When Bryan Walters ’10 was a punt and kick returner and wide receiver at Cornell, the offensive game plan was simple: throw the ball in Walters’ general vicinity and he’ll somehow be able to come down with it and make something special happen. After four years of stat sheet stuffing numbers and highlight reel plays, Walters got a call from the San Diego Chargers that changed his life.
“[I saw] some random number on my phone,” Walters says. “I answered it and they said ‘hey, how would you like to be a San Diego Charger?’ That was very cool to me, it made me realize the dream is possible.”
Now a wide receiver on the Jacksonville Jaguars, Walters has played for four N.F.L. teams and has been to two Super Bowls. This year, he’s had more opportunities at receiver than ever before, and he’s accumulated 228 receiving yards in six games for the Jaguars.
Walters says that making it to the NFL had always been a goal of his. When looking at college programs to continue his football career, Walters knew that, even though Cornell may not be in the national spotlight, he still believed if he was good enough to make it to the pros, then his talent would be seen by scouts.
“Ivy League had always intrigued me, but I was never really pursuing it much,” Walters says. “Then [former assistant coach Rod Plummer] talked to me and flew me out there for an official visit and I loved it and I loved the campus. I loved the football part of it, the athletics, so from that point on it was ‘alright, I like Cornell, let’s go.’”
In Ithaca, Walters didn’t make an immediate impact for the Red as a receiver, catching just three passes his freshman year, but he showed just how dangerous he could be returning punts and kicks. He ended his freshman season with a bang, blasting through Penn’s defense on a kickoff return for what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown. Walters calls that moment the best memory of his Cornell career.
After four years of returning kickoffs and punts, Walters graduated Cornell as the all-time leader in all-purpose yards and ranks No. 1 in punt and kick return yards for his career. He also ranks fourth in receiving yards. As a senior, he was second team All-Ivy as a return specialist and as a receiver.
While playing for Cornell, Walters learned that your role on the team is never safe, and you have to consistently perform at your best to maintain your play time. He was able to carry this over to the N.F.L.
“Everyone is out there trying to earn a spot to play,” Walters says. “Every day you’ve got people busting their butt to try to get on the field. You have to bring your a-game every day, you can’t slack off. If your performance starts to slide … you may seem someone else jump you. It’s the same thing with Cornell, there’s competition.”
Balancing football and Cornell academics is a challenge for anyone, and Walters was no exception. An economics major, Walters says that learning to balance his schoolwork with athletics was a crucial thing to know going into professional football. Between meetings, game walkthroughs, practices and film study, the N.F.L. is more than a full time job.
“Cornell in general prepares you for the N.F.L.,” Walters says. “[Playing in the N.F.L] is a full time job, which it is at Cornell when you’re balancing academics with it as well. Academics is part of football, and it’s highlighted so much by the coaches. That’s why we’re [at Cornell] in the first place. I just think that all that together prepared me for coming in here and playing football all day long.”
Walters spent two years with San Diego, bouncing between the practice squad and the active roster. Following a brief stint with the Minnesota Vikings, Walters’ home town Seattle Seahawks came calling in late 2012.
“It was cool,” Walters says. “I was just thankful to have that opportunity there. At the same time it was kind of stressful. You know everyone there and everyone wants tickets. I was worried about getting people to games and that’s not what I should be worried about.”
In Walters’ second year with the team, the Seahawks cruised to a 13-3 record before easily dismantling the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Walters says the Super Bowl victory was something he’ll never forget.
The following year Walters earned a larger role on the team as the Seahawks’ primary punt returner. He saw time in 13 regular season games that season and also played in three playoff games, including Seattle’s loss in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. Following the 2014 season, Walters signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and has seen his role change from a returner to a receiver.
In his first 6 games this season, Walters has caught 19 balls for 228 yards for the 2-5 Jaguars.
“It’s been great, it really has been,” Walters says. “I’ve been adjusting to it well. It’s a really great locker room and it’s a team on the rise … I see a lot of good things, and there’s good things to come.”
Even though he’s just 27 years old, Walters is a veteran for the Jaguars. In a league in which the average career lasts a little over three years, Walters is now in his sixth season, and he’s one of the older guys on the team.
“It’s a little weird to be honest with you,” Walters says about being a veteran for the Jaguars. “I find myself walking in here thinking I’m a rookie for some reason. I’m like the old guy walking around, which is weird because I don’t feel old.”
On a team with a young corps of receivers like 22-year-old Allen Robinson and 24-year-old Allen Hurns, Walters has found himself in a position in which he can help out his younger, less experienced teammates.
“I had a lot of guys when I came in really help me and take me under their wing and teach me some stuff,” Walters says. “Guys like Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd and Patrick Clayton. It really helps out when you’ve got guys who have been through the fire telling you what to do and encouraging you. I just hope I can have that kind of influence on someone here too.”