coaching at his former high school in San Diego.

“I’ve learned a lot from coach Willingham and I’m always quoting him and I’m really not there just to coach football,” Walton said. “That’s secondary. I’m there to really teach kids life lessons and learn how to accept responsibility.

The 2003 graduate is now coaching defensive backs at the Bishops School. Walton starred as both a soccer and football player at the school in the mid-90s.

“If they make a mistake, it’s more about how they respond and how they react,” Walton said, “There are things that they’re going to have to go through in life. If they go to college, that’s what I want to prepare them for. Yes, it’s football but it’s so much more than that to me.”

Walton was initially recruited to Notre Dame as a soccer player by former coach Mike Berticelli. Berticelli told Walton he wanted him to play three years of soccer but would allow him to participate in spring football his freshman and sophomore years.

But that plan never happened.

Walton led the Irish soccer team in scoring as a freshman in 1998 with 10 goals and seven assists in what he would eventually become his final year of organized soccer. He earned All-Big East second-team honors while starting 17 of 18 games. He walked onto the football team in the spring.

“I loved playing soccer. I didn’t love college soccer as much,” Walton said. “After the first year of spring football, I decided this is what I really wanted to pursue. [Berticelli] was okay with me doing that, gave me the ability to do that.”

Walton said college soccer did not have the same feeling as playing with his club team, which he had played with for years.

“Most of the guys I played with was for nine or 10 years so it was kind of like a family, very tight, very close and very competitive,” he said. “It was like brothers.”

Despite playing seemingly opposite sports,Walton said his soccer background helped him assimilate to football.

“Having played soccer, having seen a play develop before it’s developed is huge,” he said. “It was like a puzzle. You see one thing happen and then you say ‘Oh, this is what’s going to happen.’ It really helped me in that regard.”

On the soccer pitch, Walton was doing the scoring. But on the football field, he was doing the stopping.

As cornerback, Walton had the pressure of covering the offense’s best player – and he loved the pressure.

“I know a lot of people say that’s the toughest thing about playing but I love the challenge, I love the pressure, I love the competition,” he said. “Every play was a battle. That is one of my favorite things.”

In his four years of playing, Walton appeared in 43 games, totaling 151 tackles and 11 interceptions. Seven of his interceptions came in Notre Dame’s 10-3 season in 2002.

The Irish opened that season 8-0, but dropped three of their final fives games, starting with a shocking 14-7 loss to Boston College.

“It was amazing up until the point when we lost to Boston College,” Walton said. “It was everything coming together. It was the defense, we were on the same page, we were flying to the football. It was a lot of fun. After having some tough years prior to that, that season was magical until that Boston College game.”

In some ways, the 2002 season was very similar to the 2012 one just a season ago. In both years, a quarterback made his home debut against Purdue, the game against Pittsburgh was a nail-biter, the Irish beat a national power to go 8-0 and Notre Dame finished the home schedule with a shutout.

Walton said there was one significant difference between the two squads.

“Obviously, they won more games than we did,” Walton said. “They got to the national championship, which was our goal. They left their goal unfulfilled by not winning but they had an amazing season.”

After his career at Notre Dame ended, the psychology, sociology and computer applications student turned towards the NFL. Walton was drafted in the fifth round by the St. Louis Rams despite being tabbed as a consensus All-American the prior season.

During preseason, however, Walton suffered a ruptured disc in his back. Some of the spinal fluid leaked into his left leg and he could not feel his left leg. He said he could not lift his foot or walk.

“They didn’t know if I was going to gain the sensation back in my nerves,” Walton said. “I still have nerve damage to this day. It’s something I never recovered from.

“It was the most unbearable pain I’ve ever had. I’ve had broken arms, separated shoulders. This was the worst pain I’ve ever been in in my life.”

Walton said he sometimes looks back on his career and wonders what could have been.

“I’m under the impression that everything in life happens for a reason and I ain’t worrying because of some of the things that have happened in my past,” he said.

Walton, 33, lives in San Diego and will be getting married in five weeks. He still plays soccer with his childhood teammates.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu