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Kevin Walter: A feel-good story


Wide receiver Kevin Walter led the Texans with 65 receptions, 800 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2007.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Texans' Gameday magazine on Aug. 8, 2008, for Houston's preseason opener at home against the Denver Broncos.

Kevin Walter appeared to be one of those overnight sensations, the hopeless underdog who burst into the spotlight to perform amazing feats, the kind that turn grown men misty-eyed as they thrust a fist into the air and shout "yeah."

Don't believe it. Forget the reruns of "Rocky" and "Rudy."

Walter never was hopeless, and he's no longer a long-shot after emerging from anonymity to lead the Texans in receiving last season when top wide receiver Andre Johnson missed seven games with an injury.

The fact is, Walter has been a dormant feel-good story since he became the seventh-round draft pick of the New York Giants in 2003. It's just that his emergence has come in painfully slow motion.

When it finally happened, it was big for both Walter's career and for the Texans. After catching 47 passes in his first four pro seasons, Walter started last season as the No. 2 receiver behind Johnson.

Walter finished with a team-high 65 catches for 800 yards and four touchdowns. Forty-one of those receptions came during Johnson's seven-game absence. Against Jacksonville, Walter tied a franchise record with 12 catches. His 160 receiving yards ranked second on the Texans' all-time list.

Players, coaches and trainers know Walter's secret. It's far less thrilling than a made-for-TV movie.

It's a bug-eyed work ethic.

"You wish you had 52 more like that," coach Gary Kubiak said. "That's what he's all about, and he proves it every day. He's just a fine football player. I can't say enough about him. You all know how much I think of him. His teammates can count on him. He can play all day."

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is one of Walter's biggest fans.

"He works harder than anyone I've ever seen," Shanahan said. "No one will outwork him. Maybe they can work as hard, but not harder. He's obsessive-compulsive about preparing and being in the right spot and being detailed.

"He does all the dirty work. He wants to be physical. He wants to hit. He wants the ball. He wants to run people over. He would play fullback if we asked him."

Strength and conditioning coach Dan Riley puts Walter in rarified air, among the hardest workers and among the best "good guys."

"To see a guy that has his character and qualities as a person, he has a smile on his face, constantly talks with people," Riley said. "It makes you proud of the fact that he's a Texan, and those are the qualities we look for. He's above and beyond.

"In my opinion, anyone who makes the NFL, they've separated themselves from the average people that exist in this world. Kevin was successful in college. He separated himself and he was successful the first day he took the field.

"He's in the National Football League. It's an elite group and he's earned the right to be a starter."

Walter needed a strong will to survive his NFL beginnings.

Walter signed with the Giants in June 2003 following his career at Eastern Michigan. He hardly lasted two months before being waived. He signed with Cincinnati on Aug. 26 and was cut on Aug. 31, but he re-signed the following day to the Bengals' practice squad.

He was activated in October and, after fighting for playing time amid a talented group of Bengals receivers for three seasons, his luck changed when he moved on to the Texans.

Kubiak and Shanahan were scouting film of another Cincinnati player when this kid Walter kept stealing the scenes.

"We knew he was the fourth receiver there because he had three pretty good guys there ahead of him," Shanahan said. "We thought he was better than that. We had to pay a little extra to get him out of there because he was a restricted free agent.

"We felt like we got a steal. We were pumped to get him."

That's interesting wording, because that's how Walter comes across: pumped.

"I don't like to see people outwork me," Walter said. "That's just the way I am. I'm never content with what I do. I always expect to get better and better. I think if you expect to get better each day in practice, that's going to help you overall in the long run."

Riley takes no credit for turning Walter into a gym rat.

"You can classify players as all-out workers, who can only give 100 percent," he said. "We have a large number of players who work as hard as you can, and Kevin falls into that category.

"He came here that way. He was a disciplined, hard worker before he got here.

"We measure how hard a guy works not just in the offseason, but from the first day of training camp until the last day of the season, and Kevin Walter does everything we ask and he always does more on his own."

Riley recalled a time last season when Walter legitimately could have eased off.

"He took a shot to the ribs last year that might have put some guys down and out," Riley said. "He never complained. He never used that as an excuse when it was time to lift. He didn't miss any playing time. That's just the way he is. He has a strong will."

Such a work ethic isn't easily turned off.

"It's hard for me to relax," Walter said. "I'm always on the go. I have to do something. Relaxing for me is probably waking up in the morning and working out in the weight room, going to play 18 holes of golf and barbecuing at night."

Walter is often described as a possession receiver. Riley sees him right at the lead group of running drills. And Shanahan thinks Walter moves just fine.

"He's not a burner, but he's not slow," Shanahan said. "Some receivers are burners. Kevin is right there in between. What's good about Kevin is he's full speed all the time. He's in shape. He's the same speed at the end of the game as he is at the beginning.

"Even if he doesn't separate (from defensive backs), he's attacking the ball and he can make catches even when he doesn't run by people."

Walter isn't bothered by labels.

"There's no doubt I can run deep routes," Walter said. "People label me as a possession receiver. I don't take that as a bad remark. You have to prove you can make plays, whether it's in the middle of the field or if it's five yards or 25 or 40 yards down the field.

"If you're making plays, it doesn't matter."

Walter caught only 19 passes in 2006, his first season with the Texans. Shanahan doesn't blame Walter for that.

"Kevin could have had his breakout season our first year here," Shanahan said. "We didn't give him a lot of opportunities. The next season came, and we said, 'We've got to get this guy some opportunities.'

"We gave him the opportunities and it was his first time to get them, and he did exactly what he knew he could do."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky. Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports.

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