Walker’s Memory Still Alive With Kicker

Wade Askew

By Wade AskewThe Daily Northwestern

On June 29, the college football world was shaken by coach Randy Walker’s sudden death from an apparent heart attack.

While many were deeply hurt by the coach’s sudden death, few were more affected than senior kicker Joel Howells, well-known for his close relationship with the coach who often supported him even after tough games and harsh criticism.

Such constant support is important for any player, but for kickers, for whom much of the game is mental, the reinforcement often means even more.

“It meant a lot because he was really loyal,” Howells said. “His support was real big – you always have your critics, so to have the head coach stand by you is a big deal.”

Fellow specialist Slade Larscheid echoed Howells’ sentiments, saying, “it’s part of our position – you’re not going to make all the kicks. Coach always had Joel’s back.”

Walker also stood by Howells.

He checked on his kicker after a dismal Sun Bowl performance in which he missed three kicks and had two onside attempts returned for touchdowns.

During this past spring’s recruiting process, when Northwestern boosters showed particular enthusiasm for the signing of kicker Stefan Demos, Walker became irate at the way he perceived alumni turning their backs on the veteran kicker.

Such support helped Howells stay positive during the process, accepting that recruiting is simply a part of college football.

Instead of becoming discouraged, Howells said he worked harder in order to retain his position as starting kicker.

After all, hard work is how Howells earned his position.

When he first stepped on campus as a freshman, he was a walk-on. Still, his relationship slowly grew with Walker, who was in constant contact with the kickers due to his emphasis on special teams.

“(The specialists) would meet with Coach every day during the season, and he called us some in the off-season, too,” Howells said. “Right before he died he called me just to see how life was going, how kicking was going.”

Walker served as a “father figure” for Howells and the team, something the kicker emphasizes.

“He cared about us as individuals before worrying about football,” Howells said. “He always had our best interest in mind.”

Howells became particularly close with Walker, to the point that Larscheid would joke that the two were related. So after Walker’s death, it was only fitting that Howells became a central presence at press conferences and interviews – as was requested by Walker’s wife and family.

A shaken Howells was joined by fellow senior Nick Roach the morning after Walker’s death at a press conference, again emphasizing the coach’s role in the players’ lives expanding beyond the football field.

Since that morning, Howells and the rest of the team have had to move on under coach Pat Fitzgerald, playing a season in honor of their old coach, mentor and friend.

“Obviously this season’s been different, because I’m used to having him here every day, ” Howells said. “At times I’ll just be sitting at home and thinking, ‘I really miss Coach.’ But at the same time, coach Fitz has done a great job.

“Coach Walker was a mentor to coach Fitz, so as far as football and stuff like that, it’s kind of gone the same. For me, personally, it’s been tough at times, but it’s been OK.”

Howells has particularly leaned on his faith, assuming the role of a “spiritual leader” on the team, to help through the hurt of losing a man who he described in the June press conference as “a good friend.”

“Joel is a very spiritual man,” said Fitzgerald. “He’s the leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group on the football team, and his faith is very important to him. Through tough times you have to rely on faith, and Joel really did.”

Reach Wade Askew at [email protected]