Twenty years ago, Oregon began its 1994 “Cinderella Season” quest for its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1958. Picked no higher than 8th place in the Pac-10 preseason poll, Oregon stepped up its game to prove to naysayers that the team could compete on a national level. Particularly known for its defense that season (aka: the dominant and iconic “Gang Green” Defense), Oregon had many athletic defenders. One standout in particular was arguably the most gifted athlete that year, and one who has been credited by former team mates as the only athlete on that team comparable to all of today’s four/five-star athletes on Oregon’s roster. Please welcome the long-lost Gang Green stalwart, Isaac Walker.
EARLY DAYS AT OREGON:
Walker came to Oregon in 1991 from Dominguez High School in Compton, California. A true standout athlete, Walker was capable of playing nearly any position. Oregon, which now recruits top athletes regularly, had arguably its best athlete of that era in Walker, who would have started at any school and was highly recruited by many. Walker redshirted his freshman year in 1991, but was a scout team standout.
Q. WHAT SCHOOLS WERE RECRUITING YOU, AND WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BE A DUCK?
A. ”Many. UCLA, Washington, Washington State, Illinois, UTEP, San Diego State, Hawaii, Colorado, Nebraska. I was actually on a trip to WSU one weekend, when Oregon slid a visit in. Oregon actually said, ‘We’ll fly you from Oregon to Washington State!’ Took that trip and fell in love with the people and environment. Brotherhood was also amazing. Even though Oregon wasn’t the No. 1 team back then, I wanted to go somewhere I could make a difference. Also, Colorado (coming off a national title) wanted me to play RB; I didn’t want to play offense, thinking my NFL career would be longer on defense!”
Q. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR FIRST GAMEDAY EXPERIENCE?
A. ”Was a night game against (nationally ranked) USC at home and under the lights. (Was on national TV, rare for Oregon at the time.) I was redshirting, so did not suit up, therefore getting to walk to the game on own time; walked from campus with other freshman team mates. Remember Chad Cota making huge hit on USC RB and thinking, ‘WHOA!'”
Only fierce competition and depth prevented Walker from shining immediately in 1992, with huge names such as Alex Molden and Herman O’Berry a class ahead of him. In 1993, Walker started only seven games (splitting time with O’Berry, LaMont Woods and Brian Collins, yet he managed to post astounding statistics with 48 unassisted tackles, 64 total tackles, 10 deflections and one interception!
Q. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR FIRST GAME ON THE FIELD?
A. “Got penalized for blocking by clipping on a special teams block. I was so hyped and ready to go on punt return; I was blocking for Ronnie Harris, and I just hit him in the back! 15 yards; I just was young and wanted to hit someone. Freshman year, just did a lot of special teams. Also, was often on special teams kickoff squad and didn’t make many tackles (given Tommy Thompson would boot those touchbacks), but a couple team mates and I would try to run into the end zone on every kickoff to get airtime! That was my first-year experience, those two seconds of fame!”
Q. DESCRIBE THE TEAM CHEMISTRY.
A. ”Team chemistry was different each year (and different to start from where I come from). We had fun. D-Backs, we all got along. I guess you can say, we didn’t really believe in ourselves at first, for whatever reason. It changed before 1994; as there was no way we shouldn’t have been good sooner — but the chemistry wasn’t there. We just wanted to win, and you do whatever it takes. We started to work it that way — no matter what class you’re in, contribute and let’s win!
“I was redshirting. Just the energy the coaches had going into the Civil War, they had some insecurities. They didn’t put enough efforts into wanting to be at the other teams from what I saw. They were pumped up only about the Civil War, but I felt we should have been for every game. I found out later the next year that we did have some insecurities: as a team, there were times team mates would think we may not have been good enough to go to the other schools. I preached I came to Oregon because I wanted to go to Oregon. It’s a different mindset you must have. Team mates and myself had to change the mindset of the whole program, and that was hard. Even joking was a part of strategy. I had to lighten up the locker room; work to make things happy. The mentality had to change.” (It would, following the 1-2 start in 1994.)
CAREER AS AN UPPERCLASSMAN:
Walker was a huge standout during the 1994 season, surprisingly a top defender as only a reserve. Molden started every game at left cornerback, and only injuries prevented senior All-American O’Berry from doing the same. The junior Walker shared time with freshman Kenny Wheaton in O’Berry’s absence. Walker recalls,“We didn’t care about tradition, we came to LA with a chip on our shoulders. They all thought at USC it would be a stat game, we didn’t appreciate that, and were in it to show we were no pushover.”
Instead, it was a stat game for Oregon! In the memorable 22-7 upset of Mighty Troy in the LA Colesium; Gang Green made an astounding nine sacks and allowed 31 net yards rushing. Without O’Berry, Wheaton and Walker strongly made their presence felt – and Walker made it stick late in the game. With USC attempting to come from behind in Oregon territory, Walker came through for Oregon on a specially-designed safety-blitz to make the ninth and final sack of the day, and put USC out of scoring range to prevent another Trojan score.
Two games later, Walker made another huge difference in O’Berry’s absence in a stalwart defensive effort (allowing only 43 yards rushing) in a win over California, 23-7. Oregon went on to make its famous run for the roses by winning the final six games, and Walker played a leading role as a reserve in the hard-won Civil War against the Beavers’ dominant wishbone offense. Walker finished the year with 31 tackles and five deflected passes, not to mention one of the year’s best individual efforts to prevent a Penn State special teams kickoff return for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl.
SENIOR STARTER/SWITCH TO SAFETY:
Fully loaded with All-American Molden at left corner and the amazing Wheaton on the right; incoming 1995 Defensive Coordinator Charlie Waters was wise enough to not waste Walker’s talent as a backup CB. Rather, Waters wisely moved Walker to safety (where both 1994 starters Chad Cota and Jeff Sherman had departed). There, Walker was very successful at the free safety spot, starting every game that year and helping Gang Green continue one final year.
To begin 1995 and the Mike Bellotti era, Oregon opened at Utah. Walker had a career night helping the Ducks to a a 27-20 victory, after trailing 17-7 at the half. The following week in a home opener over Illinois, Oregon greatly struggled on offense. However, eliminating any doubt about the residual effect from the tough-minded 1994 squad, Walker and company kept Oregon in the game until the end to come behind from three times, and the defense scored the final touchdown as an exclamation point in a tight 34-31 victory.
Walker played another huge role in the famous goal line stand at UCLA the following week in a 38-31 victory. Walker’s greatest individual performance was likely against Washington State in mid-season, where he made an outstanding and much-deserved 82-yard interception return for a touchdown, a reflection of his senior leadership and veteran status.
Oregon went on to have another great year, finishing 9-3. Walker finished strongly in fourth place defensively, with 707 plays, 58 tackles, two huge sacks and the pick-six. In a late-season game at Arizona, Oregon rallied from a 10-0 deficit to win 17-13, with Gang Green making another goal line stand. Walker also played a key role in an interception by team mate Brian Collins by pressuring the Arizona QB on a safety-blitz to cause an errant throw.
After UO, Walker was unable to utilize his talents in the NFL, but pursued other passions in many ways. He went into the entertainment business by doing commercials, having a cousin as an agent to get TV time. He married in 2000 and worked non-profit for a time, before taking teaching classes.
WHERE IS HE NOW?:
Walker is back in Los Angeles as head of a family of four. He works as the senior director of the Sheikh Community Center in Compton, a non-profit organization and center for at-risk kids. “Life is grand, I am blessed with a family.”
FINAL MESSAGE TO THE FANS:
“Make sure you don’t be obnoxious! Show good sportsmanship, and don’t be disrespectful. Oregon needs to prove it has a good fan base — so don’t throw stuff, don’t fight other teams’ fans, and don’t get physical or arrogant. Just continue to be good fans to our team and other teams, and continue to cheer Oregon through all the ups and downs to come.”
Main photo by John Guistina