CHICAGO — A hero’s welcome, it wasn’t. In fact, Auston Anderson was taking a little kill shot at the ego, right there in the locker room.
“We teased (running back) Justin (Jackson) about his nickname all the time, ‘Bread-n’-Butter,’” Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. recalled. “And (Anderson) said, ‘We’ve got to give you one.’ And he gave me ‘The Franchise.’”
“I wasn’t really excited about it, at first. But you know, I’ve kind of bought in to it, just like the team’s (brought) me in. So we definitely have that camaraderie around the guys, and it’s all fun and games. Everybody has a nickname on our team. I just happened to get one called ‘The Franchise.’”
And yet it totally fits, doesn’t it? A 6-foot-1, 235-pound ball-magnet with reported 4.6-ish speed in the 40-yard dash, pundits and scouts alike have wondered if the junior from Miami is the best middle linebacker to wear the purple since — well, since the man who’s currently coaching him, Pat Fitzgerald.
“You watch from the opener, Stanford in (2015) to Tennessee in the bowl game, two very explosive football teams with great talent offensively,” Fitzgerald said during Big Ten Football Media Days. “There was a non-issue when it came to athleticism, speed — not only playing in the box but, more importantly, playing out in space — for Anthony.”
Linebacker to linebacker, the love cuts both ways.
“You definitely have to respect his game,” Walker said of his coach, the defensive engine behind back-to-back Big Ten champions in 1995-’96 as a player. “Anytime he comes in our meeting room, our eyes open, our ears open, so we’re ready (for) whatever he has to say because he played the game. He’s been there.”
That Walker is hammering ball-carriers in Evanston — he led the Big Ten in tackles for loss last fall (20.5) as a redshirt sophomore — is a credit to Fitzgerald and his staff, to say nothing of their persistence.
Like many South Florida kids of his generation, Walker grew up in the shadow of the last group of powerhouse Hurricanes teams, the 2001 national champions, before Miami joined the ACC. But “The U” didn’t really come after Walker, who played prep ball at nearby Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Fla., until late in the recruiting game.
And the man doing the wooing was former Florida International coach Mario Christobal, who’d targeted Walker as a potential impact player for his burgeoning roster before moving across town to the Hurricanes program.
“They kind of came late,” Walker said of Miami. “And I was kind of a tweener guy (in high school), between linebacker and safety. They didn’t know where they were going to play me at. And I didn’t have the four or five stars that everyone else had (by their names).”
When Fitzgerald and the Wildcats had first come calling, well before that, Walker’s father, Anthony Sr., had remembered watching Northwestern play in the 2010 Outback Bowl, a wild 38-35 overtime loss that saw the purple somehow stave off the jaws of defeat time and again before finally running out of gas.
“You know, everybody can’t go to Miami,” Walker said. “My dad told me that everybody (who wanted to) can’t do it.”
Walker grew up the son of a coach, the scion of a football junkie — then became one himself. Even as a boy, he recognized the skills of local heroes such as Lavonte David and David’s Miami Northwestern High School teammates, Quavon Taylor and Sean Spence. He idolized ex-Miami standouts such as Ray Lewis and Randy Shannon.
“(Lewis), that was my guy,” said Walker, “Just watching his motivational talks and watching him play the game of football. He played the game the right way.”
Walker has a soft spot for fellow linebackers who make the hard stuff look easy, such as Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Carolina Panthers All-Pro Luke Kuechly and Buffalo Bills stopper Reggie Ragland, the Alabama product.
And heck, some scouts insist the 6- 1 Walker might soon be joining the pro ranks, perhaps as soon as the spring of 2017. NFLDraftScout.com lists Walker as the second-best inside linebacker prospect available in the class of 2018, behind only McMillan.
“It’s a blessing to have that talk come around,” he said. “But it’s something that I try to (push) to the site — it’s not a big deal for me right now. I have one focus this year, and that’s to win a Big Ten championship with my teammates. And that’s the No. 1 goal that we have in mind.
“We kind about (the NFL) all the time, they mess with me all the time about leaving early. But they know that’s not what we’re worried about right now.
“You have to be able to live up to it. And I have great guys around me that can help me do that.”
It takes a village, sometimes. The Wildcats lost two salty ends in Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry but return four linemen who were part of their regular rotation — ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington and tackles Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster. Behind Walker, cornerback Matthew Harris and safety Godwin Ikwebuke combined for four picks and 18 pass break-ups.
“Luckily, I get to see the behind-the-scenes and see his films 24-7, which motivates me to be a better player,” said Harris, who also happens to be Walker’s roommate. “And he motivates our team to be better.
“He just knows the game. He’s a student of the game. A true student of the game. He works hard in the weight room, whether it’s stretching, whatever it is — he’s giving his all.”
That goes double for Northwestern’s marketing department. The Wildcats created a “Franchise 18” logo — one that mashes a capital ‘F’ with the number 18 — and recently sent out swag to media members in the form of a Walker-centric lunchbox that included a miniature comic book detailing No. 18’s heroics (and statistics) and a purple Under Armour t-shirt with the aforementioned logo emblazoned on the chest.
And the campaign wouldn’t be complete without a series of short videos to drive the YouTube train, and Northwestern — home to one of the most esteemed theater programs on the continent — went, not surprisingly, all-out:
If the Justice League is still recruiting, maybe Bruce Wayne can make Evanston his next port of call.
“I mean, you take it as it comes,” Walker said. “It’s a blessing. It doesn’t happen every day. Me, a small kid from Miami, Florida. I was never the guy that was hyped-up or talked about.
“Everything happens for a reason. I love the (marketing) guys. I love what they’re doing.”
Teammates love it, too. Especially if it produces more cannon fodder. The more digs, the merrier.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler