Lots of small towns are proud when one of their own makes it to a Super Bowl, but it may be difficult to find one more proud than Dublin, Ga., home of Packers linebacker Erik Walden.
Some townsfolk have put up a billboard honoring Walden, but not just because of where he is this week. It recognizes the road he took from Dublin, that of an academic non-qualifier his first year at Middle Tennessee State University to a scholarship player and academic award-winner as a junior, to a thrice-cut NFL player who’s now in the Super Bowl.
The entire journey is pretty remarkable, and Roger Holmes, athletic director and head football coach at Dublin City Schools where Walden played, hopes the billboard and Walden’s story will serve as an example for a lot of youth of the value of both education and perseverance.
“It was always about, ‘Coach, I’m just staying focused, I want to get my degree and a chance to play in the league,’” Holmes said. “Erik’s senior year here, his work habits were not good. But he paid his own way the first year (in college), and now he’s got a chance to play in the Super Bowl.”
The billboard says, “From the Shamrock Bowl to the Super Bowl,” the former being the name of Walden’s high school stadium in Dublin. The photo shows Walden, who back then played running back as well as defense, taking a handoff in Dublin’s state semifinal playoff game at the Georgia Dome.
It also says “Good Luck Erik Walden,” with a message across the bottom: Set Goals, Work Hard, Stay In School.
Walden is the first to admit the part about hard work didn’t come to him in his youth. He approached school with the attitude that as long as he was passing, he would graduate. But during his junior and senior year, he found out his grades were limiting his college choices and recruiters’ interest – Holmes said he probably cost himself a scholarship to the University of Georgia – and it forced him to take a more difficult road.
“I chose Middle Tennessee, and they had a nice situation where you could sit out a year, get yourself together, get your grades and get yourself ready physically too, as far as the weight room,” said Walden, who eventually earned a scholarship and the school’s Dr. James E. Walker Junior Academic Award in 2006. “Then you get your opportunity to play. It kind of started from there, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Making it in the NFL was no easier, though. Drafted in the sixth round by the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, Walden was cut by the Cowboys, picked up and cut by the Kansas City Chiefs, and then signed by the Miami Dolphins during his rookie year.
Then he was cut by the Dolphins earlier this season before coming to the Packers when injuries decimated the linebacker corps. By season’s end, he was not only starting on the league’s No. 2 scoring defense, but he earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 16-tackle, three-sack game against Chicago in the regular-season finale as the Packers clinched their playoff berth.
“It’s just believing in yourself, all throughout, no matter up or down, all situations,” Walden said. “Just make sure you’re confident and stay humble about your entire situation.”
Walden, who returned to practice on Wednesday this week after spraining his ankle in the NFC Championship in Chicago, is flattered by the hometown support and appreciates it. If his story can serve a purpose for other youth in small-town Georgia, all the better.
“I think it’s big for the uprising kids, to let them know I was in your same shoes and nothing is impossible,” Walden said. “If you put your mind to do something, you can do it. With prayer and hard work, anything is possible.”
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