Michael James Walker has always been an important figure in his son's life.
A former star defensive lineman for Fresno State, Walker had a brief stint in the NFL with the New England Patriots and passed along his passion for the game to his two twin sons, Mykal and Malyk. Throughout their childhood, Walker worked long hours to provide for his family, but football was something that always brought them together.
Now a rookie linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons, Mykal Walker is living out the dream his father had for him.
"It was really cool and kind of special," Walker said. "I was in Pop Warner, and my dad always told me, 'You're special, and I'm not just saying that because I'm your dad.' My dad, he had his little step with the NFL for a little bit. He got to go in there, and he was waived in the preseason, but he always used to tell me, 'You're going to make it farther than I did.' That's something I've always held onto."
That bond with football united Walker and his sons throughout their childhood. He imparted words of wisdom on how to succeed not only on the field but throughout life as well. Some of that wisdom centered around the importance of perseverance, a quality that has helped Mykal reach the NFL.
However, perhaps at no moment in his life was it more important than in 2012, when his father passed away at the age of 50 due to colon cancer.
"I never knew," Walker said. "Me and my twin brother didn't know. I think it hit us a little harder because he wanted to hide it from us. That kind of hit us a little harder because, when we actually found out, it was his last day. We didn't get to take those steps to see him through what he was going through, so it was a hard situation for me."
As part of the NFL-led program, Crucial Catch, the Atlanta Falcons and Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have teamed up to raise awareness for cancer throughout the month of October by bringing stories like Mykal Walker's to light.
As a freshman at Vacaville High School in Vacaville, Calif., Mykal had to learn of his father's cancer and say goodbye all in the span of 24 hours. While learning to cope without his father's guiding hand, he could find solace on the field they both loved to spend time – the place where his father told him he had special ability.
While working in construction, often as a project manager, Walker always made it a point to make it back home in time to see his sons on the football field. Mykal described his father's typical day – ending work in San Francisco just in time for the 5:30 traffic on the nearly 100-mile journey back to their home in Sacramento to make it back for his sons' practices or games.
Although he had plenty of experience playing the game his kids were just learning, Walker wasn't overbearing as a sports dad. In fact, Mykal and his brother created some boundaries for just how hands on their father could be.
"I remember when I first started playing football, he wasn't my coach," Walker said. "And then, in my second year, he was going to try to do the coaching thing, but me and my twin brother didn't like it, so we were like, 'Nah, if we're going to play, you can't be the coach.' He gave us our space and kind of sat back. In the offseason we'd go to the park and he'd teach us some stuff, but, for the most part, he kind of let us find our own way."
Mykal developed into a two-way player, becoming a dominant linebacker and a reliable running back. After signing with Azusa Pacific, a Division II college that also produced former Kansas City Chiefs great Christian Okoye, Mykal played two years there before following in his father's footsteps again and transferred to Fresno State. In his two seasons with the Bulldogs, Mykal garnered back-to-back All-Mountain West first-team selections and truly jumped on the radar of NFL teams.
A fourth-round pick of the Falcons, Mykal continues to give life to his father's steadfast belief that his son's NFL career would surpass his own. And while Mykal's journey is far from over, it was the presence of Michael James Walker that helped him take the first steps on the path.
"He was always there, he was always supportive," Walker said. "When it comes to football, he was kind of like my role model."