BY AARON BRENNER | email@example.com
One guy was too small to play quarterback, they said. The other was too large to play football at all, they said.
One guy did it anyway, leading Carver to improbable heights, and eventually employing his keen football mind to launch a still-soaring coaching career.
The other persevered, waiting until high school for his opportunity, making up for lost time during his youth, and lasting 12 years in the trenches of the National Football League, where he just earned his first full-time apprenticeship.
Carver graduates Tim Walton and Brentson Buckner — Carver Class of 1989 — are two underdogs, two unlikely shooting stars from Columbus to the NFL. They’re ‘The Odd Couple,’ the featherweight quarterback hanging with the hulking defensive tackle.
Walton and Buckner, each 41, are settling in to premier gigs tutoring NFC West defenses — which means their new teams will go head-to-head twice next fall.
Buckner was hired by Arizona as defensive line coach in late January. A few weeks later, Walton basked in his big break on Feb. 15, named St. Louis’ defensive coordinator.
And they’re local pioneers, because as their retired high school coach recalls, Walton and Buckner’s influence showed future Tigers the sky is the limit, no matter what they say.
“To see those kids develop into men and get to where they are,” says Wallace Davis, “you can’t put a price on that.”
Davis, Carver’s head coach from 1976-2004, characterizes Tim Walton’s mother and father as salt-of-the-earth community leaders and parents with a simple message: Do the right thing.
“My dad had a great influence on me and raising me in my upbringing,” Walton says. “I model myself and my life after my dad. He taught me the core values that I have as a person — being a good guy, work ethic and things like that stuck with me.”
Remembers Davis, of the Waltons choosing to enroll their children at Carver: “They weren’t so worried about Tim being in a program that was not going to (succeed); they were worried about Tim being around the right kind of people.”
Tim wasn’t the right kind of quarterback, at least according to a tape measure and bathroom scale. At 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds — Davis’ best guess as to his dimensions back then — Walton cemented his reputation for exceeding expectations.
His junior year, Carver was faced with a postseason date with Valdosta, one of the country’s mightiest programs. On Dec. 4, 1987 in the Georgia AAAA quarterfinals, the wee-sized Walton captained Carver to its first-ever playoff victory, a 21-7 win considered one of the most remarkable upsets in state history.
From there, Walton went north to powerhouse Ohio State, latching on as a cornerback and serving as team captain.
Buckner’s roots go back even further, and his path to triumph was bumpier than Walton’s. When Buckner was nine, his father was told Big Brentson was too dangerous to play youth football, for fear of harming much smaller kids his age.
Buckner’s dad didn’t give up the dream, throwing the football around with his son, even while he kept growing bigger and waiting his turn to play. As a former Hardaway assistant, Davis remembers befriending Buckner as a preteen, and once reunited at Carver he turned him loose at fullback and defensive tackle.
“Nobody really gave Brentson a chance of doing anything,” Davis says.
Buckner’s patience paid off. He enjoyed a fine run-stuffing career at Clemson, earning first-team all-ACC honors his senior year.
When Walton’s NFL playing career didn’t make it past a 1994 cameo in the Atlanta Falcons practice squad, he didn’t sulk. He traded his helmet for a headset, rising somewhat steadily within the ranks.
After bouncing around for a decade as a defensive backs coach — winning a national championship at LSU along the way — Miami promoted him to defensive coordinator in 2007, a couple seasons after overseeing the nation’s No. 1 pass defense.
Two years later, he was on the Detroit Lions staff, helping the franchise to its first playoff berth since 1999 in his second season.
He was almost on the move again last winter, when Jeff Fisher — Lions head coach Jim Schwartz’s mentor — took over the Rams. Walton spoke with St. Louis about assuming assistant defensive coordinator duties, tantalizing because Fisher and Schwartz use similar terminologies from their Tennessee Titans days.
But Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham valued Walton’s services, awarding him a raise and third-down package responsibilities last season.
When the Rams’ ultimate pick, Gregg Williams, was suspended for 2012 due to his role in the Saints’ bounty scandal, St. Louis went coordinator by committee, knowing it’d have to make a full-time hire for 2013.
After Rob Ryan was rumored to be the selection before leaving for the Saints, Walton won the job over Dick Jauron and Mike Singletary, who each have NFL head coaching experience.
“The terminology thing, I think was No. 1,” Fisher says of choosing Walton, “but his personality, when you get a chance to talk to him … you just want to play hard for him.”
Since delving into each different NFL playbook is basically learning a new language, Walton’s happy the Lions-Rams transition will be relatively seamless as he sets out to install his own fundamentals, along with connecting closely with new players.
“To be able to teach the players, you need to first reach the players,” Walton says. “Develop a relationship with guys, then now when you give them the tough love and the hard coaching that you may have to do at times, they understand it. They know you care, they know that it’s about them and it’s about the team.”
Walton joins a decorated defensive room. Assistant head coach Dave McGinnis was once Arizona’s head coach, Frank Bush (linebackers) and Mike Waufle (defensive line) each own Super Bowl rings, and defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil is a former Pro Bowl safety and Titans defensive coordinator.
Leading always came naturally to Walton, the son of a football coach. At Carver, he was the one organizing workouts and diagramming plays when the coaches weren’t around.
“He would pretty much run the whole thing,” Buckner remembers. “Just like you see the NFL quarterbacks do — Tim was doing that in high school. He’s got those organizational skills, and a football mind.
“It’s in his blood. I can definitely see him being a head coach one day.”
Don’t just take Buckner’s slightly biased word for it. Ask Walton’s former boss.
“Tim’s a sharp guy, a charismatic guy. It was just a matter of time before he was a coordinator,” Schwartz said Thursday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
“In a couple years, he’s going to be standing up on this podium. He’s been a little bit of an under-the-radar guy, but not for long.”
Pro for life
Buckner has been to the Super Bowl in three separate roles — Super Bowl XXX as a Steelers player, XXXVIII in uniform for the Panthers, and XLV as a Steelers intern.
After a dozen seasons playing for four different teams, finishing his career with Carolina, Buckner resorted to a couple of high school coaching jobs in Charlotte.
In 2010, he ended up back in the NFL, back where it all started in a part-time role. The team that drafted him with the 50th pick in 1994, Pittsburgh had Buckner intern for assistant head coach John Mitchell, who’s piloted one of the league’s meanest defensive lines continuously since Buckner’s rookie season, 19 years ago.
For three years, Mitchell gave Buckner creative control to act, not just watch.
“I got my hands dirty, so to speak,” Buckner says. “I had a chance to see how meetings are run, how you have to coach different guys differently, how to teach technique, how to implement a gameplan, how to build a guy up from ground zero.”
Buckner was named head coach of the Charlotte Speed, an indoor football professional team, last summer, but the team folded before the season began and Buckner returned for a third year in the Steel City.
Buckner’s skills caught the attention of Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. When Arizona landed Bruce Arians, a former Steelers offensive coordinator and the Colts’ highly successful interim coach of 2012, he garnered positive reviews from Mitchell, Tomlin and LeBeau, helping Buckner earn his first NFL on-field position.
“(Mitchell) trusted me that I would have the guys ready,” Buckner says. “I think that impressed a lot of people.”
Walton’s sister, Sue (another Carver product, and a former track star at Tennessee), is married to Mike Caldwell, the Cardinals’ linebackers coach now serving on staff with Buckner.
Wait, there’s more. Caldwell and Buckner, second-round draft picks one year apart in the early 1990s who ended up NFL journeymen, were teammates for only one year. It was a special year — 2003 with the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers, the same year Walton was winning a BCS title with LSU.
The 2013 NFL schedule will be released in April, but we already know Walton’s Rams and Buckner’s Cardinals will clash this season — not to mention jockey for a division crown, an uphill battle against the likes of San Francisco and Seattle.
“It’s always great to see one of your friends across the sideline, especially professionally, from the same high school, same neighborhood, same hometown,” Buckner says. “It’ll be great to spend some time with him before our two teams compete against each other.”
Back home in Columbus, Davis likens himself to a science teacher who sees a pupil become a doctor — feeling immense, father-like pride in Walton’s and Buckner’s success.
He also credits that duo for earning their degrees from faraway Ohio State and Clemson, opening the door for younger kids to expand their horizons outside Columbus.
“Those are two athletes,” Davis says, “that had gone far beyond many guys I’ve coached before. But now, it’s not as rare an occurrence.”