Before he left home to get his Ivy League degree, Bryan Walters grew up in the Seattle suburbs during the 1990s. He went indoors to attend his hometown NFL team’s games under a concrete roof.
You know, back when the Seahawks seemed to maddeningly, perpetually finish seasons 8-8. When the league didn’t even have a prime-time opener for a champion to play in. And when the Super Bowl was more “yeah, right” than reality around Seattle.
“I remember growing up going to games in the Kingdome,” said Walters, now a Seahawks wide receiver and would-be punt returner. “I remember Joey Galloway, Chris Warren. That’s kind of my group there. Brian Blades was one of the receivers. That’s what I remember a lot.
“Those uniforms, you know. The lighter blue. The gray helmets. … Oh, yeah. Loved the Seahawks.”
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Walters was on his way out of Juanita High School in Kirkland when the Seahawks of Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander and Walter Jones gave Seattle its first Super Bowl appearance in the 2005 season. He still calls it “heartbreaking.”
So in February when Walters was in his Seahawks uniform, No. 19 in white, standing on the sideline at the New Jersey Meadowlands soaking in the final seconds of Seattle winning the Super Bowl — he was on the active roster but did not play in the game — he had his signature moment of four NFL seasons. And in many ways, his life.
“The Super Bowl was pretty cool, just when it ended seeing all that confetti knowing, ‘Wow, we won that first Super Bowl for the city of Seattle!’ ” Walters said. “To be from Seattle, to be such a fan, for me, that was something special.”
In seven months since he’s gone from “Oh, wow!” to “What now?”
The Seahawks kept their carousel of wide turning over the weekend by releasing Phil Bates for the second time in five days. They had waived Walters on Aug. 30 during final exhibition season cuts and then re-signed him Tuesday to its active roster after waiving Bates the first time.
Walters is the seventh of seven wide receivers on a roster that, because of nickel back Jeremy Lane’s groin injury and cornerback Tharold Simon’s minor knee surgery, needs to add depth in the defensive secondary before Sunday’s game at San Diego.
Walters played in four games with the Chargers in 2011. He is a Seahawk because of his skill and audacity returning punts and kickoffs. As long as Walters is on the roster, Seattle has a ready alternative to All-Pro safety Earl Thomas on punt returns. Thomas fumbled one away in last week’s opening win over Green Bay after teammate Richard Sherman blocked a Packer into Thomas.
Walters’ first action this season came not as the punt returner but at wide receiver late in the third quarter against the Packers. On a first-down pass, the speedy Walters broke free down the right sideline past the Green Bay 15-yard line, well past the Packer assigned to cover him. He could have scored a touchdown if quarterback Russell Wilson hadn’t been pressured into throwing the ball away.
It was the end of a whirlwind five days for the 26-year-old owner of an economics degree from Cornell.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” he said about being released on a Saturday and re-signed on a Monday. “I still don’t know. Kind of a crazy turn of events.”
He said he had multiple offers “brewing” from other NFL teams during his two-day hiatus last week. Ultimately, convenience and comfort brought him back to the Seahawks.
“A lot of was they know I can, that I am ready if I’m needed,” he said.
That’s the thing: Is he needed?
Coach Pete Carroll was asked Friday before the players got the weekend off from practice whether Thomas was still the primary punt returner.
“Sure,” Carroll said, without any of his characteristic elaboration.
It was far from iron-clad or unequivocal. And the reason Walters is on the roster isn’t because he is a most valuable seventh of seven wide receivers.
Walters fair caught the lone punt for which he was back in last week’s opener, at his own 22 with under two minutes left in the 36-16 blowout.
The competitor in Walters wants to return every punt, regardless of risk or situation.
That’s how he impressed the Seahawks with a 22-yard return and fearless dashes into charging Chargers during the second exhibition game last month.
That’s also how he badly bruised his ribs that night and missed the next week.
“I want to make all the plays back there,” he said. “At the same time, you have to be smart.”
Walters said he’s been hearing from his friends in Kirkland many variations of: “You are going to be in there! There is NO way they are have Earl Thomas back there returning punts!”
“Yeah, you hear a little bit of that,” Walters said, laughing. “But that’s out of my control. He is going to be awesome back there, too.”
So how does Walters get in the mindset to run from a dead stop head-long into a sprinting wall of opponents targeting him with a 40-plus-yard head start.
“You know, I like to think all of those guys are slower than me, though,” he said, wryly.
At Juanita High School in Kirkland, Walters was something of an athletic marvel. Put another way: How many quarterbacks also return punts?
He didn’t find Cornell as much as Cornell found him. Then-assistant coach Rod Plummer, a former linebacker at Washington State, came from upstate New York to be a visiting coach at a WSU football camp Walters attended in Pullman before his junior year at Juanita High.
“I was playing some wide receiver. I had a good camp. And the coach from Cornell said, ‘Have you ever considered the Ivy League?’ ” Walters said.
“I told myself I’d check it out. Then he flew me out and I liked it. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.”
At Cornell, he returned them from the first game of his freshman year through graduation, becoming the Ivy League’s all-time leader in punt-return yardage.
His Seattle-based agent that “has contacts,” as Walters put it, with the Seahawks’ front office got him a tryout with the team in December and he signed for the end of the 2012 season. He’s been with the Seahawks ever since — not without interruption.
Now he’s one of only two Cornell graduates to earn Super Bowl rings as a player, joining Derrick Harmon of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers. Walters is one of 15 former Ivy League players to win Super Bowl.
Sunday in San Diego, will he get the chance to return punts against his former Chargers?
“Whatever they ask me to, I’ll be ready to do,” he said. “It’s not like I’ll be shocked if they throw me — or not.”