In 1996, Darwin Walker (’99) was a 19-year-old North Carolina State University student trying to decide where to go to continue his college football career, and he knew exactly what he wanted.
“I wanted the opportunity to play for the best possible program and also go to the best possible engineering school,” Walker said. “I wanted a school that had both.”
His decision to transfer to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, set Walker on a path to two very successful careers and to achieving his goals twice over.
“My dream was to play in the NFL, but I knew that doing that was rare for any player,” he said. “I needed to have an additional plan.”
Originally from Walterboro, South Carolina, Walker’s parents, Vera and James, owned a construction company, which inspired their son’s interest in engineering.
Walker, who became a standout defensive tackle on UT’s 1998 championship team, returned to campus last week to celebrate the anniversary and reunite with his former teammates. After graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 2000, Walker was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and later played for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Chicago Bears, and the Carolina Panthers.
While he was pursuing his NFL dream, Walker also was building an engineering firm, Progressive Engineering Group, with his friend and fellow UT alumnus, Paul D. Tucker (’99, ’02), and checking in daily after practice to inquire about the progress of projects and his employees’ well-being.
Later the pair would merge the firm with Pennoni and Associates, where Walker remains on the board of directors and as a shareholder. He now is focused on commercial real estate development and owns a number of Bojangles, Panera Bread, and Wawa franchises.
Looking back, Walker recalls the faculty members who helped set him on his path, including Chris Cox, now head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; former department head and Professor Emeritus Greg Reed; and the late Professor Emeritus Ed Burdette.
“Ed Burdette was an inspirational teacher—he was fiery. I learned a lot from him,” Walker said. “Dr. Reed, who was the department head, was always in my corner and always encouraging me, telling me to stick with it. He wanted to see me achieve my goals.
“They didn’t cut me much slack. They were tough on me but also very supportive.”
Cox said he remembers Walker as the “model of perseverance and hard work.”
“I remember having him in a hydraulics course during the summer. While he was in class, most of his classmates were out enjoying their summer. But there was Darwin, working away,” Cox said.
On the field, Cox recalls Walker approaching the game with that same dedication.
“I remember his tenacity and how he would really go at it; his motor would never stop. … The way he played football was also manifest in the way he went after his studies—really sticking with it and keep on going until the goal was achieved.”
While life as a student–athlete was exciting—”We were rock stars; it was unbelievable,” Walker said—it was also a nonstop treadmill of time management.
“Football at that level is like working a 40-hour-a-week job,” Tucker said. “It’s not easy to work full time and go to school full time. He was putting all his effort into football and putting all his effort into school.”
Classes most days began at 8 a.m. and ran until 1:30 p.m. Team meetings and practices began at 2, breaking just before dinner. After a quick shower and a meal, Walker was back in an engineering lab to complete his assignments and work on projects.
“I knew how important his education was to him. He’d be up all night long and then come to practice,” said Walker’s former coach, Athletics Director Philip Fulmer.
“It takes a special person to make this work, and Darwin made it work. I’m awful proud of him.”
Cox, too, took note of Walker’s determination and said he’s seen other student–athletes that awe him with their dedication.
“They have to schedule their practices and their school work and get it all done in the same 168-hour week that everyone else has,” Cox said. “It’s important for faculty to be flexible and understand what the demands on their time are. Not to lower standards, but to allow them the opportunity to pursue both goals.”
In addition to achieving those two goals—his degree and his championship win—Walker also carries another special achievement: Vol For Life.
“I was traveling in Rome, Italy, with my wife and we were at the Coliseum. Somebody in a UT shirt yelled at me, ‘Hey, it’s Darwin Walker! Go, Vols!’
“No matter where I go, all over the world, I run into people from Tennessee. That pride means a lot to me.”
Karen Dunlap (firstname.lastname@example.org, 865-974-8674)