FORT MILL — Its not every day that Vance Walker comes home to Fort Mill, but when he does, he can usually slip under the radar.
But not Saturday.
Walker, who says he tries to get back to the area every few months, was in town as the official starter for a 5K to raise money for sports at Fort Mill Middle School, the same school Walker attended that started him on his path to becoming a defensive tackle in the NFL.
Walker was greeted with smiles and hugs at the event, held at Walter Elisa Park. Children ran up to the meet the Kansas City Chiefs player and in the process were dwarfed by his 305 pound, 6-foot, 2-inch frame.
Friends and former Fort Mill High School teammates came out to catch up with Walker. Strangers wanted their picture taken with a famous NFL player.
But Walker doesnt see his job as an NFL player as others might look at it.
I dont feel like some superstar athlete, he said. I feel like somebody that used to play at this (Walter Elisa) park with my friends, playing ultimate Frisbee or what not. This is where I grew up. Im just a little bit older.
Walker noticed how Fort Mill has grown from a small mill town to one that doubled its size in land mass and population since he left. And he doesnt think of all the growth as bad, remembering back to his days as a teenager driving around town.
I think the changes are good. They put a bridge (on Hwy. 21) over to Rock Hill and made it bigger, so I dont have to hit the wall anymore, he joked.
But that doesnt mean Walkers on board with all the changes, particularly adding a second high school, Nation Ford, in 2007.
I dont personally care for splitting the (Fort Mill) high school, but its growing, so its not too big of a surprise, he said. I guess that is good for the city. Fort Mill has always been a beautiful city. I have traveled a lot of places playing in the NFL and college and Fort Mill and Charlotte has always been one of the best cities I have ever had the pleasure of living in and being here. I like it. People are always friendly and down to earth. I think its a great place.
With all of his travels, Walker said Fort Mill offers things that not every city does and there are things he misses about his hometown.
The scenery and laid back atmosphere, he said. Its something about hanging out at the park or hanging out with your friends. There is just something about relaxing and you cant do that in a lot of places. Its something I personally enjoy, just coming back and being outside.
A 2005 graduate of Fort Mill High, Walker played college football at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He was drafted into the NFL in 2009 by the Atlanta Falcons and remains a resident of Atlanta despite playing for the Oakland Raiders in 2013 and joining K.C. this year.
In the off-season, he signed a three-year, $13 million deal with the Chiefs. His time in Oakland was short, but he knew it probably would be.
We knew it was a one-year deal, he said. They needed me and I needed them. And things didnt work out. I believe everything happens for a reason. I am excited to be with the Chiefs.
Entering his sixth season in the NFL, Walker is a veteran player, even at 26. Walker said his time in Atlanta taught him a lot about the business.
I had a lot of good older vets around me with the Falcons and they taught me a lot of things about the NFL and life in general, he said. The biggest thing I took away is work. But work is fun. Im blessed to say work is fun. Its surreal. I look back at myself and realize that its been five years and Im getting old.
Despite his jokes of being an old 26, Walker has remained healthy in the NFL, a rarity in todays league where injuries and concussions are a weekly occurrence for players. He attributes a lot of his health to his work habits in the off season.
I can recall being a rookie and Im like. I dont know if I can do this. Its so tough, both tough and physically demanding, and mentally as well. Its just one of those things you have to decide that it something you can do and want to do, he said. And the biggest thing I have learned is that not only do you work during the season, but during the off season.
And because of his opportunity with Kansas City and his relative good health, Walker said he is ready to take things to another level professionally.
The AFC West is a good conference to play in and I have been waiting year after year for my time and I have a lot of patience. And its a good thing, because in the league you dont always know when you will get your opportunity, he said. I have been blessed to say I have been doing it for long time and Im just getting started. Im looking forward to it.