Kicking around the past, Notre Dame's Shane Walton has no regrets
Shane Walton is back playing soccer, again at age 36.
For fun only, though, not to resurrect an abandoned dream.
“I’ve definitely wondered at times where that sport could have taken me,” said Walton, back living and working in the San Diego area where he grew up. “With Copa América going on this year and the Olympics coming up, I’ve thought about it even more.
“But I was very blessed in doing what I did at Notre Dame. If I could go back and maybe change the decision, I’d make the same decision that I did.
“I loved it. I really grew from it. I met a lot of incredible people, and my life has been shaped by that decision. So I don’t look back and wish for something different.”
What remains most pronounced in the rear-view mirror is a splendorous college football career that no one saw coming, and the brash change of direction that launched it, all culminated by an All-America season at cornerback for Walton as a fifth-year senior in 2002.
Since that season, one in which Walton was a consensus first-team pick and fellow cornerback Vontez Duff was an Associated Press third-team selection, no Notre Dame cornerback has ascended to All-America status.
The only lengthier position All-America droughts for the Irish have come at offensive guard (Mike Gandy, 2000) and running back (Autry Denson, 1998).
In front of Walton is a career as a behavioral analyst and vice president of Families In Training and Organizations In Training, twin companies that work with different demographics — one the affluent and the other the underprivileged.
“We’re basically teaching kids how to think, act, feel and desire differently," Walton said. “We teach everything, so you’ll be able to ask the question, why? Why do I behave like this? Why do I do this?
“And we will go to the core, and you’ll understand why. It’s a lot of self-development, like personal development, personal growth. We go to the root cause why anyone is the way they are.”
The why behind Walton’s unlikely rise in football started with pushing away a burgeoning college soccer experience, along with an athletic scholarship, and being willing to be a walk-on until he could convince then-Irish football coach Bob Davie that he was a worthy investment.
That at first seemed improbable, given that Davie initially thought Walton was a wannabe kicker.
“I couldn’t have been one even if I wanted to,” Walton said with a laugh. “For me, it was a way different kind of kicking.”
The kicking Walton did in soccer in 1998 was good enough to earn second-team All-Big East Conference status as a freshman and the distinction of being Notre Dame’s leading scorer, with 10 goals and seven assists. The late ND men’s soccer coach Mike Berticelli was convinced Walton would evolve into an All-American in that sport.
Walton did show off his football chops at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif., as a wide receiver/punt returner. He just couldn’t get the FBS recruiters to buy into the notion his big numbers in California’s smallest enrollment class would hold up on the major-college level.
The one exception in the sea of skepticism was Jim Colletto, ND’s offensive coordinator under Davie in 1997 and ’98.
When Walton first approached the coaching staff about a football tryout, Colletto remembered seeing him on film, though quite accidentally, as the coach was scouting Walton’s opponents and turned out being impressed by him.
They never actually got to spend a season together, as Colletto left to be the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line coach less than a month into Walton’s first winter workouts with the football team, but the coach put in a good word with Davie before parachuting out.
A little over a year later, Walton got an interception against No. 1 Nebraska in career start No. 2. A week later, he picked off Drew Brees and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown in a 23-21 upending of Purdue.
Two seasons after that, Walton, converted running back Duff, and safeties Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl set the standard for secondary play in the post-Holtz Era (1997-present) that endures today.
Not only did they finish 10th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense and 13th in total defense, they propped up an anemic Irish offense (108th nationally) with nine defensive/special teams touchdowns and kept the Irish (10-3) nationally relevant until a late-season collapse.
“There’s a common goal and a mission, and everyone’s on board to do their part,” Walton said of the back end of the 2002 defense. “In the moment, you don’t look at it as, ‘We’re setting a precedent for what a Notre Dame secondary should look like.’
“We definitely knew we felt disrespected in that we weren’t getting our rightful due. Every time we strapped it up, our goal was to go out and dominate the opposing offenses and dictate our will on them.”
Walton brings the same kind of passion, in current times, to his work with families.
“I'm definitely blessed with the ability of discernment,” Walton said about what nudged him in this direction after a fleeting NFL career. “I always knew something about people. I could tell something about them.
“But also I really honed my skill of learning how to empathize and inspire hope and instill hope in people. Now I think I had that when I was playing, just not to the level I am now. I really had to hone my craft and make sure I do it in the most efficient and effective and productive way.”
Football is also still a part of Walton’s present. He’s the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at his high school alma mater.
He’s also a big Notre Dame football fan, watching every game from a distance and believing fellow former All-America cornerback Todd Lyght is the right man to help ND start producing elite secondary players and units again.
Walton is particularly intrigued by heretofore enigmatic senior safety and fellow Californian Max Redfield.
“I think it’s getting him to be a more consistent player, but the potential is tremendous,” Walton said. ”He has the ability to be an incredible linchpin on that defense.”
His escape? Soccer, of course.
“I’m playing with buddies who I grew up playing with since I was 9 years old,” Walton said. “So there’s probably about five or six of us who have been playing together for like the last 25 years.
“We practice once a week and have a game on Sundays. I get exercise and connect with my buddies and keep relationships alive. That’s definitely a lot of fun for me.”
The only thing missing from his ND soccer days is South Bend’s blustery fall climate.
“Going to South Bend was eye-opening for me,” he said. “I had been in San Diego my entire life, and I wanted to experience something different.
“I do miss seeing the snow. I just don’t miss living in it.”