Phillip Walker’s high school career ended much differently than it started.
Starting at quarterback as a freshman at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey, Walker’s squad finished 1-9. After winning half his games as a sophomore, Walker led Elizabeth to the state final in 2011, where they lost to Piscataway High School on a touchdown in the final minute.
The last pass Walker threw for Elizabeth avenged the loss and capped off the school’s first undefeated season since 1989.
But when Matt Rhule went to visit Walker and the player who caught the touchdown pass, running back Jahad Thomas, they talked about the championship they lost instead of the game they won.
The two roommates are looking to replicate their high school story in their final season at Temple.
“I’ve talked to my mom about this too,” Walker said. “She said, ‘It’s crazy how your high school career panned out to be similar to your college.’ … It’s not something I think about often, but it’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
In Thomas and Walker’s first year at Temple in 2013, which also happened to be Rhule’s first year as head coach, the team lost its first six games on the way to a 2-10 finish.
Though he lost the training camp competition, Walker earned the starting spot for the team’s final seven games after coming off the bench against the University of Louisville. The team finished at 6-6 in 2014 with Thomas, previously a defensive back, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Last season, the Owls won 10 games for the first time since 1979 before losing in the American Athletic Conference championship game and Marmot Boca Raton Bowl. Walker set a career high in passing yards, while Thomas rushed for 1,262 yards and earned first team all-conference honors.
Before his senior season at Elizabeth, Walker set an ambitious goal: to throw no interceptions during the whole season. He nearly accomplished it, only throwing one one on the way to passing for more than 2,000 yards and earning the 2012 Offensive Player of the Year award from the Newark Star-Ledger.
This year, as he attempts to become the first Temple quarterback to lead the school to two bowl games, Walker wants to improve his completion percentage to 70 percent. He is trying to make smarter decisions to accomplish it, even if it means settling for a few yards instead of a big play.
“The big thing with Phillip is he’s just taking it really seriously,” Rhule said. “He understands that if he completes over 60 percent of his balls that we become a really special offense, 65 percent, we’re an elite team this year.”
Thomas and Walker used to watch Elizabeth High School football games after Pop Warner practice on Friday nights, aspiring to be like eventual NFL fourth-round pick Khaseem Greene and University of Pittsburgh standout running back Ray Graham. They’ve gone on to make their own names for themselves.
“Where we’re from, not too many guys get that opportunity to see friends, someone that’s like a brother to me just go through the journey that I’ve been through, the losing seasons, the ups and downs throughout our careers and our lives, the different paths that we took to get here,” Thomas said. “And for us to just have that type of bond, to have another four years coming into college winning that championship, it’s just greatness.
“Somebody like that you really cherish,” Thomas added. “Just outside of the field, not only for what they do on the field but who he is and what type of role he’s had in my life. I’ve been excited for him since high school, since we started playing together. And then his freshman year, getting to [play] against Louisville, and just seeing him blossom after that. It kind of brings tears to my eyes.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.