Middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. grew up in Miami, played at Northwestern University, was drafted by the Colts in the fifth round in 2017 and started 48 games in four years. He signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Browns as a free agent in March.
He recently sat down with Scott Petrak, a fellow Northwestern alum and The Chronicle-Telegram’s Browns beat writer.
SP: How are you enjoying Cleveland?
AW: The fan base is crazy. I love it. Just hungry for wins and you want to be a part of a city, a team who’s trending in the right direction.
SP: Your film study is legendary, how much work you do. How did that start?
AW: Since I was a kid watching my dad and how much film he used to watch as a coach to prepare us for Friday nights, just kind of learned a lot from him. And me being a defender, kind of learned so much from watching how he game-plans and how he tries to attack defenses. I definitely owe a lot to my dad for that. Then obviously all my coaches since I was a kid growing up. I’ve had some really great tutors of the game, from the first head coach to Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald, to Coach Flus (Matt Eberflus) in Indy. I just had some great defensive minds that I played for and have helped me grow a lot.
SP: Flus was here for a while as linebackers coach under Eric Mangini. You could tell he’d keep rising.
AW: He was a great coach. Definitely helped take my game to the next level more than anything.
SP: You give your film notes to your teammates. Do you get a sense that not only do they appreciate it, but how much it really helps them in their preparation?
AW: Yeah, you just get in the habit of doing it. You’re not even thinking about it at that point. That was one of the first things everybody (from the Colts) texted me, “Damn, man, just going to miss the notes, all that stuff.” I just get in a rhythm of just doing it and it just becomes part of the game, part of your normal routine. So do the same thing here. So it’ll be all right.
SP: What’s it like growing up playing football in Miami? A lot of big-time guys come out of the city.
AW: You got so many guys to look up to. Like I remember when I was growing up I would watch the older guys at the park who I thought were the best football players in the world. When I got to high school, I was watching the older high school kids who I thought were the best players in the world. Then watching the University of Miami, and the ’01-02 football team where Frank Gore was a freshman running back who didn’t even touch the field. Sean Taylor was a second-year DB who wasn’t even on the field yet. So I had a lot of role models I’d say that I could model my game after growing up down there.
I remember one of my coaches when I was like 8, 9 years old was like, “Man, only one of you guys on this football team is going to make the NFL.” And I’m like, “Damn, he’s really, really good. He’s f—— awesome. This guy is great.” And I’m like the sixth-best football player on his team. So it’s like if only one of us is going to make it, it’s not going to be me. And it’s funny. So I always go back to that conversation and he always would say, “It’s not going to be the best, it’s not going to be the fastest. It’s going to be the guy who was the most consistent.” And just understanding that and putting the work in, it makes you appreciate it a lot more.
You know the talent that comes from there, so to be one of the guys that make it, it’s very, very surreal, I’d say. Just knowing that how much talent it is and how much talent that I played with, against, guys that came before me and I’m like, man, I’m on this level where I can name at least 20 guys that should easily be playing NFL football with the talent. But this game is so funny, the way it works out all the time. A lot of things have to go your way, a lot of hard work, all that stuff. It makes you appreciate the game a lot more.
SP: So was there a point in high school where you said I am the best player on this team?
AW: I would never say that. I played with some talented guys down there and my year alone, I was rated the No. 113 in my class and down there in Florida. So it was a lot of guys, man.
SP: Some of them are in the league, right?
AW: Not really. Yeah, it’s funny. It’s crazy how it works out. You understand how precious the game is. Growing up, you’re like, I’m a solid player, I contribute to the team. I was all-state, All-Dade County, all that stuff. I was a solid player, but you see the guys and you’re like, damn, he’s super fast, or he’s super athletic and he’s great. And he didn’t even make it, and it’s tough. Things just don’t go your way or an injury at the wrong time, little, small stuff like that. It makes you appreciate the game even more.
SP: I’ve got to ask you about Northwestern. So how did you wind up there? Was it the first school to offer a scholarship?
AW: Purdue was actually the first and then Minnesota. Northwestern, so I really, really wanted to go to Stanford. I wanna say that one of the Stanford coaches called Northwestern and told them about me. I want to say that. I think that’s what happened. But I just remember Northwestern coming and offering me. I committed that summer of my junior year, so I was committed for a very long time.
Obviously I was big on academics, my dad being the teacher and everything like that. A chance to play big-time football, Big Ten football at that point, I just ran with the opportunity. Great, great four years. Definitely learned a lot as far as obstacles, overcome obstacles, all that stuff. I didn’t even play my freshman year. Was under the radar until I stepped on the field my redshirt freshman year. Worked out for the best, drafted fifth round to Indy and I’m here now.
SP: So what’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not playing football?
AW: Probably playing “Madden.” I like to read a little bit, a lot of self-help books and everything like that, but I’m a huge “Madden” guy. A lot of that.
SP: You’ve mentioned your dad a couple of times. What’s the best part about having your dad as one of your coaches?
AW: Growing up, I saw a lot of my friends not have their dad around. So to have my dad at pretty much everything was kinda awesome. When you have a dad that is not a coach or not a teacher, or he’s a lawyer, doctor or something like that, you’re not able to have that intimate … me and my dad share football. We share the love of the game.
I talk to my dad every day on the phone and he’s not even asking me about practice, but we’re talking about concepts. My dad doesn’t even coach anymore. It’s funny, we share that so effortlessly. Anybody in our family, every time they see us together, they’re like, “Oh, they’re probably talking about football.” I’m talking about every sport though, that’s just how we are. It’s always good to have. When you share that, you share something besides that father-son relationship, you have something that you could go back to every day, and we have that relationship with pretty much everything. It’s awesome to have.
SP: Is there a bad part about having your dad for a coach?
AW: When I mess up a play, yeah. He’s definitely yelling.
SP: It was just you and your dad growing up. What was that like and how did that help you guys grow even closer?
AW: It’s just you and your dad, you grow up real fast. It’s not like that loving, that mother. And I have my mom, I’d go over there to her house and stuff, but you know, you and your dad, it’s tough love all the time. He just wants you to understand what being a man is, what life is. And I had that. So I grew up really, really fast. I had to mature really fast. And, yeah, it helped me a lot, obviously getting to college and knowing how to cook, knowing how to wash clothes, all that stuff on my own. Obviously I was on my own for a huge part of my life because my dad was there, but he’s a man. So he’s like, you’re a man, so you do your own stuff. I definitely learned and grew up really fast and it was fun.
We have that father-son but also pretty much like brother-brother relationship where we talk about pretty much any and everything. Just do everything together. So it’s funny. Most half the time I don’t even think of it like I’m talking to my dad,, I’m talking to my best friend or something like that.
SP: Will he get to come to a bunch of games?
AW: Yeah, for sure. He’ll be at Arrowhead (for the opener Sunday) for sure.
SP: We talk about all these new guys on defense. How do you feel it’s coming together?
AW: I think we had a pretty solid camp, where a lot of the guys were able to grow, understand the system, put the work in and now it’s time to push it to another level. Week 1, very tough opponent that we have to be ready for. So guys just getting mentally ready, physically ready for the season. Obviously our goal is to get 1 percent better each day. We do that, I think we’ll be fine.
SP: What do you like most about playing middle linebacker?
AW: I played quarterback before, so being the quarterback of the defense, getting the guys in the right spot, I take that job very seriously. Getting the call in, getting the communication in, just being close to the ball. I’m able to be in the middle, so I’m close to every tackle or everywhere the ball should be. From Coach Flus, he stressed the linebacker position job is to hit the ball. So when you’re in the middle, you gotta hit the ball. Wherever it is, sideline to sideline, in the middle, deep, whatever it is. So I take pride in that, and running to the ball every play.
SP: Do you expect to be on the field every play?
AW: Yeah. That’s my plan. I always play. I always have that mindset. I mean, shoot, I played both ways since I was 4 years old till I was in high school. So I love being on the field. That’s part of the game, you want to be an every-down linebacker, and that’s what I plan to be.
SP: What’s impressed you most about rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah?
AW: Oh, man, just first of all, his mindset to learn, his devotion to the game. He’s a student, he takes it very seriously. He loves the game. I tell him, you can tell if a person loves football when they’re outside of the building, and he’s always texting me questions and all that stuff. He’s locked in in this playbook, writing notes down, whatever it is for him to be successful. So he’s definitely a student of the game. He’s explosive as hell. Just freak of nature as far as movement and all that stuff. So happy to be playing next to him.
SP: I know you guys were good in Indy. I don’t know if the expectations were as big as they are here. Does it feel different with a team that people are talking Super Bowl?
AW: Yeah. Like I tell everybody, I had never been on a team this talented before. In Indy we had some good teams, there were talks of making a run and all that stuff from the outside. But here it’s literally Super Bowl and that’s it. First time having that. I’m not shying away from it obviously. That’s what you play the game for, you want to be a Super Bowl champion at the end of the day. But we understand that it’s not about the outside noise, it’s not about the talking of it. We gotta get it done. And that’s on the practice field every day, in the meeting room every day, in the walkthroughs every day. And then taking it week by week. And once that week is over with, all right, the whole new week starts and we start on Monday with meetings and meeting like Super Bowl champions and practicing like Super Bowl champions. I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect, but the mindset of this is what we’re trying to achieve.