This is the first of two stories on the Jets' Ring of Honor Class of 2012. ON Sunday John Holt profiles Mark Gastineau.
The Jets have been blessed over the years with some outstanding pass-catchers. Indeed, the first two classes of the Ring of Honor included two of the very best in Don Maynard and Al Toon.
Now it's Wesley Walker's turn.
And typical of the fast, elusive, dangerous Californian wideout, he was pleasantly surprised to get the call from Jets owner Woody Johnson several weeks ago that he had been selected for induction this year.
"I'm flabbergasted," old No. 85 said at the time. "I'm so in shock right now I don't even know what to say."
But Walker isn't at a loss for words for long — after all, he served as a Jets TV and radio analyst for a while after his playing career ended after the 1989 season.
"I'm honored and privileged to have played with the New York Jets, and to be in the cast that's already been inducted into the Ring of Honor," he told Jets reporters on a conference call this afternoon. "I'm overwhelmed right now. I never expected it."
He neatly segued to an anecdote about Park View Elementary, the Long Island school where he has taught for a number of years.
"The parents, the teachers, the principal I work with, I had no idea the impact this Ring of Honor would be about," he said. "The kids were all wearing Jets jerseys, the whole school was decorated in green and white. They presented me with a big football-shaped cake.
"I've had a lot of injuries that I'm dealing with right now. Some mornings I can hardly walk until I get going," said the now 57-year-old Walker, itemizing his neck and shoulder surgeries and knee reconstruction over the years and current issues with spinal stenosis and pinched nerves. "But I'll deal with that. I'll tell you what, today with the Ring of Honor and with what they've done for me at Park View Elementary, I'm in no pain whatsoever."
Wesley's "Come to Me" Move
Walker, who will be honored along with former teammate Mark Gastineau at halftime of Monday night's Jets-Texans game at MetLife Stadium, is being celebrated now in part because of the pain he used to cause NFL defenses and their coaches. With apologies to Maynard, whose career 18.7 yards per catch almost matched his franchise-mark 19.0, Wesley Darcel Walker is arguably the most dangerous deep threat to ever don the green and white.
"I prided myself, whenever I got the football, to try to do something with it," Walker told Eric Allen of newyorkjets.com recently. "I think I still hold the NCAA record for average per catch. I was even averaging over 25 yards a catch one year at Cal and then I got hurt."
Indeed, Walker still does hold the NCAA FBS (formerly I-A) record for highest average gain per reception in a career, minimum of 75 receptions, with a 25.7 mark for California from 1973-76. And in that senior season he had a 289-yard receiving day against San Jose State, which at the start of this season was No. 23 on the FBS's all-time single-game-yardage list. No doubt the film from that game was one of the main pieces of evidence that caused the Jets and new head coach Walt Michaels to take Walker with their second-round choice, 33rd overall, in the '77 draft.
It didn't take Walker much time to put the NFL on notice. Despite coming to the pros being legally blind in one eye (something he said the Jets didn't know when they drafted him), he started all 30 Jets games his first two years and hung up averages of 21.1 and 24.4, fashioned in part by an 87-yard catch-and-run from Richard Todd in his sixth pro game and 77- and 75-yard TDs as an NFL sophomore. Wesley was off and flying.
"I was able to not only run by guys but I could run routes where I could make the defender move in the direction I wanted them to go and I would go in a different direction," he told of the secrets to his success. "I called it my come-to-me move, whereas I'm not letting the opponents dictate to me, I dictated to them."
The Game He'll Never Forget
As a member of those highly talented Jets teams of the early and mid-Eighties, Walker contributed to playoff berths in 1980, '82, '85 and '86. He finished his 13 seasons, all as a Jet, with 438 receptions, 8,306 yards, 71 touchdowns, and 22 100-yard games.
There were many individual plays and games that stood out.
On Dec. 8, 1985, he and Ken O'Brien produced one of the gems of Jets history, the franchise's longest pass play, at Buffalo's then-named Rich Stadium. O'Brien launched the ball from his end zone 46 yards in the western New York air, Walker caught it in stride at midfield and took it the last 50 yards for a 96-yard TD that helped defeat the Bills, 27-7.
And on Sept. 21, 1986, came Walker's crowning glory. Against the Dolphins that day at Shea Stadium, he had six catches for a career-high 194 yards. He caught TD passes from O'Brien of 65 and 50 yards in a 2:38 span late in the first half. He grabbed the gametying 21-yard strike with no time on the clock to send the game to regulation. And he streaked down the right sideline to gather in KOB's 43-yard strike 2:35 into OT for the 51-45 triumph that NBC's Dick Enberg called that day "one of the greatest games in NFL history."
"That was the game I'll never forget," Walker said. "The half was just about to end and I remember we finally called this one play-action pass. I got loose down the seams, and Kenny had the confidence in me to stick it right in there. To this day it's like a dream. The ball just stuck in there between defenders. I would say that was probably one of the most exciting moments of my career and I'm just proud to be a part of it."
That's Wesley Walker. Gregarious, friendly, respectful, proud and appreciative, for his career, for his honors, and especially for his fans, in Park View Elementary as well as all around Jet Nation.
"It's going to be exciting for me," he said of the big night ahead. "There's nothing better than being with family and best friends that are lending support. I'm very excited about that. But just as important for me, when I played this game, I loved the Jets fans, I loved the fans. I think I get more accolades now than I did at the height of my career. I'm truly, truly flattered and honored for this situation coming up."