It was spring break, and the unusual calm across campus was allowing New Hampshire football coach Sean McDonnell to catch up on some long-neglected paperwork.
That solitude was broken by a phone call that has been impossible for McDonnell to forget. Seven years ago this past spring the New Hampshire football team lost one of its own in the streets of Boulder when former receiver Todd Walker was killed in a robbery gone wrong on University Hill.
Despite a relatively short time at New Hampshire, Walker remains a big part of the program’s legacy under McDonnell, who is in his 20th season as the head coach at his alma mater. An annual team award is named in Walker’s honor, and his memory has been even more prominent than usual for McDonnell this week as he prepares to bring his team to Folsom Field to face the Colorado Buffaloes in Walker’s home state Saturday (3 p.m., Pac-12 Mountain).
“You go through a lot of things as a coach — injuries, sicknesses, all these things. I’ve never had anything like this happen,” McDonnell said. “There was no blueprint for it. It was a big shock. I had a lot of support around here from our AD, a lot of support from our faculty and staff, a lot of support from the people I needed to get it from. But the most amazing thing was the support I got from the Walker family, watching how they handled it.”
Walker, a native of Edwards, was a multi-sport star at Battle Mountain High School, the same school that produced former Buffs wide receiver Jeff Campbell as well as current steeplechase star Val Constien from the CU track program. He was home during New Hampshire’s spring break on March 18, 2011 when he met friends in Boulder for a night out. Walker was walking his friend Elizabeth Roach home when the couple was confronted by a gunman later identified as Kevin McGregor near 10th and Pennsylvania.
Walker was shot after positioning himself between McGregor and Roach. Roach’s testimony proved critical in McGregor’s trial the following year. He was found guilty on four felony counts and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The loss of the 20-year old Walker was, of course, a stunning one for the UNH program. That year McDonnell established the Todd Walker Teammate Award, which is given annually to the Wildcats player who best exemplifies the team spirit. The honor is given at the end of spring practice, and every year Walker’s father, Mark, has traveled from Colorado to personally deliver the award.
“Todd was a great kid. He gave of himself to other people,” McDonnell said. “He always put others before himself. He gave his life to that young lady. He put himself, from the story that I got, right between her and the guy with the gun.
“After all this had gone down we wanted to recognize what a great guy Todd Walker was. You give awards for MVP, who give awards for most improved and all that stuff. We looked at it and decided to give an award to the best teammate. The guy who puts them in front of himself, that ability of caring and bringing guys together and understanding their role. Just being that great teammate when it’s needed the most.”
Pat Rooney: firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/prooney07