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Broken Route: John Walsh examines his past

Published August 1, 2005 12:19 am

Seemingly destined for stardom, John Walsh was not embraced by either BYU fans or NFL scouts, leaving him to wonder now, 10 years later, exactly what went wrong.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In September, John Walsh will take the field again, only this time it will be a soccer field, and he'll be calling the action for a bunch of grade school-aged kids.

"I'm a professional soccer coach," Walsh says, laughing.



Since the former BYU quarterback left Provo 10 years ago, life has had its ups and downs.

Tabbed by football gurus and television's talking heads as a first-round NFL draft pick, Walsh left the Cougars a year early to pursue a career in the NFL. But in the months leading up to the draft, his stock fell and he wasn't picked until the seventh round, when the Cincinnati Bengals took him 213th overall. The final quarterback of the 1995 draft, Walsh suffered a freak, off-field injury and was never able to compete for a roster spot with the Bengals.

He was released after less than a year in the NFL and spent his days trying to attract the attention of other NFL teams and World League coaches.

Three years later, the highly touted recruit out of Carson High in California gave up his dream. For the first time in his life, football wasn't part of the equation.

Walsh was the Alex Smith of 10 years ago, with limitless potential and a No. 1 quarterback rating. But he would never see a payday anywhere near the $57 million the University of Utah's Smith made as this year's No. 1 draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers.

"It still hurts," Walsh said. "I think about it still and I'm still trying to get over it. What helps is I think about my children and my wife."

To understand Walsh's football odyssey, one must go back to Carson, where the story starts to get interesting.

EARNING A REPUTATION

The 6-foot-4 senior-to-be had played for West Torrance High the previous season but one of the best programs in the state was just a town away and Walsh wanted in. It wasn't, however, all that simple. The California Interscholastic Federation required Walsh's parents prove their residency in Carson if Walsh was going to play his senior season under legendary coach Gene Vollnogle.

The family provided documentation that it was renting, and living, in a place in Carson. The local papers made something of the transfer, but Walsh was allowed to play for Carson that fall.

"They did whatever was necessary to show they were living in Carson," Vollnogle said. "It came down to they had to show they were getting a divorce . . . You and I both know they weren't getting a divorce. In fact, if I remember, at the time Walsh's mom may have been pregnant."

John Walsh Sr. and Linda Walsh are still married, and their son's senior season at Carson was a success. The Colts won the City Section Championship with Walsh leading the way. But he was back at West Torrance shortly after the Colts had the title.

"After the championship game, all the kids were out in the parking lot celebrating and the story goes that someone, a drive-by, shot into the crowd," Vollnogle said. "Supposedly the bullet went right by Walsh. The next morning, his mom checked him out of Carson."

A couple years ago, the Colts' football field was renamed after Vollnogle. The longtime coach led Carson to 18 City Championship games and an overall record of 310-76. He's coached 19 former NFL players. He saw something special in Walsh.

"John had everything going for him," Vollnogle said. They always want height, he's got height. He's got the arm. He's got it all."

UNHAPPY VALLEY

BYU had heard as much.

The Cougars had recruited at Carson in the past, mostly Polynesian players who were members of the LDS Church. And that's how they discovered Walsh. But there were other, higher-profile schools interested in the quarterback with the big arm. Miami, USC and Washington had all come calling.

Entering the fall of his senior season, Walsh wasn't ready to commit. BYU assistant coach Dick Felt said the Walshes asked him if their son would lose a scholarship if they continued to delay their decision.

"The dad asked, 'Could we lose out?' " Felt said. "I told him, yes, that can happen. I explained that if you don't make a decision, somebody is going to move on to the next player."

The Walshes appreciated BYU's honesty, according to Felt, and John committed when they came out for a visit later that year.

Walsh stayed for four years - he was injured in the third game of his sophomore season and subsequently redshirted - and passed for more than 3,400 yards in two of those seasons. The last game he played was one of the best. He led the Cougars to a 31-6 victory over Oklahoma in the Copper Bowl, passing for 454 yards and completing 31 of 45 passes. After the win, Walsh would only say that he was "going home to Torrance," to think about whether or not he would return to Provo for his senior season.

There was good reason for him to wonder. BYU was not the happiest place on Earth for Walsh.

"The fans didn't take to me too well," Walsh said.

Some close to Walsh suggested fans were turned off by his perceived arrogance, or didn't take to him because wasn't a member of the LDS Church. Whatever their reasoning, they booed Walsh even when he was winning.

Said Felt: "The fans, for some reason, got down on him. His parents were in the stands, hearing that. It was a little tough. . . . John himself, got a little bit, I don't know how to describe it, a little cocky about it. Selfish is not the right word. He got a little more concerned about where his career was going . . ."

A SWIFT DECLINE

It was going to the NFL, or so he thought.

At the end of his junior season, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper picked Walsh as the top quarterback in 1995's draft class. Coming off an amazing performance in the Copper Bowl, Walsh skipped his senior season and declared for the draft.

And then, inexplicably, his stock started to fall. And fall.

As the draft approached, Walsh said he wasn't worried.

But instead of going in the first round, as everyone had predicted, Walsh was the last quarterback selected, by the Bengals, in the seventh round and with the 213th pick. Steve McNair and Kerry Collins, and 11 others, went before Walsh. Vollnogle remembers sitting on the couch at the Walshes', watching the draft on TV.

"All his friends were over," Vollnogle said. "They went through the first round and so on. I stayed and stayed. It was horrible to go through. What a disappointment."

After the draft, many speculated he hurt his stock with a poor performance at the NFL Combine. Some argued that his "slide" was merely proof that early opinions of his skill level were inflated exaggerations. And virtually everyone suggested Walsh might have benefited from another year at BYU.

"I think he made a mistake coming out as early as he did," said legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "I think another year would've prepared him better, if he had stayed."

An undisclosed off-field injury kept Walsh from a real chance at climbing the Bengals' depth chart, and they released him less than a year into his first, and only, season in the NFL.

Hindsight, of course, is

20/20. Who knows what would've happened if Walsh had stuck around BYU another year? In 1996, the first quarterback taken was Tony Banks of Michigan State, in the second round - not exactly a memorable pick. It seemed to be one long string of bad luck for Walsh.

"To me, he was a victim of circumstance," Felt said. "He was a good guy, deep down. I liked the kid."

Walsh returned to Southern California and worked out for a couple of NFL teams on the West Coast, but nothing came of it.

"It's not so much the going early that gets me; it's that it didn't work out," Walsh said. "There's only 60 people in the world that have that job. A lawyer, a doctor. You can go to school for that and no one can take it away. No one can tell you, 'Hey, you can't be a lawyer.' "

These days, Walsh is happy. He is a business owner, an independent contractor for Snap-on Tools, living nearby his family in Torrance. Ten years ago, he never imagined he would be coaching youth soccer.

And he thinks back on his time at BYU fondly, despite the ups and downs.

"I always got bad publicity up there," Walsh said. "But I'm not really a bad guy."

JOHN WALSH - HIS HIGHS AND LOWS

* He was a highly touted recruit out of Carson High in California who was courted by such programs as Miami, USC and Washington before choosing BYU.

* He passed for more than 3,400 yards in two of his seasons at BYU, declaring for the NFL draft as a junior after a 454-yard effort in the Copper Bowl. He was predicted to be the top quarterback in the 1995 class by at least one analyst.

* His stock fell dramatically in the months leading up to the '95 draft, and he wasn't picked until the seventh round, by the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 213. He suffered an off-field injury and was never able to compete for a roster spot with the Bengals.

 

 

 

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