Bryan Walters does all he can do
Undrafted receiver has had a fine exhibition season in hopes of making Chargers' roster
SAN DIEGO -- Every NFL team begins training camp with a Bryan Walters -- an unsung, undrafted player who is unlikely to make the team.
Walters is hoping the latter part of that description doesn't apply to him this year. He already found out what that felt like in 2010 and has spent the past year trying to write a new ending.
At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Walters doesn't look like a football player, standing in front of his locker Thursday night after the San Diego Chargers' final exhibition game, a 20-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Cornell graduate actually looks as if he could be a stunt double for Matt Damon if this whole football thing doesn't pan out.
"I get that a lot," he said.
If his performance in the exhibition season means anything, Walters won't have to be looking into alternative career choices just yet. The Chargers must reduce their roster from 80 to 53 by Saturday, and there is nothing more Walters could have done to make his case for one of those roster spots.
"You always think about the things you could have done a little better, but I definitely left it out there," Walters said. "It's out of my control now."
Walters opened the exhibition season with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks on national television and two weeks later caught the winning touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals with 3 seconds left. He set up the touchdown with an acrobatic fingertip catch in the middle of the field.
Walters, who finished the exhibition season with 10 catches for 122 yards and one touchdown, and seven kickoff returns for 252 yards and one touchdown, not only has become a fan favorite but might have made himself too valuable for the Chargers to let go again.
As talented as San Diego's roster is, Walters could help bolster what was the worst special teams unit in the league last season, and could add another wrinkle to an already loaded offense after the rapport he built with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the offseason and during training camp.
Most believe the last receiver spot on the team will come down to Walters and Richard Goodman, a first-year receiver out of Florida State. Both players started Thursday night's game with most of the Chargers' starters sitting out.
"I think Bryan has had an outstanding preseason. I like him a lot," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "He showed us last year when he was on our practice squad that he has real good quickness and a real good ability to catch the ball. He was hard to cover going against our starting defensive backs, and he's come in here and had a great camp."
After signing with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent last year, Walters got hurt early in training camp and was never able to contend for a roster spot. Although he was released before the start of the season, he made enough of an impact on players and coaches when he was healthy and was kept on the team's short list of players in case another receiver was needed.
Walters already had transitioned from being a player to a coach when the Chargers called him Dec. 1 to join the team's practice squad. He was coaching the receivers and returners at Juanita High in his hometown of Kirkland, Wash., when his agent called him at 9 a.m. He was on a plane by noon and on the practice field soon after.
"It's a tough business; one little thing goes wrong and you can miss your chance," Walters said. "I was fortunate enough to get a second chance and get back here. Being around football and coaching really makes you realize how much you miss playing the game."
When Walters received an email from Rivers during the NFL lockout to join the team for workouts, he jumped at the chance, flying to San Diego from Kirkland and staying with a family friend in Encinitas to make it happen.
"It helped a ton even just to write down some plays on paper and study that," Walters said. "Just to be around the guys and running the routes with our quarterbacks helped so much."
Walters' precise route running and knack for catching anything thrown in his vicinity quickly endeared him to the quarterbacks on the team, especially Chargers backup quarterback Billy Volek, who connected with Walters on several big plays last year while they went against the Chargers' first-team defense.
"What he was doing last [year] with our scout team is similar to what he's doing now," said Volek, who threw the winning touchdown to Walters in Arizona. "He's a hard worker. He runs good routes, and when you throw him the ball, he's going to go get it for you."
Walters laughed when he was asked how he would spend the next 48 hours while he waited to find out whether he had made the team this season but admitted that if he finally made the roster, he wouldn't give himself much time to celebrate, with the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings next week.
"I will be excited at first but then I'll put my mind to Minnesota," he said. "I have to put it behind me and move forward."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.