Erik Walden missed a block on a Sunday afternoon, was cut a few days later and then spent a month unemployed.
In the back of his mind, he thought -- ever so slightly -- that his NFL career of less than three years with three different teams might already be approaching a crossroads.
“Like they say, the average span for an NFL player is three years,” said Walden, a 2002 graduate of Dublin. “That crosses your mind.”
Fast forward to late January and early February.
Walden has gone from hoping for the right phone call to suiting up and -- a nagging ankle injury notwithstanding -- playing in Super Bowl XLV.
Thinking about where he has been and where he is inspires an easy chuckle.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, man,” Walden said. “You’ve got to stay prayed up. They wrote me off. I was down, but I wasn’t out.”
From Dublin to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Dallas, Kansas City, Miami and Green Bay, Walden has become a key cog in a surging Green Bay Packers defense that clamped down on Michael Vick, stymied Matt Ryan and turned Jay Cutler into something of a sympathetic figure after Twittergate when his toughness was questioned after an injury ended his NFC title game against the Packers.
And as he returns to the metropolis that drafted him for the game’s biggest show, few who will suit up at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday will be as content and as hungry as Walden.
“Everybody’s good, but I’m trying to separate myself,” said the father of 1-year-old Erik Jr. and two-month-old Kylie. “That’s how I work. I don’t want to be average.”
No smooth journey
Walden will wear No. 93 in the Super Bowl, and at some point before the game and perhaps in its waning moments -- if the favored Packers are on the verge of winning -- he may steal a moment to think of his journey.
It started in Dublin.
His father died when Walden was 10, and a few years later, there was the death of one relative at the hands of another relative. Sports became the escape, and he became a multi-sport standout at Dublin, earning all-state honors in football and basketball.
His senior year didn’t start off with a bang.
Roger Holmes had taken over as head football coach at Dublin and decided to move Walden from safety to the defensive line. That was tolerable. Putting Walden at running back brought a little angst.
“What? I’m defense, I don’t play offense,” Walden said of his initial reaction, laughing. “I didn’t like doing the running back drills; we ran the wing-T. And it gets hot in Dublin.”
Things changed, as noted in a Telegraph story leading up to the 2002 state championship game: “Dublin coach Roger Holmes says Erik Walden is a running back disguised as a defensive end. Walden believes he’s a defensive end disguised as a running back.”
Walden warmed to both moves, clearly.
“I didn’t like (running back) at first,” Walden said in that story. “But it helps the team and touchdowns get your name in the paper.”
Walden proved a pain for quarterbacks after moving to the line, finishing his senior season with 17 sacks.
“(Holmes) put my hand on the ground,” Walden said of defensive switch, “and I became the sack guy.”
Holmes remembers their clashes, focusing on Walden’s iffy work ethic on offense and early reluctance to the defensive line move.
“Yeah, I switched him and put him with his hand on the ground,” Holmes said with a laugh. “Think his butt would be making this money if he stayed at safety?”
Walden is grateful.
“He said, ‘This is what you want to do, and this is what you need to do,’ ” Walden said. “I have to take my hat off to Coach Holmes. I have to give him respect for keeping it real for me.”
Walden’s ability was of SEC level, but his grades weren’t, and he went to Middle Tennessee State as a non-qualifier, paying his own way his first year with the help of financial aid.
“I was getting recruited by a lot of (big) schools,” Walden said. “The end result, I didn’t take care of business as far as class and my test scores.”
In the spring after his junior season at MTSU, he was given the Dr. James E. Walker Junior Academic award, a nifty accomplishment for somebody who didn’t have the grades to play as a freshman.
“It was to show somebody who was dedicated, shows up to study hall, and they didn’t have to check you because they know you’re there,” he said. “Just being accountable, basically.”
He left MTSU with two all-conference selections and the school’s top spot in sacks and -- making mother Shirley extraordinarily proud -- graduated that December.
The future awaits
Walden’s next stop was, ironically, where he will be Sunday: Dallas.
The draft gathering back in 2008 he had didn’t go so well, because he didn’t get picked on the first day and stopped watching on the second. Then his brother called and told him he was picked.
“ ‘Man, stop playing. This ain’t the time,’ ” an impatient and miffed Walden told his brother. “Then I turned on the TV and saw my name scrolled across the bottom, and my heart dropped.”
The Cowboys selected him in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. The plan was to deactivate him, put him on the practice squad and then reactivate him and start teaching the outside linebacker position.
But Kansas City plucked him off of the waiver wire, and Walden started seeing time on special teams. The Chiefs, however, were a sinking ship, Walden said, with talent but a lack of leadership.
As soon as he was put on waivers, Miami snagged him, and he finished 2008 with the Dolphins and spent the 2009 season with Miami, as well. He spent almost all of his time there on special teams, where he was earning -- almost to his surprise -- a reputation on a unit he’d never been on before.
He was cut right before the 2010 season and re-signed nine days later, a fairly typical move in the NFL.
Then he missed a block against the New York Jets, a punt was smothered, and New York won. Miami wasn’t a smooth-running group, either, and he was let go a few days later, the first move of several that indicated Miami’s special teams situation was a mess.
“I think they used me as a scapegoat,” Walden said. “I was in the paper, ‘That’s a mistake I can’t make.’ At the end of the day, they eventually used me as a scapegoat.”
Offered one online analysis after the move:
“Walden’s roster spot was never safe as a player that seems to have little upside on defense but making such a huge mistake on special teams -- the one area that is supposed to be his strength -- did him in sooner rather than later.
“While Walden is typically a good special teams player, his loss is not one that will be hard to replace. He’d essentially never played defense in his two-plus years with the Dolphins.”
That, of course, is funny now, since Walden has made his name in Green Bay on defense, not special teams.
“All that motivation,” he said, a tone of satisfaction in his voice. “I just let them talk, and I smile at them. They’re going to end up (eating) their words.”
Walden worked out for a few teams after the release, then did so for Green Bay and was signed that day, Oct. 27. He didn’t play much in the Packers’ first visit to Atlanta a month later, but he got to see his family. Few could have predicted what would follow.
Rookie linebacker Frank Zombo went down Dec. 12 with a knee injury, opening the door for Walden, who saw much more time in the second visit to Atlanta, a Packers playoff win. And less than a month later, he was the NFC defensive player of the week.
“I don’t plan to be average-to-good,” Walden said. “I’m trying to be great.”
Quite a change
Three months ago, Walden was unemployed and back in Murfreesboro working out, waiting for a call and using the month off to refocus mentally and physically.
There’s a congratulatory billboard up near Hobbs Sporting Goods on Highway 80 in Dublin, less than a mile from the Shamrock Bowl. And there’s a community Facebook page for him that’s liked by nearly 500 people.
He couldn’t play defense in Miami, yet he got this from veteran pro and teammate Charles Woodson after the late-season win over Chicago and the cited performance: “He did it all. I think he impressed a lot of people around here (that day). When you play at that high of a level, now we expect you to do it all the time. So we look for big things from him coming into these playoffs.”
And linebacker Clay Matthews, the runner-up to Pittsburgh’s Polamalu as NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is just as impressed.
“It’s just nice to have someone in there to make some plays and take a little heat off me,” Matthews told reporters last month. “I told him he’s doing a fantastic job. He’s been working his butt off since he got here. It’s not easy to come in here halfway through the year. Now he’s starting for a playoff team and making sacks, making plays. More power to him.”
Holmes has seen the impressive growth, from a kid who didn’t want to change positions as a senior to one who became determined to fulfill his dream.
“He’s just a very humble young man,” Holmes said. “He’s very appreciative of his opportunities. It’s really a great story.”
And the work ethic he may not have had that senior year at Dublin is a distant memory, as is the cut by Dallas, the release by Kansas City, and the shoving out of the door by Miami.
“It’s a part of life, man,” he said. “That’s why I’m always smiling. I don’t really get upset at things. I’m at a position, if you look at where I come from, we didn’t have much growing up.
“That’s why I’m loving life. I love where I’m at, and where I’m headed.”