CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Just before heading into the locker room to prepare for kickoff against Miami on Saturday, North Carolina receiver Tez Walker came to the sideline to give his high school coach a hug.
Josh Harris has been a father figure to Walker for nearly a decade. They still talk every day. As Walker prepared for his first game fully incorporated in the North Carolina offense, Harris peppered him with questions about how it was going and what he thought of the Miami cornerbacks he would face.
"They're physical," Walker told him.
"But can they run with you?" Harris asked.
"Nah," Walker replied.
That became apparent in the first quarter, when he easily scored an 18-yard touchdown as a flummoxed Miami secondary lost track of him. Then he scored another, a 56-yarder on a perfectly placed ball from Drake Maye after Walker blazed past Jaden Davis. By the time he scored his third, the Hurricanes had no answers.
Walker had become the star of the game.
Six catches. 151 yards of total offense. Three touchdowns. Multiple statements made: To the NCAA. To his opponents. To himself.
When Walker transferred from Kent State to North Carolina in December, he envisioned games just like this one. But then the NCAA declared him ineligible this season because he was a two-time transfer. Walker had no idea it would take a seven-month fight with the NCAA -- one that included a public pressure campaign, legal intervention and half a football season -- to play in a game for the first time.
"I'm glad they changed their mind," Walker said. "Very blessed and thankful they were able to do that for me."
WHEN WALKER BEGAN classes at North Carolina on Jan. 9, he expected some challenges from the NCAA in getting his waiver to play in 2023 granted because he was a two-time transfer, but the NCAA had previously granted them in other cases. He and North Carolina believed he qualified for multiple reasons, because mental health was his reason for transferring and because he never played at NC Central, with the pandemic having canceled the season.
Two days later, he got an indication of just how challenging getting a waiver would become. On Jan. 11, the NCAA announced it was cracking down on waivers for two-time transfers and would grant them only if "student-athletes demonstrated and adequately documented a personal need for medical or safety reasons to depart their previous school."
Walker tried not to panic.
He had lost football before -- because of injury and the pandemic -- and always found his way back onto the field. His road to North Carolina was not easy.
Coming out of high school, most colleges wanted Walker to play defensive back. He insisted on playing receiver. Few offers came his way. He took one from East Tennessee State in 2019, but a torn ACL derailed those plans.
Walker decided to stay home in Charlotte and took a job working at Bojangles to help pay his rehab bills. One day, three NC Central coaches walked in the door after watching game tape Harris had sent them. Walker stared at them, stunned, not expecting their arrival.
"I tried to play it cool, but it was heartwarming to see a team still take a chance on me when I thought nobody really was," Walker said.
The clouds lifted, but only temporarily. The pandemic canceled the fall 2020 season and a planned spring 2021 season. Walker entered the portal again in 2021 and went to Kent State. While he was there, he grew homesick and began struggling with his mental health. Walker had served as the primary caregiver for his grandmother, Loretta Black, a role he took on in high school after she had multiple knee operations and could not walk on her own. Walker did whatever she needed -- including bathing her, cooking, administering her medicine, cleaning and running errands while his mother worked two jobs to support the family.
While he was gone at Kent State, he constantly worried as she struggled with her physical health. Black reassured him she was doing OK, but, she says, "I couldn't travel to see him, my feet swell, it's hard for me to get around, and I can't do that much walking because my body gets so tired and weak," she said.
He opted for North Carolina because it was closer to her -- Chapel Hill is a 2½-hour drive from his home in Charlotte, whereas it takes more than 7 hours to drive to Kent State in northeastern Ohio. He and North Carolina knew the fight with the NCAA might take some time, but both believed his circumstances would be enough to get that waiver.
THE NORTH CAROLINA administration and compliance staff started to gather all the necessary documentation, believing Walker had a case on three fronts. They believed his time at NC Central should not count against him because the pandemic canceled his football season; his mental health was his reason for transferring to North Carolina; and both NC Central and Kent State supported his immediate eligibility and were willing to file waivers on his behalf.
But the NCAA had recently changed another bylaw and would no longer take into account waivers from previous institutions that wanted to file in support of immediate eligibility.
"Everyone was fully supportive of Tez doing what's right for Tez," said Greg Glaus, Kent State executive deputy athletic director with oversight over football. "We wanted to be helpful for whatever that next step for Tez was going to be."
Glaus said the school "had everything lined up and in the system. I don't believe there was ever a denial or anything like that. I think it was just more, 'We see what you're doing. But that's just not an option anymore.'"
North Carolina wanted to file two waivers. It believed Walker had a strong argument with the COVID-19 year and pointed out that if a school announced it was not playing sports that year, all student-athletes could immediately apply for an exception that would allow a transfer without penalty.
UNC also pointed to the toll that being away from home and his grandmother took on Walker's mental health. Sources indicated the NCAA would not allow North Carolina to file these independently -- they had to be rolled into one waiver, and the COVID exception would be looked at only as a mitigating circumstance. The NCAA repeatedly told North Carolina it could not retroactively apply that relief exception -- that Walker should have done it in 2021 when he left NC Central.
For months, the NCAA and North Carolina went back and forth on the facts of Walker's case. Sources indicated the NCAA was skeptical about the reason for Walker's entrance into the portal because it was so close to when his head coach left Kent State. Sources told ESPN on Dec. 5, the same day the transfer portal opened, that Sean Lewis would leave the head-coaching job at Kent State to become Colorado's offensive coordinator; Walker went into the portal Dec. 9 and committed to North Carolina on Dec. 21. To Walker, that skepticism made him feel as though the NCAA was dismissive of his mental health and the pages of documentation North Carolina provided. In addition to seeking help at Kent State, he immediately sought care when he enrolled at North Carolina, and the school provided that documentation as well.
"I feel like you read my story and just come out and say it had nothing to do with mental health was the most unfair," Walker said. "I really struggled. I started to feel like it had nothing to do with me. I just felt like the NCAA probably had something against Carolina."
The process felt like one big merry-go-round. North Carolina filed its initial waiver in the spring. It was denied. North Carolina appealed. It went to a committee made up of NCAA Division I representatives, and they upheld the initial decision. North Carolina got more documentation and asked for reconsideration. It was denied again. North Carolina appealed to the committee. It was denied again. North Carolina then asked for a second reconsideration of its initial waiver, which was denied and went to the full committee again.
At that point, it was Sept. 1, the day before the season opener against South Carolina in Charlotte, with no decision on Walker's final attempt at eligibility. North Carolina coach Mack Brown laid into the NCAA in a statement, saying, "They say they're about helping kids, but all they've done is add to the very mental health issues Tez has been dealing with that made him want to get closer to home to begin with. You can't say you're about helping kids and then show a total disregard for the kids you're supposed to be helping."
Walker had to sit out the game in his hometown and missed the opportunity to play in front of 30 of his friends and family members who had tickets (his family insisted on coming anyway). Though Black uses a walker and cane, and tires easily from walking, she pushed herself into the stadium and to her seat.
She said Walker came up into the stands before the game to see them. "When people found out who we were, they were so supportive, so we got through it with so many people being appreciative and supportive."
A week later, on Sept. 7, Walker got what he believed was his final no from the NCAA. Again, Brown blasted the decision, saying the NCAA had failed Walker and his family. "It makes no sense and it never will," Brown said.
Walker said his mental health worsened as a result. "That's when it became hard to get out of bed, nights where I had thoughts that weren't good thoughts. I was really struggling, but nobody knew that because I came in every day with a smile."
Asked to elaborate on those thoughts, Walker said he was not suicidal but had thoughts about quitting and dropping out of school. "I didn't want to do anything anymore. I felt if I didn't have this game, I had nothing," Walker said.
Walking around campus made it harder. Students often came up to him and said, "I'm sorry." Walker said that he put on a fake smile but that he did not like being known as the guy on campus people felt sorry for. Though he said it wasn't a "big thought," he said declaring for the NFL draft was in the back of his mind. "I didn't know what decision I was going to make. So it was 50-50."
Ultimately, Walker pushed himself forward, went to practice and voluntarily asked to play on the scout team so he could help the first-team defense get better. He went to class because he did not want to fail. Receivers coach and passing game coordinator Lonnie Galloway made sure to check on him every day. So did his teammates. Walker credited the support of Brown, the staff, teammates and the administration for helping him. "It goes to show under the right coach, under the right staff, what they'll do for you," Walker said.
Walker also tried one more avenue at trying to play this season. Raleigh-based attorney Elliot Abrams and four other attorneys took on Walker's case.
"Every other student gets to go to the place they think is going to maximize their future opportunities, and because he's a football player, he has to sit in timeout for a year for making a choice that's best for him. It's absurd to me, and the human cost of that is completely ignored by the NCAA," Abrams said.
The legal team, in conjunction with UNC, went through the case file again. "We looked at a case as one of these situations where the unjustness of the decision, the incorrectness of the decision and the illegality of the decision were all relatively apparent. We really believed that the NCAA would have to see that he met the criteria," Abrams said.
Walker said his legal team began preparing the necessary court filings to sue the NCAA, in all likelihood by Friday, Oct. 6. State attorney general Josh Stein also threatened legal action against the NCAA in a letter he sent to the NCAA on Sept. 26, saying its decision likely violated federal and state antitrust laws.
"I just wanted fair treatment," Walker said. "If they were not going to let me play, then we were going to just sue them. So it was just trying to figure out ways where we can go throughout that process and I could still play without punishment."
On Thursday, Oct. 5, Brown called Walker up to his office. Walker walked in and saw Galloway standing there, too. "You're eligible," Brown told him. "You're eligible, big dog!" Galloway said as he clapped. Brown came over and gave Walker a hug.
"I was in a state of shock," Walker said. "I was glad it was over. Now I can focus on football."
In its statement, the NCAA cited "new information" and blamed North Carolina for not providing it earlier, but UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said that info was "immediately gathered and submitted." Meanwhile, Walker said, "It was the same information we've been trying to give them and tell them that they've been reading for the last 10 months, so there was no new information." (The NCAA declined further comment for this story, citing federal privacy laws and pointing to its previous statements on the case.)
Abrams declined to elaborate on what was presented, but he and Walker expressed their gratitude to the NCAA for taking another look.
WALKER MADE CALLS to Harris, Black and Ivey Cody, Walker's mother. Black screamed so loud Walker had to pull the phone away from his ear. Harris simply told Walker he had to go because he was about to cry. "I found a corner in the gymnasium. I cried a little bit. I got myself together. Then throughout the day, I cried about three times just thinking about it," Harris said.
Galloway and Walker immediately started working to get him into the game plan. Because he had been playing on scout team, and the game against Syracuse was just 48 hours away, Walker would have a limited role in his first game.
"We tried to cram as much as we could in, we knew we weren't going to get everything," Walker said. "I knew I had to go to my past notes and relearn the offense and the playbook as much as possible and then be locked in on Saturday when my number was called."
With his grandmother, mother, uncle, sisters, high school coach and other family members in the stands, Walker was chosen to run onto the field carrying the North Carolina state flag. Black described the moment as "overwhelming."
Walker got into the game in the first quarter, and his first catch was a short completion. He ended with six catches for 43 yards, and Walker said he played more than he expected. But he was also jittery because everything happened so fast.
Preparing for Miami would be completely different. Walker immersed himself in the game plan. He called on Maye and the receivers to watch extra tape. This would be his breakout moment, months and months in the making.
After it was over -- North Carolina defeated Miami 41-31 to remain unbeaten -- Walker ran to midfield to soak it all in. He did a television interview, while Galloway screamed, "Free Tez!" in the background. Then the two embraced, Galloway telling him how proud he was to be his coach.
An hour later, Walker's mom, his uncle, his sister and Harris waited outside the football facility. Black was unable to make the trip this week, but she plans to make the next one. They all spoke about their excitement and joy, their relief and happiness that Walker was finally allowed to play.
They all had on their Walker gear. As they chatted, a man walked past and screamed, "The man scored more points than NC State did!" -- a reference to the Wolfpack's 24-3 loss to Duke earlier that night up Tobacco Road.
Walker finally emerged and walked over to his family, smiling the smile they all missed while he sat out. His mom, hoarse from cheering, called the entire night "magical."
"It was beautiful, like a dream come true," Cody said. "We had to fight for everything, and I showed him the example that if you want anything, don't stop. Since the day he told me he wanted to play football, I said, 'Go get it, son.'"