The enigmatic tackle says he learned how to be a professional from sitting on the sideline.
By ROGER MILLS
Published October 22, 2004
TAMPA - He is the man many found easy to hate.
The man who lost his starting position and darned near threw away his job because he didn't play well and didn't take kindly to being told so.
Through 2003, things were so tenuous for Kenyatta Walker that hometown fans routinely booed him, and the Bucs paid a lot of money to replace him.
Now, four years into a career that bubbled with promise before boiling over with problems, Walker is beginning anew, having regained the starting job at right tackle by outplaying veteran Todd Steussie.
"Once something is taken from you, the reality sets in that nothing is given to you," Walker said. "Then, as a professional, you know you have to earn everything, every game, every practice for every year. It's a respect thing. Sitting back and watching, I was able to realize what my mistakes were and how I needed to be a professional."
Walker and the Bucs are hoping that the silly penalties, avoidable sacks and sulking attitude are in the past.
It seems the 25-year-old former Gator is a better man, a better player.
"It speaks volumes for him, particularly any time someone identifies something they want badly enough that they'll do whatever they have to do," offensive line coach Bill Muir said. "I think that's what he's doing. But the thing you might miss is to write this as a conclusion to the story. It's an on-going story. I think he realized that he missed being a player and being in the spotlight, and now he's earned the right to be back there. The lessons you learn to get there are the lessons you want to keep re-enforcing."
Like most lessons learned, Walker's came at a price.
Selected with the 14th overall pick in the 2001 draft - a pick the Bucs traded up to gain - Walker began his career shouldering a heavy burden. A right tackle, he was moved to the left side.
He started all 16 games but struggled to make the adjustment. By the end of 2001, the Bucs had seen enough, brought in left tackle Roman Oben and moved Walker back to right.
Though not perfect, Walker made strides on the right and was a critical part of an offensive line that gave up one sack through the playoff run to the Super Bowl.
But in 2003, Walker's game began slipping as he struggled with penalties and bad play. He never seemed right.
"It isn't something you put on automatic pilot because you have talent," Muir said. "People might not understand the analogy, but it's no different to an electrician, bricklayer or a writer. You have to work at your craft, the fact that (a writer) wrote a great article last week doesn't necessarily mean he'll write another good one this week. It's an on-going process."
The Bucs didn't like where things were going. They identified the offensive line as a major area of concern, benched Walker and gave Steussie a four-year, $20-million deal with a $4-million signing bonus. There even were offseason rumblings that the Bucs were entertaining trade offers for Walker.
Right guard and close friend Cosey Coleman said Walker faced the disappointment with the proper attitude.
"You have to think about the team, but you also have to think about yourself and that's the reality of this league," Coleman said. "If you're in a (bad situation), when you go out to work, you're selling yourself. You're promoting yourself. When things weren't going in his favor, he didn't let himself fall apart or fall into a funk."
Coleman said Walker was responsible for the turnaround. He stopped complaining and focused his attention on getting better.
"Ultimately, you're your own boss," he said. "You have to look at it as you're running your own business. This league is corporate but we're all individual franchises, and when stuff got bad, Kenyatta could have folded. He could have done a lot of things. But he didn't give up on his business."
The Bucs, who now have the luxury of a $4-million backup, said Walker also benefited from having veterans like Steussie and left tackle Derrick Deese around.
"The smart man takes advantage of the resources he has around him, those who have not only been in the league a long time but have been very good players a long time," Muir said. "You're dumb if you don't take advantage of those resources."
Back in the starting lineup, Walker said his focus is to keep improving and prove he's worthy of the spot.
"Everyone's going to mess up," Walker said. "I'm not going to sit there and say I'll never get another penalty or never make another mistake. But the next play, I won't mess up. I'm trying to be a better player. I'm not perfect, but I'm growing as a player. I'm understanding the man's world I'm in, the business I'm in and I'm trying to be the best I can be."
That, Muir said, is a key ingredient in Walker's maturation.
"You either get better or worse, you don't stay the same in this business," Muir said. "If you're satisfied with where you are, you'll begin to slide, maybe subtly, but you'll begin to slide ... A true professional is never really satisfied."