Antwain Walker is days removed from one of the greatest moments of his young life, still trying to process it.
It’s been quite a journey to the top.
The former Oswego East star cornerback signed with NIU out of high school, and started as a freshman in the 2018 MAC championship game. His path took a difficult turn. After a brief stop at Southern Illinois, Walker stepped away from football for over a year as he worked his way through mental health issues.
Starting from scratch, giving football one more try, Walker reached out to North Central College – and it couldn’t have turned out better.
Walker became an All-American cornerback as a junior this fall for the nation’s top scoring defense. Last Friday Walker teamed up with former Oswego star and good friend Julian Bell as the Cardinals knocked off previously unbeaten Mount Union 28-21 in the Stagg Bowl.
The school’s second national title in three seasons completed a perfect 15-0 season.
“Something told me to go to North Central the minute I got there – I realized this is where I belonged,” Walker said. “All the accomplishments I’ve had this season, after sitting out two seasons, I feel nothing but grateful. It’s one of the best feelings ever. I’m blessed and thankful for all the people that have supported me to get to where I am today.”
It’s two long years, what probably feels like twice that, since Walker’s lowest moment. On Dec. 7, 2020, a manic episode put him in a hospital.
He had committed to transfer to Temple from NIU, following former Huskies coach Rod Carey. When it was found out he was sick, though, Walker wound up at Southern Illinois. He continued to have small manic episodes during practice. His mind was constantly racing.
Walker finally stepped away from football after just one or two games played at Southern Illinois in the spring 2021 COVID season. Walker is in a much better place now, but it was a daily struggle to get here, a journey he thankfully did not travel alone.
“I knew I wasn’t going to live long if I didn’t go get help,” Walker said. “It was a lot of hard work, a daily battle each and every day. My girlfriend’s family took me in, helped and guided and supported me. Therapy for a year or so, medication, a lot of constant talks to figure out what was going on. It was a constant battle to get to a healthy space. At first I wasn’t going to play ever again, but I didn’t want to live with the regret of what might have happened.”
Walker was finishing up his undergraduate degree in business and marketing at NIU, working at Lowe’s, when a conversation back home in the Oswego East weight room set him on a path to a second chance in football.
“I was in the weight room with [Oswego East] coach [Tyson] LeBlanc and coach [Patrick] Molinari, didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was like ‘Coach, do you have any connections at North Central’ and he was like ‘They were here the other day,’” Walker said. “He gave me the contact for [North Central] coach [Shane] Dierking, he called me right away and I reached out to them.”
North Central head coach Brad Spencer, hired in January, said that Walker turned up on the Cardinals’ radar when Bell told coaches his close friend from Oswego was looking for a home. Walker knew former Oswego East teammates and friends Garrett Fiduccia and Adam Green had gone on to play at North Central.
Spencer brought Walker in for a visit around the first week he was hired, and the two sat in the coach’s office for well over an hour.
“Which is not typical for a recruit,” Spencer said. “He told me his whole story, what he wants in life, his family, everything, we talked about a lot of different things. When the visit was done we knew this kid is a great fit, absolutely fits our culture. He is just a phenomenal human being who has had to overcome and deal with quite a bit of adversity in his life.”
Walker had considered going back to a Division I school, but didn’t really want to move again. He just wanted to get back in the game, and found a home close to home.
“I visited there that one time, talked to coach Dierking, talked to coach Spencer and I never felt so accepted by a coaching staff,” Walker said. “They had no idea who I was, but they opened their arms up to me and gave me the opportunity, and I ran with it.”
It did take time for Walker to get his football conditioning back after a lengthy time away.
Spencer remembered seeing him after one summer workout and Walker admitted how tired he was. But the North Central coaches saw right away flashes of Walker’s natural athletic ability in summer camp and he moved up the depth chart quickly. The Cardinal coaches felt if Walker could get on the field at all by Week 1 it would be a positive.
He ended up playing the whole game, and proved a perfect fit.
Filling the shoes of two-time All-American cornerback Jake Beesley, Walker was at its best in North Central’s biggest games. That was against Wheaton College during the regular season, and in the playoffs against Mary Hardin-Baylor and Mount Union.
In 14 games Walker had 43 solo tackles, 12 assists, 15 pass breakups and two interceptions.
“Hardin-Baylor had a couple elite guys at this level and he matched up against those guys play after play after play,” Spencer said. “Antwain has the intangibles – he is long, he is fast, we can press him all game and he’s going to be able to pretty much lock down that side of the field. He is a smart football player, we’re able to use him in different positions depending on the scheme. He just has so many talents. It’s no wonder he got a scholarship to NIU and contributed as a freshman.”
That was when Walker was an 18-year-old kid, just a year removed from high school, getting his first college start in the MAC championship game.
He’s in a much different place now.
“I would say I was definitely more prepared for this moment. That MAC championship, I was a young 18-year-old freshman, I didn’t realize all the hard work that it took to get myself ready for the moment,” Walker said. “It’s just a different feeling now. I’m in a much healthier head space, plus the difference is we are national champions here.”
Walker is not done yet.
The first in his family to graduate from college, he is working toward his master’s degree with an estimated graduation date that he is trying to push up to spring 2023. Walker still has one more year of football eligibility, and is intent on winning another championship.
What he’s already accomplished, on and off the field, is already an enormous feat.
“He’s just a phenomenal human being, super mature,” Spencer said. “His past couple years took a lot of turns. For him to stay on track, graduate in four years, what he’s done here, it says everything you need to know about him as a person. He’s such a valuable part of this team not only as a player but as a teammate.”