Darrin Walls knows about the football legacy at his alma mater.
If he can advance through training camp and make the Atlanta Falcons roster, he'll be the 10th player from to enter the National Football League.
Walls is in Flowery Branch, Ga. at the Falcons training facility after being signed to an undrafted rookie free agent contract with the team and invited to training camp to compete for a job.
Every year, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said someone from the rookie free agent pool shines and makes the team.
“Somebody—there always is—is going to step up and turn heads here in our training camp," Smith said.
Walls is betting that it’s him.
“I ended up choosing the Falcons because I just felt when I came to visit here that I fit in with the guys and I liked the coaching staff,” said Walls. “I also felt that I had a chance to make the roster here.”
Walls is a shut-down cornerback fighting for a spot on a team that could use another good player with those specific job qualities. Before Walls can settle in and really fight for a job, he has to get a handle on the defensive scheme and playbook.
He said he asks questions every day of Atlanta starting cornerback Dunta Robinson and keeps his head in the playbook when he’s not on the field, but Walls’ head is still swimming.
“For us rookies, it’s kind of tough not going through OTA’s (Organized Team Activities) and those other things that get you prepared for the season,” said Walls. “It’s tough because we’re already far behind and there is so much getting thrown at us every day. We just have to keep up. It’s a tough thing, but it can be done.”
The trials and tribulations of training camp don’t scare Walls, though, who said going away to camp is something he’s been familiar with since high school.
“Coach (and his staff at Woodland Hills High School) is one of the best in high school football,” said Walls. “We went away for camp like most NFL teams do and we did a lot of different things that most high schools don’t. We would have three-hour summer workouts and run 7-on-7’s. I was prepared (for college and the NFL) by being taught by some good coaches and staff.”
Walls gives Novak a lot of credit in getting him to both University of Notre Dame, where he played college football, and into training camp with the Falcons. But it wasn’t an easy road to Flowery Branch.
After being disappointed on NFL draft day when he wasn’t selected, Walls drew up a plan to get ready for camp once the NFL lockout was lifted.
Walls worked out with Ryan Mundy and Wes Lyons of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and also Terrence Johnson of the Indianapolis Colts—all alumni of Woodland Hills High School.
They worked out on the field five days a week, lifted weights three of those days and ran twice a week to stay in shape and get ready for football in the fall.
When the NFL lockout ended, Walls said his phone began to ring—a lot. The St. Louis Rams, the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks called wanting to sign Walls. But he struggled with his decision between the Denver Broncos and his ultimate choice, Atlanta. The decision was difficult, not only, because choosing where to play in the NFL is of the utmost importance, but he also had to make the choice in less than a 24-hour period.
Now the decision is made and Walls is in the Georgia heat and humidity, far removed from his senior season in high school where he remembers wins over Central Catholic and Gateway, two arch-rivals.
But his mind isn’t too far away from the city where he grew up. On Aug. 27, the Falcons play a preseason game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The date is already circled on Walls’ mental calendar.
“Once I signed with the Falcons, I wanted to see what was on our schedule,” said Walls. “Now, we’re going back to Pittsburgh and playing in front of my hometown, just the opportunity for me to play back there is great. It’s an honor to play any game as a Falcon, but to play in my hometown would be a good one.”
If and when Walls gets that opportunity to run out onto Heinz Field as a member of the visiting Falcons, he’ll cherish it. Until then, he’ll be working in Georgia to make an impression on the Falcons coaching staff.
But he’ll be thinking of his hometown, and the experiences there that built towards him being on an NFL roster.
“It’s a great honor coming from such a great school with great tradition,” said Walls. “I give all the glory to Coach Novak and his staff. It’s a great program and it will continue to be successful.”
For video from training camp, click here.