Whether it’s supplying offense for his teammates or quenching the thirst of his roommates, Arizona State University’s Johnny Walker has been the go-to guy.
Not long before becoming ASU’s all-time leading goal-getter, he was the one often tasked with filling up the water pitcher at home. So much so that he lightheartedly called the chore his hobby in his bio for the athletic program’s website.
“Our outstanding joke among my roommates was that nobody filled it up,” said the proud Phoenix native, thinking back to his freshman year.
But of course, somebody eventually stepped up, and everyone remembers it being him.
“I wouldn’t say I did it more than anybody else, I would just say I took credit for it when it was taken care of.”
Whenever that happened, he implicitly did it unassisted. Conversely, of his 64 goals in four years and counting as a Sun Devil, Walker is happy to spread that credit around.
“I don’t think about that stuff too much,” he said. “It was the teams that we had. The guys that I played with made it very easy to score goals.
“The thing I’ll hang my hat on the most was being the first [ASU] team to make the national tournament.”
Which brings up why he is not hanging up his Sun Devils jersey just yet. Walker’s first go-round at a senior season included unprecedented challenges for both himself and his team. So when the NCAA granted the class of 2021 a do-over, Walker couldn’t pass up the open net. “It was kind of a no-brainer,” he said, adding that 2020-21 felt “pretty empty.”
In an inevitably unpredictable campaign, team-wide travel overload enveloped the co-captain’s personal adversity.
To comply with COVID restrictions, the independent Sun Devils became Big Ten barnstormers. Their initial 28-game slate — later reduced to 26 when protocols eliminated a series with Penn State — featured two weekends and four games apiece at seven Midwestern venues.
Ultimately, the itinerary yielded 74 travel days out of 113, amounting to over 15,500 miles.
Walker went pointless in mid-November’s opening set at Michigan, then went down with a knee injury, missing the next 10 contests.
That stretch and beyond may have been the most challenging of his career yet. He credits a full roster of figurative and literal family as his supporting cast.
“The staff and the trainers,” he mentioned on the practical guidance front. Among moral support MVPs, he said, “my wife and my mom were two really big ones.”
Back for 14 intercollegiate games plus two contests with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Walker mustered a point-per-game pace after his return.
As a freshman, Walker became the first NCAA-era Sun Devil to eclipse 10 tallies, totaling 17. He then put up the program’s only two 20-goal campaigns, including a career-high 23 in 2018-19.
As Walker goes in the goal column, so goes ASU under the win column. The Sun Devils broke the 20-victory mark in 2018-19 and 2019-20, garnering that first national tournament bid and a presumptive passport to 2020’s COVID-cancelled dance.
Their follow-up attempt met its match through misfortunes to Walker’s knee and frequent flight and bus legs for all. ASU dipped to 7-16-3 for its second single-digit victory run in five full-time NCAA seasons.
That was no way for Walker to finish his time in Tempe.
The outlook for 2021-22 is looking significantly brighter in The Valley of the Sun. The Sun Devils will reportedly host 18 games, possibly 20, in 2021-22. The fans who make ASU, in Walker’s words, “a very home-generated team” might cram their compact barn once again.
Walker will balance that schedule with graduate courses, following a handful of teammates to a master’s in sports business law. That offering, in tandem with the NCAA’s allowance of an extra year, has Walker happy to be sticking around.
“A big one is being able to be part of this program for another year,” he said of his reasons for staying a student-athlete. “Definitely looking forward to a rebound.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo from Arizona State University Athletics