Dream Team

Not all hopes will be crushed at the Crush open tryouts.

But Walker's performance on the green artificial turf didn't dazzle anyone -- not even him. A quick pass receiver like Jeremy Daniels can stop the clock in the all-important 40-yard dash in 4.4 or 4.5 seconds; even a big lineman like 275-pound Justin Colburn, who played tackle and center at the University of New Mexico, can turn in a respectable 4.9. By comparison, George Walker was Santa chugging after his sleigh -- 6.8 seconds. "Looks like the Lincoln Memorial running out there," another player said. Walker's flexibility and quickness skills were pretty good -- "I only missed one or two of the stunts," he reported, "I toughed through it" -- but the standing long jump was another matter. Spider-built, rubber-legged types leaped almost ten feet; George managed just a bit over five, landing with a huge thud. In his $15-an-hour job at his stepfather's plumbing and remodeling company, Walker is the kind of willing giant who can manhandle 900-pound boilers and thick sheaves of metal pipe. But he's less adept lifting free weights. Despite his sore leg, Dart made 31 repetitions in the 225-pound bench-press, and Colburn, who has a tattoo announcing "Unbreakable" above one of his twenty-inch biceps and one reading "Fight to Live, Live to Fight" on the other, topped the whole field with 35. Despite his 325 pounds, Walker did just seven reps, fewer than most of the 185-pound guys.

Put simply, George Walker is not the next Thal Woods. He's no Paul Toviessi. And Colorado Crush linemen Kyle Moore-Brown and Hugh Hunter don't have a thing to worry about from him at the moment. But if there's anything to be said for determination, perseverance and heart, Walker's dream of turning pro is not over. Not now. Not yet. Not at age 24, when the world is still ripe with possibility.

"It was great," he says now of his tryout. "I enjoyed it. Even the bus ride. The whole thing was fine. Because I got the opportunity to do something besides just talk about my dream;I got the chance to do something about it, to try and play pro football. Afterward, I talked to Coach Dailey, and he told me the things I need to improve on in terms of speed and endurance. Next year there are tryouts for the Philadelphia Soul and the New York Dragons -- closer to home. I'll be there. This is definitely hard, but you don't quit because of that."

Truth be told, grueling road odysseys are not much of a challenge to George Walker. "This was the first time I ever got to take a vacation by myself," he says, obviously looking on the bright side. He dismissed the discomfort he felt in the wake of his Crush workout -- discomfort powerful enough that, after watching the Heisman Trophy presentation on TV that Saturday night, he wound up sleeping in a chair in his motel room. "I was fine," he says. On Sunday night he slept on the floor. "No big deal," he says. In fact, don't bother talking to him about what it means to succeed, because he already knows what it takes just to stay alive. Back in 1996, when he was fourteen, George was suddenly stricken with spinal meningitis, spent more than a week in the intensive-care unit at Easton Hospital and very nearly didn't make it. On March 22, 1996, he says, he had a near-death experience that changed his life, put him in touch with an evangelistic Christian belief in God and, when the crisis passed and he began to recover, impelled him toward the football field, suffused with a discipline that came from both within and without.

As a teenager, he weighed just 185 pounds while playing offensive tackle and linebacker for Phillipsburg [New Jersey] High School, just across the Delaware River from Easton. To say it plainly, he was no star. Didn't even start much. Rich kids got most of the playing time, he says. Popularity contest. But once faith and football got inside Walker, they never left. His family didn't have money for college, so after living for a spell with his father in Oregon, he went to work -- tearing out bathrooms, wrangling huge boilers, installing drywall. These days, he weighs almost 150 pounds more than he did at P-Burg High. His eyes are still hyper-sensitive to light as an after-effect of the meningitis. And his football now consists of Sunday-afternoon sandlot games with friends in a local park -- full-contact tackle football with no pads and no helmets.

"There are very few injuries," he says. "We're tough. We're all used to the hitting, and we play honest and fair. That's one of the things about the game. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from, you share the game and you bond quickly. I don't know what I'd do without it. For me, it's life. And it's not over."

At the close of the December 10 tryouts, Colorado Crush coaches told the players that if the team was interested in them, they'd hear about it in a week or so. If they heard nothing after two weeks, they could assume the matter was closed. Along with almost everyone else, George Walker got no phone call. In the meantime, he returned to the East Coast on the bus, a trip destined to take even longer than his westward swing.

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