By Craig Dekshenieks (Reprinted from Life University's website with permission)
Tighthead props in rugby are kind of like right guards in football - they do all the heavy lifting in the trenches and are vital to a team's success, but you rarely hear their names. Life University's Zach Walker is the tighthead prop on the undergrad team, and while some of the other guys on the team may get many of the headlines for scoring tries and receiving awards, Walker is quietly getting noticed and don't be surprised if you hear his name a lot more in the future.
Like most unsung heroes, Walker is a humble young man who wears an easy-going smile and walks to and from class like any other college student. If you see him in the weight room or the rugby pitch however, you would see him in a totally different light. And you definitely would not want to be on the other side of the scrum from him.
The 6'2", 250-pound Business Administration student from Marietta's Lassiter High School has always been on the radar of the people who matter, namely the Life U coaching staff, as well as the US national team coaches.
"I've been looked at for the U18s and the U20s," says Walker. "And I did play on the USA South All-Star U20s a couple of years ago."
In other words, he's been close, but has not quite reached the top level just yet.
In 2013 Walker had a banner year in terms of recognition, being invited to the senior US National Team camp in April that was hosted on the Life campus.
"That was a real eye-opener for me," he recalls. "Going up against guys like Mike MacDonald, showed me how far I have to go to reach that next level."
As the camp came right in the middle of Life U's run to the D1A National Championship, the experience was invaluable as Walker helped to anchor Life's front row in the scrum and on defense.
As the undergrad season finished in May, Walker was also invited to the collegiate All-American camp that would name 30 players who would travel to New Zealand.
Walker just missed out on the trip. Upon reflection, Walker says, "that was one of the most disappointing moments of my life. Spending five hours on a plane traveling in the opposite direction from where I wanted to be going … it was a long trip home."
During that seemingly interminable flight, Walker got out a notebook and pen and starting writing down his goals for the coming year - team goals, individual rugby goals and personal goals. We may never know what was written in that notebook, but one thing is for certain: he is working harder than ever before, and once again he's getting noticed.
"Zach has shown incredible work ethic and desire since then end of last season," says Life U's Director of Rugby Dan Payne. "It is obvious, every single day, that he is a man on a mission. I think his disappointments from last year have fueled his efforts, which is great for us and will be great for him too."
In recognition of this hard work and exhibition of character, Payne is rewarding Walker with a unique opportunity to be the first, of what will hopefully be a long-term, exchange program with New Zealand. Walker will leave immediately after the 2014 season for North Otago, southwest of Christchurch.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity," says Walker. "I'll play something like 16 matches over 10 weeks, at a higher level than anything we have in the United States."
Says Payne, "The rugby experience as well as the life experience he will gain from this opportunity will be great for Zach. It will give him the much-needed experience at a higher level than we have here in the States."
Hopes are that such experience will enhance his development for higher levels of play in the future.
As for the future, only time will tell. Walker has plans for getting an MBA or perhaps even a law degree, but until that comes to pass, he wants to keep playing rugby.
As Payne says, "Zach still has a lot of years of rugby ahead of him."