A.J. Walker signing

Northeast Lauderdale receiver A.J. Walker signs with Hamline University during a signing ceremony Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in the school's gymnasium.

A.J. Walker stood out to Northeast Lauderdale football coach Maurice Gowdy both on and off the field.

On the field, Walker is a talented receiver, but he suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his right leg in Week 2 against Jackson Academy, robbing him of his senior season. A couple of weeks later, teammate Corey Moss died unexpectedly, and Walker made a point to encourage his teammates as much as possible, even though he could only do so off the field.

“We also lost our starting quarterback, Travis Green, and linebacker Ivan Drummond (to injury) around then, so there was a lot going on,” Gowdy recalled. “An average kid would say he couldn’t be around football after an injury like that, but he felt like he needed to be around his teammates to make sure they were OK, even with all he was going through. When you’re a senior and your season is over, that’s devastating, and after the way he dealt with it, he deserves this opportunity.”

That opportunity is a chance to continue his football career, as Walker signed with Hamline University out of St. Paul, Minnesota, Tuesday morning in a signing ceremony at Northeast Lauderdale’s gymnasium.

“Football is everything to me,” said Walker, who has a 3.63 GPA. “School is important, but the reason I do great in the classroom is to let me play football because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, so having this opportunity through all of the adversity is really unbelievable.”

Looking back on last fall, Walker said he wanted to be there for his teammates because he considered himself a leader, and sometimes being a leader means more than your performance on Friday nights.

“I felt like my brothers needed it,” Walker explained. “Yeah, I might have been going through something, but I felt like my presence would make their struggles a little better. At that point, I felt like the only thing I could do was to try to bring up their spirits.”

That’s not making light of the injury or having to sit out for the majority of his senior season, as Walker described it as a heartbreaking experience.

“I’ve been playing football ever since I could hold the ball, and having it taken away from me in my most important year of high school, it really hurt,” Walker said. “It almost got taken away because of COVID, so once I knew I would have the opportunity to play I was ecstatic. For me to go down in the second game and for it to end, I was hurt. I just had to play the cards I was given, have the surgery and come back.”

Now that he’s back, Hamline said he’s eager to graduate and get to Hamline, and he doesn’t mind it being so far from Meridian.

“It’s the college version of Northeast, a small, tight community — like a home away from home,” Walker said. “I’ve always wanted to travel when I got older, and being far away from home is going to be different, but it’s what I always wanted to do. I feel like I’m ready for it.”

No matter how far away he goes to play in college, Gowdy said he expects Walker to take all of his good qualities with him.

“He’s a leader,” Gowdy said. “He’s passionate about what he does, whether it’s in the classroom, on the field or with his family. A.J. exemplifies what you want in a student-athlete.”

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