Walls rises above

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

Gavin Walls has a date with destiny this week. A destiny some would say he has no business meeting.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end is the odds-on favourite to be named the CFL's most outstanding rookie at a televised awards gala in Vancouver tomorrow night.

The thing is, if you'd checked in with Walls during his childhood in Hampton, Va., you'd never have predicted he'd wind up here, at 25, wearing a tuxedo and making an acceptance speech as a pro football player.

Not that Walls wasn't talented.

It's just that when the man who's supposed to be the main role model in your life is behind bars, well, let's just say the odds aren't necessarily in your favour.

"I never had a dad growing up," Walls told the Sun. "He's been incarcerated in a New York prison all my life."

* * *

Bertha Williams knew her son was better off without his father, a man she'd been estranged from for years.

So when she found out her boy, 10 or 11 at the time, was out playing on the street in a bad part of town, supposedly in the care of his dad one weekend, she drove straight over and brought Gavin home.

That was the last time Walls saw his father.

"Next thing we knew, he was in prison," Williams said from her current home in Holly Springs, Miss. "That's where he's been, as far as I know, ever since."

Walls, though, didn't follow in his dad's footsteps. Although there was trouble beckoning all around him, he avoided following the path taken by many of his friends.

Walls credits three things.

"My mom. Family. God," he said. "There's only a few things in life that people live for."

And football, of course.

A year or two after his dad chose a life of crime in New York, Walls chose to become a football player.

Then came the tough part: selling his mother on it.

"Of course, I didn't want him to play," Williams said. "I told him it was too rough. His auntie, my sister, kind of convinced me to let him go ahead and play. And he's been playing it ever since."

Playing defensive end, running back and receiver, Walls became a high school star, eventually turning the game into his ticket out of Hampton.

While some of his friends were getting into serious trouble, he was earning scholarships, first to a community college in Kansas, then, when his grades improved, to the University of Arkansas.

It seems Walls had put the shadow of his father behind him, for good.

"I got over that hump over the years, when I decided to go to college," he said.

Actually, there would be one more attempt at connecting with his father.

It was just a few years ago, and Walls' dad was just out of prison, in a safe home, when the two spoke by phone.

"We were trying to build some type of, I guess, over-the-phone relationship," Walls recalled. "A friendship, that's all it felt like."

A friendship based on an agreement that saw a father promise his son he'd turn his life around.

"He got locked back up again," Walls said. "He broke a promise to me. It's something I've got to live with."

* * *

Some people use hard-luck circumstances as a crutch, an excuse to fail.

Walls used his as inspiration.

If people didn't expect much from him, well, he'd show them.

Over the years, having no father has become second nature.

"It's just something you learn to deal with," Walls said. "Like a person who has no arm or no leg. After a while ... it's not something you think about every day."

Especially when you've got a football career to build.

A little small to be drafted (6-foot-2, 235 pounds), Walls landed a free-agent tryout with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings right after college. That led to a season (2004) in NFL Europe.

This past year, he took a flyer on a place called Winnipeg.

Playing three-down football for the first time, Walls quickly made a name for himself as one of the CFL's top pass rushers.

Named lineman of the week four times, he finished tied for second in the league with 12 quarterback sacks, made 40 tackles, knocked down four passes and added two touchdowns.

If that's not top rookie material, nothing is.

Walls will find out for sure tomorrow night, and his mom will be in Vancouver to see it.

"Considering all, he did pretty good," Williams said. "I'm proud of him."

And his speech, should he win the award?

"Oh, man, I don't know if I have a speech," Walls said. "I know a few topics ... things that helped me get to where I'm at. I don't know too much about a speech. The last time I did a speech, I might have got a C in it. Or a D. But I didn't ace it."

That's OK.

Destiny doesn't ask to see your report card.


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