Josh Walker all but accepted the fact that he had competed for the last time.
He was two years removed from his last college match. Walker still clung to hope for one more shot while he went on with life as a roofer in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla.
Opportunity came calling when Upper Iowa Coach Heath Grimm was encouraged to contact the two-time NJCAA All-American.
“I was just working a job,” said Walker, listed as a redshirt junior. “It was something that was weighing on my mind every day and I said yes. I was on board.”
Walker has capitalized on the chance, joining the Peacocks for the second semester and earning a berth to the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships this Friday and Saturday at Birmingham, Ala. Walker, ranked 11th by d2wrestle.com, owns a 13-6 record and opens with Wheeling Jesuit’s No. 9 Dustin Warner (19-2) in the first round at 133 pounds.
“He’s been a welcome addition,” Grimm said. “He was looking for an opportunity. It was perfect timing.”
Walker already owned an impressive resume. He was a three-time state champion and four-time finalist for Union High School in Tulsa. He placed third at 125 for Labette (Kan.) Community College in 2013. Walker was a national runner-up at 125 for Northeast Oklahoma A&M the following year.
Then, Walker was forced to exchange college wrestling for the real world. It was tough on him, but that changed one memorable day.
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Walker recalled the day he first heard from Grimm. He was at a home in the “middle of nowhere” when he saw a man struggling to walk up a hill. The man suffered a flat tire on his bike, so Walker decided to assist him. In a karma-like chain of events, his good deed was rewarded with an offer to return to the sport he loved.
“To tell you the truth, I was trying to get through the days by making the best out of it,” Walker said. “It was only five seconds after I dropped the guy off that the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it because it was a foreign number … it was almost a gift from God.”
Grimm actually had his eye on a different recruit, networking some old wrestling contacts. Then, he received a suggestion to consider Walker. Grimm knew Northeast Oklahoma A&M Coach Joe Renfro and followed up on the tip.
“We needed help at 133,” Grimm said. “He didn’t want to end on a loss (and) wanted to continue his career.”
Walker said he finalized the deal and walked into the roofing company office to deliver the news. He received a lot of support, knowing this could be his last shot to compete.
“They were hands down supportive,” Walker said. “They said get out of here. Go do what you need to do.”
So he loaded up and drove to Miami, Okla. He slept on a spare bed in a tiny dorm room with a former teammate. Walker also trained with the Golden Norsemen for as much as he could for three weeks. Then, the 23-year-old’s road landed him in Fayette on Dec. 28. Just in time for a new start to a new year.
His first competition came at the National Wrestling Coaches Association Multi-Divisional Duals on Jan. 5-6. He finished 2-2 and realized that he had to make gains physically. Walker had to improve his conditioning.
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“Everybody is tough and nobody I’ve wrestled has been a cakewalk,” Walker said. “Taking two years off is never good. I’ve been able to rebound and I think I’m right up there.”
Grimm said he would have been friends with Walker, if they had been teammates. They share the same intensity and passion for success.
“He runs pretty hot,” Grimm said. “He is a competitor. He’s been a wrestler all his life. He’s not going to sell himself short.”
Walker qualified with a fourth-place regional finish, avenging losses and defeating Lindenwood’s third-ranked Hunter Haralson and two-time All-American Dakota Bauer of Maryville (Mo.).
Walker was determined to reach the national tournament, so he wasn’t surprised when he kept his national title and All-American aspirations alive. The sky is the limit for someone working on rooftops.
“It was a special moment,” Walker said. “It was something I expected.
“I’ve come a long way. We’ll have to see how it ends up.”
Walker’s three Upper Iowa teammates are making their second trips to the national tournament.
Maleek Williams (125) is making his second straight appearance, going 0-2 last year. Heavyweight Logan Hopp returns after a year hiatus. He qualified in 2015, winning one match but missing the podium. Jordan Roths (141) qualified for the first since 2014. He will try to improve his 1-2 mark there three years ago.
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