When out of sight, the legend grows
Just off exit 112 along the I-10 Florida panhandle corridor, there sits enough gas stations to be considered a decent pit stop. That’s what most travelers use it as, before turning south on Highway 79 towards Panama City Beach.
But if by chance you were to turn north, you’d run into the town of Bonifay after a couple of miles.
There in Bonifay you’ll find the general makings of a small town. There’s a boot store on the edge of downtown, noticeable by the massive Justin statue on its storefront. There are the diners and pharmacy and required church on every block.
Just up the hill from First Baptist sits the middle school. This is actually where your GPS will direct you if you ask to be taken to the high school.
A couple of loops around, try again and yep, right back at the top of the hill next to the sign that says Bonifay Middle School. At least it has a nice view, where you can see the main stretch of town.
This is where I found myself on January 27th, frustrated with my forever-inaccurate GPS and somewhat distracted by the softball practice going on between the school and the Holmes County Co-op.
Around four and a half hours northwest, the Florida Gators basketball team was warming up to take on Alabama. Heading into the matchup, Billy Donovan’s team had been struggling, a fact that they were acutely aware of and each attempting to remedy in their own way.
One of those trying to fix the team’s problems on top of his own is Chris Walker.
The 6’11” forward came out of high school covered in drools from NBA scouts and headed to Gainesville for what many talking heads assumed would be a pit stop. Instead it became a roadblock.
After sitting out the first half of his freshman year due to academic problems, Walker finally took the court for the Gators matchup versus Missouri last February.
When he did it was to much anticipation; too much if you ask Gators head coach Billy Donovan.
“What happens is, when out of sight, the legend grows,” Donovan lamented.
“When people don’t see him, you know? And I think last year when a guy came in to play and everyone wanted to talk about the Missouri game as if this guy’s coming back like he’s Wilt Chamberlin. And I’m like ‘Listen. It’s not that. I was just in practice with the guy. It’s not that’.”
Babe Ruth (kind of) said it himself when he gave Benny the Jet that echoing reminder “Hero’s live forever, legends never die.”
Donovan may slightly wish that the legend of Chris “Sky” Walker would die so that Walker could just develop naturally in college. He’s even said that he “feels bad for him” because “it’s a hard existence sometimes when you have everyone expecting you to be this and you’re not and you can sometimes personally feel like you know, ‘I’m letting people down, I’m a failure.’ And it’s not his fault.”
It would stand to reason that you have to be a hero before you can become a legend. So while that legend continues to persistently fester in Gainesville, we can find the foundation for it in Walker’s hometown of Bonifay.
After all that’s where the hero persona was first birthed, born from pure talent and grown from necessity.
So as Chris Walker continued to warm up for the Tide, I slipped into his hometown, unassuming and looking for some details on this mystical, quite legend that Gator fans are still trying to unravel.
Big fish in a small town around these parts.
Accepting the frustrating realization that my do it all GPS couldn’t find Holmes County High School, I instead found the soccer mom who scoffed at “this crazy town.”
“Yea the high school isn’t around here,” she drawled. “You gotta get back on Highway 90. You know where Highway 90 is don’t you?”
Of course I should’ve. It was the town’s major road. So I lied and told her yes and just hoped I’d find a sign along the way.
“Well just get back on Highway 90 like you goin’ to Caryville and drive till you see the Dollar General. Then you’re gonna slow down and the high school will be on your left right after the Dollar General.”
As I drove back by the boot store and pharmacy and First Baptist day care center, I took stock of the people. They were running errands and getting early suppers. They were generally just taking care of their day-to-day business in a small town that doesn’t demand much but requires a hardworking honest living.
A quick turn through a few neighborhoods; they were all your standard southern neighborhoods with antebellum homes all for sale and bookending run down shotgun and clapboard houses. People were hanging out here to, around cars and mailboxes and playing basketball in the driveway.
With each person I passed, I thought more and more of what I recently heard Billy Donovan say in reference to Walker.
“Up there in Bonifay and up there in Holmes County, there’s not a lot of 6-11 guys running around up there.”
Which begs the question, why did he stay? There are numerous basketball academies that he could’ve transferred to and paved a more experienced road to college and most likely a shortcut to the NBA. Why stay?
The sun was setting by this point but luckily the yellow glow from the Dollar General sign cast just enough light to show me the entrance for Holmes County High School and alert me to their Spring Break dates.
The high school sprawled across campus in several buildings, the way it seems most Florida schools do in a way other states don’t, but still obviously small. The 1A school isn’t bad by any appearances, but is missing the glow of so many of its counterparts.
Slipping through the front doors of the school, I began to just aimlessly wander, looking for nothing and everything. The hallways were empty of people save the custodian, but the smell was there. Dirty sneakers, unwashed hoodies, old books and that horrible unidentifiable smell from the science lab.
Above the lockers hang class pictures. As it was the most recent added to the collection, it wasn’t hard at all to find Chris Walker’s. After studying it for only a moment, it was blatantly obvious that Billy was right. He was an anomaly in this town.
The unmistakable sound of sneakers against polished hardwood pulled me towards the gym. Holmes County’s junior varsity team was warming up for a game that night and a teacher was setting up the ticket table outside the door. It only took two words to get his attention.
“Oh yea I know Chris. Taught him his senior year.”
He immediately confirmed my earlier suspension although he didn’t use the word anomaly.
“Big fish in a small town around these parts.”
Dylan Skinner, as I later learned was the American Government and Economics teachers name, had a good insight into Chris.
For a guy that has consistently appeared quite and private to the Gator media contingent, he portrayed a different side in this small town where he had the whole stage to shine.
Just as loud as the rest of them, Skinner informed me. Loved to talk smack like most of the kids in his class. His classmates were big on sports rivals and loved to speak up about them.
And “a good kid. Real good kid. But his work ethic was lacking.
He would give 100% to the night’s competition,” Skinner explains.
“There would be nights, if he’d wanted to, he could’ve gotten over 100 points. But we maybe were playing a team that wasn’t as good, so he just did what he had to do.”
That became a theme with Walker’s former teacher, who also saw it translate to the classroom.
“He would do the bare minimum to get by, on the court and in the classroom.”
The frustration evident in Skinner’s voice at this statement has been mirrored countless times in Donovan since Walker first suited up the orange and blue. Just a little over a week earlier, Donovan had even said much of the same…again.
“He needs a lot of lot of reps every single day,” Donovan said.
“He has to work better. That’s the biggest thing to me. He has to work better. Then it becomes challenging.
There’s times he works really hard, but again, it’s that sometimes it’s not. ‘I’m a little sore today, little tired today.’ You’re constantly pushing him, and he’s got to do that. He sometimes struggles with that. If he wants to be the kind of player he talks about being, he’s going to need to continue to work. I believe he can do it.”
If there’s another thing everyone can agree on though, it’s that Walker’s inexperience with working hard comes to him honest. He’s simply never had to.
“He always grew up being the best,” Skinner says as if it’s obvious.
And in more than just basketball apparently.
It seems that when Walker was younger he played football as well. This is the case in most small towns. Kids will play ever sport because it fills time and its how you hang out with your friends. With each year that would pass and with every inch Chris grew taller, the football coaches eyed him a little harder.
“The coaches were real excited watchin’ him come up,” according to Skinner.
“They had plans just to lob it up there and let him catch it.”
He quit football to focus on basketball though and the rest is history; a history that created a hero and built a legend.
“He was amazing to watch,” Skinner says, with a little awe coming in his voice as if he could still see it.
“When Chris was here, every game was sold out. It didn’t matter who we were playing. People would come just to watch him. The things he could do were just incredible.”
Ticket sales started to pick up here so I left Dylan to his work and moseyed into the gym. The JV team warming up provided nice background noise to a sports fan art gallery…banner after banner of championship teams. And sure enough, there was Chris Walkers name.
Turning back around to face the gym, the imagination started to paint a picture so vivid it was as if I’d been present for the original. Chris dunking over everyone. Chris blocking shots. Chris just doing one highlight move after another.
It’s those incredible feats that are now somewhat hurting Walker.
So far in the 2014-2015 season, he leads the team in blocks with 21 already and he’s averaging 5.7 points per game with 4 blocks in an average of 15.9 minters per game.
This was the same guy who led his high school to the 1-A State Championship and tallied 30 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks in that title game alone.
Now for Gator fans that were hoping to see those high school numbers translate immediately, there has come a sense of resignation, brimming with just enough leftover hope to still be noticeable.
Even in November of 2014…
Donovan points out why that’s an unrealistic expectation.
“If I’m coaching a high school team, I putting Chris Walker at the rim and just saying ‘Hey. When someone comes in there, block shots.’ But that’s not realistic in college. Going into this year, I downplayed the expectation part not to say that he wasn’t going to be a good player, but he’s not what people expect or think he is. You know? And that’s a hard thing sometimes and you know we got to help him. I think he’s doing better with that. I think also the other thing too is I think with what’s going on in games, there’s a little bit more of a reality and truth that he’s dealing with right now, which is a good thing.”
And Chris himself has come to realize this as well.
When asked what he viewed as the major differences between high school and college, he laughed and replied, “At Bonifay, in high school, I’d just stand in the middle of the paint and people like 5-10, 5-8, just come in and shoot it up and I blocked shots. In college, you’ve got to be in your position and everything. You’ve got to help the helper. You’ve got to actually box out people. It’s different.”
There was a hint of sadness when he said this, alluding to a buried belief that he himself saw it transferring seamlessly. And that there may not be a person more disappointed by the turn of events than Chris himself, though he would never actually say it out loud.
The closest he has come was when he brought up the Gators Thanksgiving trip to the Bahamas’.
“I think just going through it, like the Bahama trip kinda had me thinking, like am I really this. Just trying to ask myself, ‘Chris you gotta start doing something different. You gotta start playing hard or something’.”
Harder doesn’t always mean faster though and when presented with the chance to really take a hard look at his game, there was one aspect Chris zeroed in on as needing the most work.
“I think just taking my time, don’t rush it, don’t rush my move. I think just taking my time, then making a move, I think I’d be better. Cause sometime I just rush it, and I’m getting a travel call or something that hurts the team.”
I can’t think of another [player] ever to come from here like him…and there probably won’t be another.
Back out in the lobby, Mr. Skinner’s ticket sales have lightened up again, so he picks up where he left off with his memories of Chris. A straggling student walks up and Dylan ask him, “Hey didn’t you graduate with Chris?”
No last name, no further description. There’s only one Chris worth noting.
“Yea I graduated with Chris”, the kid replies. There’s a hint of pride in his voice when he says it, as if here in Bonifay that’s a banner, a status, something that bears real weight…and frankly, it does.
He truly is a hero in this town
Not a legend, like Billy Donovan is having to combat in Gainesville, but a hero.
A legend implies mystique, and wonder. A nugget of a story that was embellished over time resulting in an entity that is larger than life.
A hero is real. And the people of Bonifay saw it for themselves.
He’s one of a kind, Skinner says.
“I can’t think of another [player] ever to come from here like him…and there probably won’t be another.”
And he’s right. Time after time blue-chip basketball prospects will transfer to private academies that mold players into college ready athletes. Walker even turned down offers from some high caliber ones like Oak Hill Academy and Montrose Christian School, both of which molded Kevin Durant during his formative years. The closest Chris got was AAU leagues where he played travel ball with the likes of his current teammate Kasey Hill. Which brings me back to my original question; why did he stay?
Not wanting to draw too much attention to this part of the conversation, I ask Skinner quietly, “Did he stay just because of Ms. Campbell?”
“Oh absolutely,” Skinner nods yes. “Without a doubt.”
Ms. Campbell was the best friend of Chris’ grandmother. After his biological parents both abandoned him at a young age, Chris was raised by his grandmother. She passed away when he was 12 years old. With no other options before him, Chris showed up on the doorstep of his grandmothers’ oldest friend Jeneen Campbell. She already had three kids and barely two pennies to rub together, but she took him in anyways. The house wasn’t ideal, especially for a boy who just kept growing and nothing was ever easy. But Ms. Campbell gave something Chris wanted more than anything; security, support and unconditional love.
It’s here the story takes a dark turn and one that many of you already know. The community attempted to step up and each take care of Chris and by the time it came for Walker to make the trip to Gainesville, the NCAA had suspended him for 12 games saying that he received improper benefits.
There was outrage from fans, basketball experts and those just morally opposed to the NCAA. The loudest cry though came from Bonifay who couldn’t believe their hero was being punished for circumstances that they viewed as being out of his control.
With an attitude that bespoke of the humbleness Ms. Campbell had instilled in him, Chris accepted this additional batch of lumps.
It was only the beginning though of what has become a long ordeal albeit restricted (so far) college career.
Through the shroud of mystery that has created this myth bigger than the man himself though, the people of Bonifay maintain one this is crystal clear.
Loyalty. That’s the most common trait attributed to Chris.
That’s why he stayed with Ms. Campbell, that’s why he stuck with Holmes County High, that’s why he never wavered from the University of Florida even while receiving offers from the likes of Louisville and Kansas. That’s why he has said time and time again he wants to help this Gators team any way Billy will use him, instead of worrying about his own game straying from what made him famous.
Fiercely loyal. Especially to those that pick him up when he falls.
The junior varsity game was tipping off which meant it wouldn’t be long before another game would be starting as well and one that was slightly more important to me. After bidding adieu to Mr. Skinner and other Blue Devil fans who’d shuffled in, I left Bonifay thinking of all I’d learned that afternoon.
It really wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing and all the tidbits I’d known about Chris Walker before really resulted in a whole lot of nothing. Now I actually had something to build on.
He is more outgoing than he previously appeared.
He isn’t what you would call a hard worker, apparently by any stretch of the means.
But it seems a lot of the blame for that has more to do with circumstances and less to do with Chris himself.
Around Tallahassee I flipped on the radio to listen to the Florida vs. Alabama basketball game.
He’s not near as intimidating as would first appear. In all the ways and words that his hometown peers described him, nearly every word was gentle. This is the same kid after all that told Dick Vitale before his first game as a Gator, “Mr. V., I’m very nervous.”
He’s beginning to understand just how much work he has to put in and even more so, just how far he still has to go.
Despite it all, he’s got enough innate athletic ability to be undoubtedly special. And there are 300 people who attended every Holmes County basketball game who would be happy to back up that claim.
Turning from I-10 onto I-75, the halftime score pops up. Florida leads Alabama by 13. Huh, heard that story a couple of times already this season.
It’s also around this time that I remember Sir Gawain from that endless poem some English teacher insisted I read in college. Arthur’s nephew and knight who was destined to complete an impossible quest to earn his honor as every hero must do. It was through his quest to the Green Castle that we learn Gawain’s perfection as a hero lies in his knowledge of his imperfections.
By the time I arrive back in Gainesville, I’ve decided that’s what I really learned about Chris during my afternoon.
This evolving legend is forever a hero in Bonifay. He’s a hero to the kid who wants to grow up to be a basketball star one day and sat for game after game in a crowded gym just to watch him play. He’s a hero to the kind soul who took him in and whom he repays in every way he can since she’s his. He’s a hero to the teacher who frustratingly watched him skate by on the bare minimum and is now seeing a kid work to break free from that track. He’s a hero to the town that received a glimpse of hope through him.
For Gator fans, this side of Chris Walker is only just beginning to emerge. It’s going to take a lot of work and will probably be painful at times, but Billy Donovan insists Walker has a much better basketball IQ than anticipated so come it will. And when it does, the people of Bonifay say it’s something incredible to see.
As I’m about to turn off the car, the final stats began to be read off from the games radio broadcast. I couldn’t help but chuckle. Florida wins 52-50 and Chris Walker finished in double digits with his best game as a Gator.