How 19-Year-Old Walter Riley Has Defied the Odds – With a Little Help from the Kroc Center

Jun 27, 2019

When Chicago’s Robert Morris University Eagles take the football field this fall, their freshman free safety, Walter Riley, will be living his dream. He’ll also be defying the many odds that were stacked against him as he was growing up in a gang-ridden Chicago neighborhood. “They told me I wasn’t going to make it,” he posted to Twitter shortly after accepting a full-ride scholarship to play football at Robert Morris. “They” clearly didn’t know about Walter’s strong will, and the building on the south side of Chicago that provided a safe place for that will and talent to flourish.

A Safe Place

When The Salvation Army’s Kroc Center opened its doors in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood in June of 2012, one of its first visitors was 11-year-old Walter Riley. The state-of-the-art facility offered basketball courts, an aquatic center, a soccer field, tennis courts, a baseball field, numerous rooms for classes on art, music and dance, and a chapel for Sunday morning church services.

Walter was impressed, but was mainly just grateful for a safe place to hang out after school. Most of his friends at the time hung out on the streets, where Walter watched them get lost in gangs, drugs, and the violence that took the lives of two of his friends and his 17-year-old brother. “I wanted something different,” Walter said.

“When he was a 7th or 8th grader, I remember him telling me how he just wanted to live and not get killed by the random violence that plagues Chicago,” said Jason Dawson, who met Walter when Jason was a basketball instructor and gym aide at Kroc.

The dangers for kids in their neighborhood are many. “Gangs, senseless shootings, murders, drug dealers, and poverty. It's so easy to be led astray and become enamored by the ‘fast life,’” Jason said. “Without the Kroc, I think a lot of our kids would've gone down one of those paths.”

Most nights Walter’s dad would drop him off around 4:00 p.m. at Kroc, where he’d play pickle ball, ping pong, and water polo until his dad picked him up at 9:30. “My dad told me it was the safest place I could be, so he kept taking me there,” Walter said.

Mr. Kroc

Walter’s constant presence didn’t go unnoticed. “He is affectionately called ‘Mr. Kroc’ because he is always there, always in a great mood and always helpful,” Jason said.

“I think the Kroc had a huge impact on Walt,” said Joshua Cephus, another Kroc staff who’s known Walter since he was in middle school. “That was like his second home and we were like his second family. Any free time he had from his after-school activities (football, basketball, etc), he was at Kroc either working out or playing ball until his dad came and got him. I feel like the Kroc kept him out of a lot of trouble and off these streets.”

Walter credits guys like Jason and Joshua for helping him discover his love of sports and his direction in life. When Kroc instructors and coaches pointed out Walter’s talent, he began taking basketball and football more seriously. “I started believing in myself,” he said.

That newfound confidence also didn’t go unnoticed. “Over time I have seen him grow into a real leader,” Jason said. “In addition to maturing physically, his mind and thought process has too. He's a lot more focused and driven to not only be a great football player, but an even greater man. He thinks of others often and jumps at the chance to help others, even unprovoked.”

Walter himself has noticed the changes Kroc – and the many people he’s met there – has brought to his life. “It helped me do something with my life. I learned to treat people better, how to properly handle money, that I should hold doors open for older women.” He said he now wants to help motivate others to be better too. “I want to give back to others like they’ve given to me.”

A Humble Beast

Today, Walter is 19 and his daily visits to Kroc usually include a two-hour workout, two hours of basketball, and another hour of football. He also attends Bible study at Kroc and sometimes attends church there when he can’t get to his own church on Chicago’s west side.

Walter’s strength, both physical and spiritual, has seen him through a lot – like when he tore his ACL at a high school football practice in 2017. It was right before his junior year was set to begin, and one week before the game when college recruiters would have been there to watch him play. He was devastated.

But he was also undaunted. “Walter handled that ACL tear like a warrior,” Joshua said. “I think that actually turned him into the humble beast he is today. We couldn’t keep him out of the weight room.” People told Walter that was a tough injury to recover from, that he wouldn’t be the same. “I think that just motivated him more,” Joshua said.

“He attacked his rehab as soon as he was cleared to work out, and kept that winning smile on his face constantly. He was still at the Kroc daily, and everyone signed his cast,” said Jason, who also noted that the injury give Walter perspective. He realized he didn’t have a future in basketball, but he could have one in football. “He told me, ‘When I’m back healthy, I’m going to devote myself to football 100 percent so I can get a scholarship to college.’ And that’s exactly what he did!”

Next month Walter reports to Robert Morris College, where he’ll study business administration and play football. He’ll be the free safety, which seems fitting for a kid who found in sports a safe haven from the many dangers and temptations that could have taken his life down such different, tragic paths.

He hopes to keep going to Kroc regularly, but knows he’s “gotta do a lot of studying!” In the years to come, his hopes include the NFL or arena football and finding a way to use his degree.

“I hope he continues to work hard, in the classroom and on the field, and continues to make his biological family and his Kroc family proud of the man he is, and the man he's becoming,” Jason said. “I cherish our brotherhood, and I see nothing but greatness from him, in whatever he ultimately decides to be in life!”

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