A lifetime of football for Fort Mill graduate Vance Walker comes down to the moment of a lifetime Sunday.
Walker will help lead the Denver Broncos defense into Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., for Super Bowl 50 against none other than the Carolina Panthers. The Super Bowl is a first for Walker, who played in the NFC Championship game four seasons ago with the Atlanta Falcons. For the Panthers, it’s the franchise’s second trip to the NFL’s title game.
Carolina launched a second-half comeback to tie the score against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but lost on a last-second field goal.
“It’s ironic,” said Walker, a 2005 Fort Mill alumnus. “The last time the Panthers were in the Super Bowl I was in the ninth grade and I watched the game. Ironic is probably the best word I can use.”
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With seemingly a million things to do and prepare for before Sunday, Walker, 28, said he is trying to enjoy the ride while remembering to live in the moment. He admits nerves may play a small factor into things leading up to the 6:30 p.m. kickoff.
“It is one of the biggest games of our lives, but nonetheless it’s still a football game,” he said. “And that is the biggest thing. We can’t get into the hype or have any distractions. We just have to play football.”
Drafted in 2009 out of Georgia Tech, Walker has made the most of his time in the NFL, spending the first four seasons of his seven-year career with the Atlanta Falcons. However, the last couple of years have been anything but easy on the 6-foot-2, 305-pound defensive end.
After the 2014 season, Walker found himself released from the Kansas City Chiefs. He is now playing for his third AFC West team in as many seasons, having played for the Oakland Raiders in 2013.
Denver signed Walker in March 2015 to a two-year deal, about a week after Kansas City released him.
“Getting released by Kansas City last year was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “It all worked out. I had never been released, so when it happened, I didn’t know how to feel or what the future was going to be.
“But to be able to turn that negative into a huge positive as far as playing on this team has been tremendous. But obviously we got more work to do. We got one more game to play.”
Going to Denver took some getting used to by Walker, who is just the second NFL player ever from Fort Mill. One of the biggest adjustments was the altitude change compared to places like Kansas City and Atlanta.
“The first week I got out here training, doing the physical things I normally do, I felt it,” he said. “I heard about (the altitude), but I didn’t think it was real. But I was working out and I couldn’t breathe. I went to the doctor and he said it was the altitude. I really had to focus on my breathing habits and it eventually worked out.”
As Walker grew accustomed to the change in altitude, he also was assimilating himself into the Denver defense and his new surroundings. The top-ranked Denver defense is one of the reasons the Broncos are in Super Bowl 50 and after playing for a season with the team, Walker said he isn’t surprised. It goes beyond schemes and game plans, he said.
“We are such a close knit group,” he said.
“We like hanging out with each other. We have a bond. And I think that is one of the things we have got. We have got a ton of athleticism. And that helps on the front end and back end of things. I have been on teams where it hasn’t been like that. We are a close knit family. We have that family aspect.”
Walker said going up against the Peyton Manning-led offense in practice has helped get the defense where it is today heading into the Super Bowl.
“He is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time,” Walker said.
“His preparation, you aren’t going to get anyone better. He has done it for so long. He does all the little things and that is something you have to do if you want to be successful.”
While other football players from York County have played in the Super Bowl in the past, including players from Rock Hill and Northwestern high schools, Walker is the only Fort Mill graduate to play in the biggest game in American sports. And while it’s a personal milestone, Walker said he realizes what it means for him as a Fort Mill High alumnus to represent a place once known for its hard-working cotton mill employees.
“I love Fort Mill,” he said. “It’s still where I call home. For a little town like that, they deserve it. It’s not a matter of me being prideful about it. You got a lot of hardworking individuals that don’t necessarily get that publicity.
“It’s just a blessing to be able to represent Fort Mill. I still would like to do a lot more things in the future as far as giving back personally. It’s obviously harder switching teams the past couple years to get back to Fort Mill.”
Walker, whose family will be in attendance, said it shows what hard work can do, no matter where you are from.
“If anything, I think I can lead by example and not just for people from Fort Mill, but in life, you can’t be dependent on what everyone tells you, you have to go out and make your own path,” he said.
Friends of Walker knew there was something special about him even back in high school. Allen Runyon, now an assistant football and wrestling coach at Fort Mill, lined up against Walker on a daily basis at football practice. Runyon was on the offensive line, across from Walker who was on the defensive line.
“He was super strong,” Runyon said. “We were always competitive with each other. I am happy to see him make it. You could always count on him for a couple sacks a game.”
No one else who helped make Walker into the football player he is today said they are surprised at his success.
“He was an outstanding player,” said former football coach Greg Taylor, who coached Walker while he was at Fort Mill. “One thing about Vance is he never said a word. You couldn’t get him to talk.”
Taylor said once he and other coaches were able to get Walker into the weight room as a freshman, a switch was flipped. Getting bigger and stronger was the needed complement to Walker’s natural talent for the game. And now Walker has played more than twice the number of years of the average NFL player.
“You know the average pro career isn’t but two or three years,” Taylor said. “But his skill set and being a good person off the field as well has helped him last. I think he has exceeded all expectations. I can’t really say I am all that surprised.”
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