You da man!
We’re talking James Walton, 31, originally from Hinsdale, Ill., now a fulltime resident of Billings, Mont., with a ton of football stops in between.
And, the new head coach of the revived professional indoor football team of our city, the Billings Wolves, who will start Indoor Football League play in about 365 days, give or take a couple of weeks.
He is the man. It’s on him, probably more than anyone else within the green franchise, to bring miniature sheltered gridiron play and its past magic back to the Magic City. So let’s meet him.
Coach Walton was born in Chicago. He had a “great life” as a sports-playing youngster in the suburbs outside Chicago. His father, James, is a high school principal and his mother, Sarah, a longtime legal secretary, though the parents divorced when he was in fifth grade.
It was a super time growing up, emulating the Windy City’s great stars, Michael Jordan in basketball, Water Payton in football and Frank Thomas in baseball. Like so many kids, Jordan left a mark on Walton - the megastar’s drive, work ethic, will to win and refusal to back down from challenges.
“I had that video of (Jordan), ‘Come Fly With Me,’ that came out in the late 1980s,” said Walton, who played prep football, basketball and track and field. “I must have worn that thing out, playing it over and over again. He just captivated me when I was young.”
He hoped to play Big Ten football at Chicago’s Northwestern University as a receiver but broke his leg during a recruiting camp the summer before his high school senior year, hurting his chances for a big-time football ride. So he took a football scholarship to Truman State University, a Division II school in northeast Missouri, named after the former U.S. president. There he had a nice career, nothing spectacular, 131 career receptions and 12 touchdowns in four years, 2002-2005.
Playing on some dismal college teams didn’t help his NFL chances, despite his good playing size, 6-3 and 210 pounds, and exceptional leaping ability. While at Truman State, he was Division II national champion in the long jump with a leap of 25 feet 2¾ inches, earning an All-American spot.
“Honestly, I just wanted to continue playing football,” Walton said when asked why indoor football after college.
Sit down with the new coach and his lively speaking skills surface. He’s personable and articulate, there’s energy in his sentences, but not just sloppy, fluffy carry-ons. Rattling off all the Frontier Conference football programs was impressive.
Walton was a communication major in college, but will tell you he didn’t graduate. He hopes to finish someday.
“I was just sitting around in Chicago after college football, wondering what’s to do next, maybe go and finish school, when I receive a call from the Evansville (Indiana) indoor football team,” Walton said. “‘Do you want to play some indoor football,’ they asked. ‘We need a receiver.”
He played little on that 2006 team, but got exposed to the quick game. The Bloomington Extreme of the old United Indoor League picked him up next, where he played for two years. He blossomed his second year, in 2008, leading the league in catches, yards and TDs. His team lost in the championship game to Sioux Falls (S.D).
Former Billings Outlaws coach Heron O’Neal noticed his end play and wanted him. And traded for him, when the UIL merged with the Intense League to form the present IFL in 2009. And as Billings fans know, Walton was part of two IFL championship Outlaw teams in 2009 and 2010. He scored 36 and 31 touchdowns, including playoffs, in those years. He was quarterback Chris Dixon’s main man.
Then the June 21, 2010, tornado pulled the plug, severely damaging the team’s home field, now Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. The then-owner bickered with city officials about who would pay for the football equipment damage from the storm and then walked away after not getting the answer he wanted.
“I will say this: If that tornado doesn’t hit the Metra the Billings Outlaws would be here today,” Walton said. “I was shocked when the team folded, but I was also sad for our fans, for the city, because we had a great thing going here. We were on our way to establishing some beautiful things, playing in front of 9,000 fans. It’s pretty rare in professional sports to have a team win two championships and then fold.”
By planes, trains and automobiles some of the Outlaws, including Walton and Coach O’Neal, journeyed over to Kent, Wash., to play for an indoor team there in 2011. At least try. Soon, the team folded when the owner couldn’t pay the bills. Walton’s next stops were back to Bloomington that same year and finally a reunion with Coach O’Neal for the Colorado Ice (Fort Collins) for the 2012 season, playing part-time.
An elderly indoor footballer, with diminished motivation to stay atop after the ping-pong trauma of collapsed teams and absent paychecks, Walton found stable employment with the Billings-based Meadowlark Agency, a trucking brokerage company, and made Billings home for good, for the time being.
“It’s funny, and I tell this story all the time,” Walton said while laughing. “When I was with Bloomington in 2008 we played Billings, my first time here. I had never played in altitude, I was out of breath and tired, I didn’t know what was going on. My mind was one place, my body another. After the game I said, I’m never, ever coming back here again.
“And the cowboys. I didn’t know cowboys still existed.”
He’s fine with ranchers now, but misses Chicago pizza. Big Sky’s open spaces and mountains (“ours are metallic in Chicago, the skyscrapers”) are cool. Still an athlete, the coach enjoys playing basketball, softball and drumming with a local troupe, The Brickyard Band. He also enjoys hanging with friends and lounging with a TV remote in hand.
Last fall, Walton caught wind from friend Marc Burr, another former Outlaw transplanted to Billings, that a new owner wanted to bring indoor football back to Billings. He told Burr to call him if help was needed in any way.
Later Walton thought about coaching, head coaching. It was the Michael Jordan thing, he says. You’ve done some things, but why not more? Yes, why not, so he got proactive and told Burr, the team’s new general manager, to consider him. Burr thought yes, and his father-in-law and team owner Ron “Shorty” Benzel, the Hardin farmer, concurred.
Walton wanted challenges. He’s got them. Leading an expansion team – that’s always behind-the-eight-ball tough at first. No head coaching experience, though he had taught a little high school and junior high ball. And a city perhaps a little leery about here-today-gone tomorrow franchises. Finding 30 good players to field a competitive team, right away, since indoor football teams financially fall as often as this winter’s snowfall.
A few years back the IFL had more than 20 teams. This year there are nine.
But this Walton knows. They have a sleek, versatile practice facility, the Sports Plex. Coach O’Neal, his mentor, started his head coaching career with indoor football at age 31, and he’s done quite well, thank you. And there’s a ton of football talent to grab from the Montana universities and colleges.
And if ignited, Billings will warmly support, equal to any in the IFL - with the Sioux Falls and Fort Collins. He’s witnessed it, played before it.
And the man appears to be a genuine juiced communicator, perhaps a head man’s greatest talent.
Good luck, Coach Walton with the new red, black and silver. You da man.