The perspective of parents: The Walker Little recruiting story
When Walker Little announced his commitment Dec. 16 to Stanford in front of a full auditorium at Episcopal High, it marked the end of a journey that lasted nearly two years. Walker didn't travel alone to his decision, he was joined by his parents Doug and Sara.
The fact that the Littles found themselves in the center of the recruiting world for so many months was never a consideration when Walker started playing high school football. Doug and Sara knew their son was a good athlete from an early age, but then Walker kept growing and his athletic ability flourished with each passing year.
“You could tell when he was 2 years old he had balance like crazy (and) strength,” Sara said. “Watching him grow into this giant kid, we knew he would probably be a very good athlete. We hoped he could use his athleticism to get into a good school. That was always our thought. We would use football to get into the best school we could. I was always thinking Harvard or Yale or the Ivies because I didn’t know if he would have the D-I kind of talent.”
College coaches answered that question for the Little family after Walker’s sophomore season. Texas offered in the spring and by the end of the same week he had multiple offers.
“Everything took off from there,” Doug said. “We were shocked, quite frankly. We knew he was a good athlete, but you never think in terms of a D-I offer and … potentially No. 1 in the entire country. It’s crazy.”
Suddenly a new world of people were telling the family that Walker could be a great football player. For some, especially deep in the heart of Texas high school football, the praise would cause an unhealthy expansion of ego in a young man.
“Zero,” Doug said of any change in Walker. “He’s been like that since he’s been a baby. He’s always been very low key, low emotion, very dedicated … (and) very competitive. I’ve never helped him with homework. I’ve never had to get him up to go to a practice or a workout. All of this is self-driven by him. He’s always had this cool, calm demeanor and intense competitive drive inside of him. He hates losing to the point that it gets him … it’s almost emotional. He can’t stand it. He’s a good sport, he’s a great teammate, and he’s very highly driven and he’s always been that way.”
Doug and Sara said people who have known Walker the longest can attest that there are two versions of the young man -- one when he’s on the field and one when he’s off it. Neither is affected by the praise or attention he receives for his actions.
“Walker is probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” Sara said. “He’s just a very special kid and always has been. So, to see him be so mean on the football field at times is weird for me because that’s not who I know. He is very laid back about the success he’s had so far.”
Walker’s football accomplishments took him across the country visiting colleges as coaches attempted to recruit the 6-foot-7, 320-pound human mountain. And when Stanford came calling there was a common hurdle to overcome: Palo Alto is a long way from home.
Doug was “on board from the outset” and took Walker to Stanford’s camp. But Sara didn’t join them.
With a brother and sister at Ole Miss and family in Texas, Walker moving to Stanford felt like too much of an emotional stretch. If he went to the University of Texas the family could see him more often than game days. At Stanford their interaction could be very limited.
“And that’s kind of sad,” she said. “That was a difficult hurdle. But if you took that out of the equation, there wasn’t any question where he should go."
The people at Stanford significantly helped to tip the scales.
"We think the world of Coach (Mike) Bloomgren, Coach (David) Shaw, Coach (Pete) Alamar -- all the guys we’ve really spent a lot of time with have been great guys," Doug said. "Coach Bloom will be directly with him the most and he’s just a great guy, not to mention a great coach."
Even if ultimately weighing all the pros and cons made Stanford an obvious choice, Texas offered a tempting option that didn’t require any stress. In fact, it would be a quick release of pressure. Not to mention, Doug added, the star power of being a great Texas football player.
“There is an aura to being a Texas athlete in Texas,” he said. “It’s a life of their own. You’re the king not only those four years, you’re the king forever. There are some things that go along with that that’s easy for a kid who is 17 years old to just go, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Out on the town it’s unbelievable what kind of treatment they get as opposed to at Stanford. It’s just different. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just rock star status. It’s weird.”
Sara agreed it’s odd for a parent to see, and it's potentially too much to pass up if you're a typical teenager. But, Sara laughed as she remembered a recent interview in which Little explained his rationale to attend Stanford was not only to improve his own life, but the lives of his children.
“A 17 year old saying that is pretty cool,” Doug marveled.
It wasn’t just the beautiful campus, academic opportunities and the connection with the coaches that swung momentum Stanford’s way. A clinching moment was a conversation Walker had with fellow Texan Solomon Thomas.
“Solomon had that same feeling, all these people pulling him to go to Texas,” Doug said. “It was the safe school and something you grew up with. Solomon told him, ‘It came down to making a business decision.’ That rang true with Walker. Sit back and make a business decision.”
Sara said that conversation helped Walker get past the emotion of being so far from home.
“Solomon told him how he does it,” she remembered. “Because Stanford is on the quarter system … after the quarter is over he’ll come home. He’ll go see his friends in Austin and then it’s time to get back work. I think that really appealed to Walker that he’ll still be able to have friendships and time in Texas, but he feels like he’s making a better path for himself.”
And when he’s at Stanford, Doug and Sara appreciate that Walker will be encouraged to push himself academically and athletically. There won’t be pressure to choose one or the other.
“Stanford was really one of the only schools that encouraged that,” Doug said. “They really believe that you can be great at everything and they do really believe -- which is kind of amazing and Sara thought so, too -- you can really change the world. It’s cool from the standpoint that you can come to this school and achieve all of your dreams both academically and athletically. There shouldn’t be a reason why you can’t. You have to work hard. We would have expected him to do that wherever he went.”
Stanford involved professors on a recruiting trip to a greater degree than any other football program, Doug said. Walker is interested in biology and he may pursue a career in medicine. He met professors who he could talk to about his academic road map.
Stanford also stood alone in a different type of educational experience for Doug: college football Internet forums.
When Doug visited forums of various schools during his son’s recruitment he noticed that Stanford received special treatment. Fans of other schools didn't succumb to the knee-jerk reaction to hammer Stanford as a horrible choice the moment it was mentioned Walker may go there.
There was a deference by people who often acknowledged they would send their child to Stanford if it was an option. But how would people react in a packed auditorium when Little picked up the hat with the block “S” and tree?
“The whole room erupted with cheers for him that he chose Stanford,” Sara said. “I have to tell you I wasn’t sure that was going to happen. I didn’t know what would happen, because so many people thought that he was for sure going to Texas.”
Ever since that day Walker has worn Stanford shirts at school and even supported the Cardinal at the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
“I think Walker is really starting to own it,” Doug said. “It’s a badge of honor and a rare feat to have both the academic and athletic prowess to be able to go to a school like that.
“Heck, going to that school is like an Olympic village. It’s pretty rare air. I think people notice that and … even though they don’t like that they didn’t keep their state son there, I think they feel that’s pretty cool.”
If there was any remaining doubt that Walker’s friends support his decision to head to The Farm, Sara said about 50 kids are coming from Episcopal High to the Army All-American Bowl Game. They will have Big Heads of Walker, a Stanford flag and “a couple kids are coming dressed as trees.”