Patricia Jones’ face lights up as she thinks about the day her youngest son became the first member of her family to graduate from college.
“I can’t stop saying it – I tell him every time I talk to him, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” Jones said of UCLA redshirt senior wide receiver Kenneth Walker III. “I never would have thought Kenny would make it that far.”
Jones, who works with special-needs children at a local elementary school, brought up three boys as a single mother in Richmond, California, – one of the nation’s most dangerous cities – without any of them seeing prison.
“Everybody can’t believe I raised three boys and nobody’s been to jail,” Jones said.
She laughed at the thought. Then, leaning forward in her seat, she crinkled her face in seriousness.
“Duhhh. … Why do they have to go to jail?” she said. “No. Uh-uh.”
At first, Kenneth Walker Jr. went along with it.
“It’s just a matter of choice,” he said from across the living room of Jones’ Richmond apartment.
Then a long pause before Walker Jr. piped up again. He had to add something.
“Kenny would have been there,” he said. “If I wasn’t there, Kenny was going.”
Jones raised a little resistance, but it’s hard to argue with Walker Jr.
“I was once there,” he said. “I was once lost.”
Patricia Jones was scared.
Nine o’clock at night, and her seventh-grade son still hadn’t come home from school.
She sat in the passenger seat as her then-boyfriend drove down Richmond’s MacDonald Avenue toward Nicholl Park, a 21-acre green next to Lovonya DeJean Middle School.
Many of the students at the school would hang out there if they were cutting class, Jones said.
But this was way past school hours. It was dark as Jones and her boyfriend pulled up near the park looking for Kenneth Walker III.
She spotted him in the middle of a large group of kids. He saw her, too, and ran to the Domino’s Pizza across the street, trying to act like he’d been there the whole time.
Jones didn’t buy it.
“Get in the car,” she said.
Then she let him have it.
“I just went off – you don’t really want to know what I said,” Jones said. “I went off. That’s the only part you need to know.”
When Jones pressed as to where he had been since school, Walker III admitted that he hadn’t been at school at all. He’d been scared to tell his mom, but he had been suspended for a week for fighting.
It was nothing new for the boy – who once told his mom he didn’t want to go to school because he was “tired of fighting” – but Jones couldn’t believe the school failed to notify her.
She called up Walker Jr. and told him what was going on with their son.
“Pack his shit,” Walker Jr. told her over the phone.
Jones wasn’t sure Walker Jr. would follow through, but sure enough, he showed up at Lovonya DeJean the next day to pick up his son.
Walker Jr. grew up in New Orleans with his grandmother, his own father absent as he found himself caught up in the streets and eventually in prison.
He had always been somewhat present, but for much of his son’s life, Walker Jr. lived in Oakley, California, with a wife and two other children.
Seeing his son heading down the same path, Walker Jr. knew he’d have to play a more active role in his son’s life.
“I am the way I am because of my dad,” Walker Jr. said. “My dad wasn’t there for me so I made sure that I was gonna be there for my kids.”
He picked up Walker III that day and took him to live in Oakley.
For at least a year, Jones said, she didn’t see her son.
They would talk on the phone – he would beg to come home and live with her, she would tell him no.
It was a tough transition for Walker III.
Though it’s only an hour’s drive from Richmond, Oakley could hardly be more different.
Incorporated in 1999, the city markets itself as “A Place for Families in the Heart of the Delta.” It is most famous, perhaps, for a controversial 2001 attempt by students at Freedom High School to start a Caucasian Club.
And Walker III had to adjust to a vastly different home life.
Walker Jr. demanded a lot from his kids, especially in athletics. He worked as a track coach at Freedom and also helped out with the football team.
His son became a standout in both sports.
“I didn’t want to have them waste their talent or life for me not being there – I didn’t want them to be like me,” Walker Jr. said. “I might have pushed my kids too much but I thought about it and said, ‘No, they want this more than I do.’”
During his sophomore year, though, Walker III nearly got expelled. His grades had dipped, too – he wasn’t going to be eligible to play football.
With Walker Jr. having recently separated from his wife, the two of them moved back to Richmond to live with Jones.
Sure, Walker III was home, but he wasn’t happy about how it happened.
“When I moved with my dad, out there I felt like I had a bigger opportunity to make it somewhere,” Walker III said. “Moving back, it’s like, ‘Man, I messed up, now I’m back here.’ Like, what if I mess up in the future? This is where I’m gonna end up again.”
At the time, Jones was living right in the heart of Richmond’s Iron Triangle, a violent section of Richmond responsible for much of the city’s dangerous reputation.
The temptations of the Richmond streets were as present as they’d ever been. He’d step outside and see guys selling drugs on the street corner.
But he had both parents in his ear, telling him he could choose another direction.
“You know what, these guys that are standing here on the corner, they’re there because they want to be there,” Jones told her son. “You don’t have to be there.”
Jones wanted Walker III to go to Berkeley High School, rather than the local public school, John F. Kennedy High.
Kennedy’s Academic Performance Index was in the lowest 10 percent of all schools in the state, with a dropout rate around 30 percent.
But, one day during the summer, a cousin who played football at Kennedy brought Walker III down to the school to watch the football team practice.
Walker III told his parents he was just going to run some sprints on the track.
He came home that day with a Kennedy High football helmet and three coaches in tow, looking to sell Jones on letting the kid play for them.
They told her they’d watch over her son, convinced her that he could earn a college scholarship playing football at Kennedy.
She took it to heart, and Walker III enrolled at Kennedy for his junior year. In order to play football and run track, he knew he’d have to keep his grades up.
He started to hang out with other kids who were trying to play football and make it to college.
By his senior year, he was a straight-A student.
“He transformed into the Kenny that he should be,” Walker Jr. said. “He didn’t have to be hard all day – only when it’s time to.”
The scholarship offers came rolling in from schools across the Pac-12.
First, he committed to Cal. That was a dream of his. He grew up idolizing the shifty DeSean Jackson, and even wore the jersey No. 1 in high school as a nod to the former Golden Bear great. He now wears No. 10, the number Jackson wears in the NFL.
“My fans from Richmond can come see me and I can show that people from Richmond can make it,” Walker III told Scout.com when he committed.
But when Cal wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau left for the University of Washington, Walker reopened his recruitment.
A week before National Signing Day, four UCLA coaches – Jim Mora included – crowded into the front room of Jones’ apartment to make their final pitch.
The meeting went well. When they finished, the coaches all walked down the stairs from Jones’ second-floor apartment before Mora turned around and walked back up.
“I think you’ve got something to tell me,” he said to Walker III.
Mora was right. Walker III was ready to be a Bruin.
Track was, and still is, Walker III’s first love.
Hurdling – that’s what gets him excited. Back in high school, he opted not to enroll early for college football so he could compete in track as a senior.
He should have won the state title in the 110-meter hurdles.
The only competitor in the finals that could run sub-14 seconds in the event, Walker III was several steps ahead of the field as he approached the seventh hurdle.
Then he hit the bar, something his dad said he’d never done since he started competing at 11 years old. Walker III was so distraught after the race he told his mom he didn’t even want to attend his high school graduation.
That was the last time track was at the forefront of Walker III’s life. He competed briefly as a college freshman but injured his back. This past spring, he ran at the Pac-12 championships after just a week of track workouts – most of them focused on baton hand-offs – and reached the finals in the 100-meter dash with a preliminary time of 10.56 seconds.
Had he spent the season training for track, Walker III said, he thinks he could have won the conference. He still has dreams of one day running in the Olympics, but he’s put those dreams on hold.
There’s something more important to him. In Walker III’s final year at UCLA, one that will determine whether the former three-star recruit earns an NFL shot, he’s guided by a simple phrase.
Fellow wideout Darren Andrews calls it Walker III’s motto:
“Mom’s gotta eat.”
As good as Walker III is at track, he knows how hard it is to make money in the sport. Football, on the other hand, presents a much better chance for a payday, a much better chance for the 22-year-old to use his athletic gifts to get his mom out of Richmond.
He is starting to fall in love with football, he said, but the reason he’s playing the sport is clear. Walker III rubs his right thumb against his next two fingers – the universal sign for money.
“My main goal is just always to get my mom out of the ghetto.”
To make it to the NFL, Walker III will have to convince NFL executives that he’s not just a track star playing football.
It’s a tough task because, for much of his career, that’s exactly what he’s been.
Take, for example, the first pass of Josh Rosen’s college career, which soared 50 yards downfield, over the Virginia defense and right into the stride of Walker III, who had blown past the Cavalier defensive backs and had nothing but open field in front of him.
The ball went right through the wideout’s arms, clanged off his chest and fell to the ground.
“Kenny’s problems have not been getting open, his problems have never been speed,” Mora said after UCLA’s spring showcase. “We’ve all seen it: At times, he doesn’t catch the ball as consistently as you’d like.”
“The last few weeks, he just has. It kind of goes along with the overall development of Kenny as a human being.”
Walker III caught 11 passes as a freshman for 59 yards, then missed the next year after suffering the back injury during track season. When he returned in 2014, he made just three catches all year and was ruled academically ineligible for the Bruins’ trip to the Alamo Bowl.
Walker III told his mom he wanted to come home. Just as she’d done when her son lived in Oakley, Jones wouldn’t let him.
“You can’t come home, you’ve done worked too hard,” Jones told her son. “There’s something you’re not doing right. … Are you partying too much?”
Walker III told the truth. He was partying too much – sometimes three nights a week, Jones said.
“That was the problem,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Get your work done and then, if you’ve got enough time to party, that’s fine. Don’t be partying and then try to cram and get all this work together at the last minute.’”
Walker III listened to his mom.
He never again got a grade of B or lower at UCLA. His new approach permeated every aspect of his life.
“Once he made a conscious decision to be a better student, I saw everything in his life change – his work ethic, his play on the field, his study habits,” said wide receivers coach Eric Yarber. “Everything changed – it’s just like the light clicked on.”
After catching six balls for 143 yards in the regular season last year, Walker III broke out for 88 yards on three catches in the Foster Farms Bowl against Nebraska, including a 60-yard touchdown.
In May, he received UCLA’s Maggie Gilbert Academic Achievement Award, which is presented to student-athletes who have displayed tremendous growth and perseverance in their academic career at UCLA.
And in June, he completed his degree in African American Studies.
Yarber warned his receiver beforehand that he might cry at the graduation.
Walker III laughed at the time but, sure enough, there was Yarber, eyes welling up as the wideout walked across the stage to shake hands with him and Mora.
“Yarbs, don’t you cry, don’t you cry!” Walker III snapped at his coach.
His father, in the crowd, was crying, too.
A 45-year-old warehouse worker, Walker, Jr. is a fast talker with a steely toughness to his speech, but when he talks about his son’s graduation, his voice slows and softens.
He remembers back to their days in Oakley, where one time Walker Jr. had to head down to the school to deal with a teacher who had called his son a “bum.”
“People were saying he would never make it, he would be a thug – that really hurt me,” Walker Jr. said. “That’s what made me cry. They thought he wasn’t gonna be nothing.”
If the Bruins are to compete for a Pac-12 title this season, they sure need Walker III to be something.
Mora said in the spring he thought the speedy receiver could be one of the surprises in the country this fall.
Through one game, Mora’s comments seem prescient.
Walker III hauled in a career-high six passes for 115 yards in the season opener against Texas A&M, including an impressive 62-yard touchdown catch to help UCLA tie the game in the fourth quarter.
“I’m anticipating a real big year from Kenny,” Yarber said. “He’s a shining example that if you make the choice to do the right things, good things will happen.”
Good things are finally happening for Walker III.
And from here on out, the Bruins’ leading receiver knows what he needs to do.
“If I catch everything,” Walker III said, “I think I’ll be all right.”