When North County senior Will Walker turns 17 on Tuesday, it could be a very welcome change for him. His 16th year was not his best. The most recent setback is a dislocated right shoulder suffered in North County's football game against Old Mill that will sideline him for four to eight weeks.
But compared with what Walker faced before relocating to Maryland, his injury is nothing.
Walker, a Division I football recruit at offensive lineman and an MVP at the Louisiana State University football camp this summer, is one of thousands of high school students displaced from the Gulf Coast region after two hurricanes and is among at least three football players who have established new homes in Anne Arundel County.
North County's C.J. Gallardo and Broadneck's Andrew Freeman are also wearing different jersey colors on the football field because of the hurricane.
Walker's transition from New Orleans has been smooth, considering the circumstances of his arrival, and he knows his situation could be worse. Walker couldn't find his father, William Walker Sr., for more than a week after the storm. As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, the elder Walker left the area with a group of teens he works with at a New Orleans area youth center. He returned before the storm hit to retrieve more children and got stuck at the New Orleans Convention Center.
"I knew that he wasn't going to let the storm take him out, but you never know," the younger Walker said. "He made it through, though. I was real happy. That was a big relief off my chest."
Walker and his mother almost didn't get out of their home in Orleans Parish, less than two miles from Lake Pontchartrain. His mother, Darlene, took call after call from family members and others in the days before the storm, but there was no convincing her, or her son, that it was time to leave.
"We go through this every year," said Darlene Walker. "We went through it with Ivan and George, and no storm came."
"I just wanted to stay home," said William Walker. "It would have been real hard. We probably wouldn't have made it trying to get out of that house if the water had rushed in . . . . My mom and my grandmother don't know how to swim, so it would have been real tough."
But Katrina's classification as a Category 5 hurricane and the rumor of President Bush mentioning the area in his weekly radio address finally spurred the family to pack pajamas -- William brought his PlayStation, too -- and head for safety. They spent two nights in Jackson, Miss. From there, Walker, who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 315 pounds, and his mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle squeezed into their 2005 Toyota Camry for the trip to Linthicum Heights, Md., home of Walker's brother, Shelton Vaughn, and his wife, Lori.
Walker said it was a crowded ride, but he kept his sense of humor, sending text message jokes to his brother.
That sense of humor is what his friends from New Orleans remember about Walker. Two friends, Julius Nero and Jonathan Brown, ended up in Nebraska and Texas, respectively, but still talk to him just about every week on the phone.
"He was like a comedian," Brown, 17, said of first meeting Walker in ninth grade. "He still is a comedian right now. It hasn't changed. We still call each other, joke around. It hasn't changed a bit; we're just thousands of miles away."
"Basically what I'm missing is being around my friends and being with my football team, because we were going to be really good this year," Walker said of his former team at McDonough 35 Senior High. "I thought we were going to be able to go back [to the state final] this year. We had everything set up, and everything was working for us.
"It's just hard playing for a new team I really don't know much about and really don't know anyone on it. I kind of broke down that [first day of practice] because I was thinking about all the stuff I used to do on my old team and all my partners. It was hard, but the second day was better. [The team and coaches] comforted me and tried to make me feel better . . . . They're just a cool group of people."
The feeling is mutual on the part of the North County staff and team members, who enjoy him for his personality and skill.
"I told my wife, you'll just want to adopt him," said North County Coach Gary Liddick. "He's like a teddy bear . . . . He's one in a million. For him you want cloning to be legal, because you would want to clone him."
And as far as football is concerned, said Liddick, "His technique is just unbelievable."
The competition most likely won't want to give Walker a hug or admire that technique, if and when he comes back from the shoulder injury. Walker thinks he should be able to bounce back, gaining confidence from knowing that he recovered from a knee injury last season more quickly than doctors had expected.
The injury could have an effect on his ability to gain a football scholarship, a possibility that concerns Walker, but doesn't conquer his spirit. He thinks his 3.8 GPA and score of 26 on the ACT ( he has yet to take the SAT) will land him an academic scholarship to a school with a good electrical engineering program. So while his shoulder heals and his mother searches for a job in the area, Walker plans to continue to focus on his grades.
Walker said the University of Maryland, which he said has shown interest in recruiting him, was a school he was considering even while he was in New Orleans.
Said Walker, "I guess I'm up here a year early."