Family and football mean everything to Ronnie Walker Jr.
When his on-field talent took him to Bloomington, Indiana, to play in the Big Ten, he knew it brought him away from his home in Hopewell, Virginia. As the pandemic hit, Walker felt the need to return closer to home.
The talented running back made the decision this offseason to transfer from Indiana to UVa to be about an hour from his mom and grandmother during the pandemic.
“That’s the No. 1 reason why I came home,” Walker said. “My grandma’s sick. I’m just going back home and helping my grandma out and my mom.”
Walker’s grandmother can’t do certain tasks, so UVa’s new backfield weapon drives down to help out when he’s not busy with class or practice. He goes grocery shopping for his grandmother weekly, and he helps with any chores in the yard that she can’t handle.
He also hoped the NCAA would grant him a waiver to play immediately for the Wahoos this fall, but the waiver process proved tiresome, perplexing and frustrating.
His first waiver application was denied. His first appeal also was denied.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall spoke with the media throughout the process, seeming unclear exactly what kept leading to the NCAA rejecting appeals.
UVa then sent in an additional appeal, and it took the NCAA weeks to respond to Virginia’s final effort.
“It seems like our urgency is more than maybe that of who we’re working with,” Mendenhall said as the Cavaliers navigated the waiver process on Oct. 5.
Finally, and perhaps mercifully, the NCAA put an end to the delays and approved the running back’s waiver on Oct. 14.
“It was a long process, but we persevered and got through it,” Walker said.
Unfortunately, Walker fell ill within days of learning his waiver was approved.
He told his family the news of the approved waiver and they celebrated his future game day appearances this fall, but his on-field debut hit another roadblock as he started feeling under the weather. He says he developed flu-like symptoms the week of the Wake Forest game. While he says the illness wasn’t COVID-19, the sickness kept him off the field against Wake Forest, Miami and UNC.
He became available last weekend against Louisville.
His long journey to the field ended when he took a carry against the Cardinals in the second quarter. Walker’s first carry went for 11 yards, taking the Cavaliers down to Louisville’s 21. The Wahoos scored a touchdown three plays later.
In his first game at UVa, Walker carried the ball five times for 20 yards.
“Today was just the next step in a bigger role for him, and he handled the role and the touches that he got really well,” Mendenhall said.
Virginia’s head coach expects Walker to play a bigger part in the offense as the season progresses and the running back’s fitness improves. Mendenhall says the transfer is still working up to game shape and speed.
The journey to the field took longer than Walker expected, and it’s reasonable to question the fairness of the waiver process that kept him off the field for weeks. Even with the frustrating process and the delayed return to the field, Walker doesn’t hold any bitter feelings about the situation.
He doesn’t seem bothered by Indiana’s on-field success either. He left a team currently in the AP top 10 to join UVa, which sits a game below .500 this fall, but he likes his UVa teammates and being a part of the team in Charlottesville.
Doubts don’t cross Walker’s mind. He made the best decision for him and his family.
Watching Indiana succeed only makes him happy for his former teammates.
“Brotherhood through football lasts a lifetime,” Walker said.
It’s been a challenging few months for Walker. But his mom’s reaction to his Virginia debut made the weeks of waiting all worth it.