High school athletics: Male Athlete of the Year Walker in league of once-in-a-generation players

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 25, 2021

By Mike London

SALISBURY — The legend of Jalon Walker grows a little every time someone tells a story.

Salisbury High track and field coach Todd Parker recalls instructing Walker in the basics of the triple jump for the first time, and then watching him go out and win the event in a meet.

The block Walker made in the Salisbury basketball gym in February to thwart a dunk attempt by North Davidson’s soaring Jamarien Dalton is burned into the minds forever of all who witnessed it. Dalton rose well above the rim, but Walker, 40 pounds heavier, rose well above Dalton. Walker was in the square. It was a mind-blowing thing to see in a 2A gym.

Of course, football is the sport where everyone knows Walker’s name. The nationwide recruiting tussle for the linebacker’s verbal commitment included the elite college programs and was unprecedented in magnitude for a Rowan County football player. Finalists included Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio State. Georgia got the good news. That was in March.

The first week of May, Rowan County Defensive Player of the Year and Central Carolina Conference Defensive Player of the Year Walker and his teammates proved to be as good as the hype and finished off a late-starting drive to the 2AA state championship.

A week later, Walker was honored as the Gatorade Player of the Year for North Carolina. Again, that was an unprecedented honor for a Rowan County football player. Even West Rowan back K.P. Parks, who broke national records, didn’t get the Gatorade.

“For an athlete from a 2A school to get the Gatorade Player of the Year, that’s something remarkable, but so is Jalon,” Salisbury head football coach Brian Hinson said. “Through all this  statewide and national attention that he’s gotten, he’s been an amazing representative of not only Salisbury High, but all of Rowan County. He’s as good an athlete as you’ll ever want to see, but he’s also as good a person as you’ll ever want to meet. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”

The Darrell Misenheimer Award goes to the Rowan County Male Athlete of the Year and is given to honor his memory. In the 1970s, Misenheimer was a powerful, larger-than-life East Rowan athlete who excelled in track and field, football and wrestling.

In a normal school year, Walker, who is rated as a top 40 football player nationally in the Class of 2021, would have been a runaway choice for the Misenheimer Award, but this school year wasn’t normal in any respect. Salisbury’s Vance Honeycutt, who quarterbacked the Hornets to the football title and was championship game MVP, led the county in touchdowns and was Rowan County Co-Offensive Player of the Year. The shortstop and UNC signee also was Rowan County Player of the Year for baseball. Honeycutt was the choice of  his league as Central Carolina Conference Male Athlete of the Year. On top of that, Honeycutt was a 20th-round pick by the San Francisco Giants in the recent MLB draft.

The Post’s ranking was still Walker as 1A and Honeycutt as 1B. An athlete like Honeycutt might come along only every 10 years or so, but Walker, with his size and charisma, might be a once in a generation event. Only time will tell. Both have been fantastic high school athletes and both get rave reviews from everyone who knows them personally.

“What’s crazy is that we had those two guys playing on a team together and one day we might have the luxury of watching both of them play at the highest level on TV,” Hinson said. “How often does that happen at a 2A school?”

Added Salisbury head basketball coach Bryan Withers, “Jalon is one of the finest athletes from Rowan County in a very long time. He’s so blessed with talent, but what makes him different is that he’s always done the extra. He’s put in the work it takes to be great.”

Walker is built different than just about everyone else. Those listed dimensions (6-3, 225) are accurate, but he plays taller and longer, bigger and stronger.

The son of Catawba College head football coach Curtis Walker, he has long arms and he can run a 4.5 40-yard dash. He’s also a 4.0 student. He’s rated as the second-best prospect in North Carolina in the Class of 2022 and as the No. 4 outside linebacker in the country. While he projects as an outside linebacker in college, he has played defensive end, safety and receiver for the Hornets. He caught a touchdown pass from Honeycutt in the state championship game.

“Vance is a great player, a great leader, a great friend,” Walker said. “You have to be an amazing baseball player to sign with UNC, and then to be drafted out of high school. What an honor that had to be.”

Walker was viewed by teammates and coaches as a natural leader, vocally, as well as by example.

“We made it to the state championship game my sophomore year and we lost (to Shelby),” Walker said. “I vowed to my teammates that this year we would not be coming back without that trophy, and we capitalized on our second opportunity.”

The opponent was St. Pauls, which had frequently moved the ball on teams with short flips into the flats. A quick receiver would make one guy miss and scramper for 10 yards. Walker took that away. St. Pauls completed the short passes, as usual, but Walker didn’t miss tackles. Most of those plays gained only a yard or two. Walker was credited with 12 stops.

In an 11-game season, Walker made 97 tackles, 19 for loss, and had eight sacks. That was with every opponent game-planning to run away from him. He ran a lot of plays down from the back side.

“That state championship was the icing on the cake for his great season,” said Hinson, who quite literally has known Walker since the day he entered the world. Hinson and Walker’s dad were on the coaching staff together at Coastal Carolina when Walker was born.

Hinson is more than anxious to see what Walker can do as a senior.

“It’ll be sad knowing it’s his last season, but it’s going to be exciting,” Hinson said. “I’m glad I’ve had the chance to watch this guy grow up while playing a sport that he loves.”

While Walker loves football, he likes basketball.

There was a night on the court last winter that Walker amassed 14 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and five blocks.

Most nights he wasn’t offensive-minded, but his defensive impact was so intense and immense that he was considered for CCC Player of the Year.

“If you talked to coaches in our league, they mentioned Jalon first whenever they mentioned Salisbury,” Withers said. “He protected the paint. He changed shots. He blocked shots. He rebounded. Those things win ballgames. The last game of the regular season we were playing North Davidson for the conference championship. We didn’t win it, but we were where we wanted to be, and Jalon was huge in getting us there.”

Walker played with swaggering confidence, knowing he was going to be the best athlete on the floor.

If there was a conference and county defensive player of the year award in basketball, he would have gotten it. He’s explosive, to put it mildly. He went after loose ball like it was a football fumble.

“He played fearless,” Withers said. “A lot of kids they’re not going to try to block a dunk because they might look bad, but Jalon wasn’t like that. Even if you scored on him, he was still going hard after the next one.”

Withers remembers the celebrated block against Dalton, of course, but he says Walker had other blocks that were equally amazing. Just not as many people saw them.

“The secret to blocking shots is giving the shooter the impression that there’s no way you can possibly get there,” Walker said. “But I know how high I can jump and I know how quick I can get up. I was able to time it up and make some good blocks on good players.”

Walker had planned a stellar track and field season and won the long jump in his first meet, while placing third in the 100.

But a tweaked hamstring curtailed his track activities. Track coaches understood the priority had to be staying healthy for the summer football activities that could affect his future.

In June, Walker flew to Bradenton, Fla., for the Under Armour All-America Future 50 for drills and 7-on-7 workouts against the nation’s best prospects.

He also had a chance this summer to finally make an official visit to the University of Georgia. During COVID, he’d only been able to speak to Georgia’s coaches via Zoom conferences.

“Athens was as great as I expected it to be,” said Walker, who has the dream of being a dentist when he’s done with football.  “I enjoyed the whole recruiting process, even with the limits of COVID. I spoke to coaches nationwide, great coaches who have impacted the game of football.”

On Sept. 4, Walker plans to attend the Georgia vs. Clemson game in Charlotte.

Honors are still floating in for him. He’s been named to WSOC-TV’s Big 22 for the upcoming football season.

Walker will be a football-only performer as a senior. The plan is to graduate early and to get started at Georgia during the second semester.

High school hoops will miss him, but what a football season it might be.