The other Navy players like to tell senior receiver Mark Walker that he’s on his last legs.
Joking with Walker up until it’s time to work again is what they do. It’s what he’s become through four years of change. But, it’s not completely accurate.
Walker, who enters his last career game with 490 yards on 33 catches, isn’t on his last legs. He’s on new ones.
Navy receivers coach Mick Yokitis acquired a talented, speedy wideout — and “an unfinished product.”
“For us, we’re going to get to see what Mark did as a freshman and get to see a guy that really grew up,” Yokitis said. “Which, to me, this is a place that’s about development and growth. And this kid’s grown a lot from freshman to senior year.”
Coming as a star receiver from St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, Walker made his statement as a potential key player for the Midshipmen as a sophomore. He started five games and led Navy Navy with 13 receptions for 175 yards.
His coming out moment arrived at Tulane when Walker nabbed a 44-yard pass from quarterback Dalen Morris led to a touchdown, driving the biggest comeback in Navy football history.
“And I thought I’m pretty cool. I played pretty well,” Walker said. “And then we get in the meeting room and I got four loafs, and I’m getting yelled at for not playing hard enough.”
Loafs are when a coach believes one of his guys did not play hard enough until the whistle, an idea spawned by former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and his staff. And that moment helped catalyze a change in Walker. Memories of standing in high school and watching a play that didn’t come to him just felt cold and wrong.
“The other dude on the other side of the field is trying to do something big. Your job is so much more important now. You can’t be selfish and do what you want to do,” Walker said. “Understanding you still have a lot to play for, for your brothers that came before me and the younger guys that are watching me play.”
Walker’s dreams of flashy receptions morphed down to small moments — making a big block and allowing his teammate to slip into open field for a long gain. That’s what satisfies him now because it meant someone else succeeded. Hamstring issues curbed his speed, too, forcing Walker to focus on the technical side of routes and see the field better.
That transformation in Walker is evident in practice, and the younger players notice.
“He’s leading by example, working his butt off in practice by doing the things that the normal person is not going to see,” Yokitis said. “To me, that is critical to our success.”
Sophomore wide receiver Kroy Myers fell under Walker’s wing. The North Point graduate switched from slotback to receiver this fall and was struck by how all-encompassing Walker’s style was.
“Mark is the one that’s going to get things done on the field, that makes sure everybody knows their role,” Myers said.
Walker is the first to admit that when he arrived at the Naval Academy four years ago, he was immature and prone to “making dumb mistakes on the football field.” Navy strength and conditioning coach Bryan Fitzpatrick told him, someone is always watching what you do. Walker operated that way for the next four years. With someone like Myers, he tries to instill a big lesson he learned: the bigger picture is more important than an amazing catch.
“Mark is the embodiment of learning from his mistakes. You learn from Mark’s mistakes,” Myers said. “Mark is the one who went through all the hardships. If you talk to him, he’ll give you a good conversation on what you shouldn’t do.”
To the younger players, Walker provides the balance of hard work and levity needed, not only in a strenuous college football practice, but in a demanding place like the Naval Academy. The younger players feel the stress lift when he jokes with them, and they joke right back. It grounds you, Myers said, clears your vision in a place that elevates intensity very quickly.
A person like that needs someone else to ease their burden. And for Walker, that’s former St. Peter’s Prep teammate and current Navy senior quarterback Maasai Maynor.
Seven years ago, Maynor piled up hours in his basement losing to the new receiver at his school in video games. Their bond deepened going over routes on the field next door. Walker helped Maynor with his homework. And when each committed to the Naval Academy, they dreamed of the Commander-in-Chief’s trophies they’d win together, passes they’d connect on.
But that’s not what they truly were to each other in Annapolis. When pandemic hit in 2020, Walker quarantined with Maynor. They rode ups and downs through that difficult year, and into junior and senior seasons. All they need is a look, Walker said, to know it’s time to sit in a room together and talk.
Without Maynor, Walker knows he would not still be a midshipman.
“We’ve been through a lot of hard times at the academy,” said Maynor, who will go on to the Marine Corps with Walker soon. “Being able to share that in common is pretty big.”
Pride and excitement rushed through Maynor a month ago at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Navy trailed Notre Dame by 19 in the fourth quarter. Then, quarterback Xavier Arline’s pass crossed 23 yards into Walker’s hands in the end zone. Though the Mids fell three points short against the Fighting Irish, Walker’s touchdown nearly sparked a comeback.
“I don’t think there’s a moment too big for him,” Yokitis said.
Walker’s postgame review of his Notre Dame performance was admittedly more positive than his four-loaf wake-up call after that 2020 game at Tulane. But applause isn’t what he’s looking for anymore. Such is the mindset he carries, in every game, in his final game against Army this weekend — and in his next five years (and he expects more beyond that) as a Marine.
“We don’t like moral victories,” he said. “We want to win games.”