Calling the shots: The journey of Dalton Walsh

Aug. 25—ST. JOSEPH — The high school football season is still a little more than a week away, and Dalton Walsh is standing on the sidelines.

Well, not really standing except for a few seconds at a time. He's pacing and calling out plays every 10-15 seconds to St. Joseph-Ogden quarterback Logan Smith, with Walsh looking down at his laminated white playcall sheet he's holding in his hands once Smith unleashes another pass during the Spartans' practice on a grass field underneath a searing mid-August sun.

Wearing a Columbia blue short-sleeve pullover, with an SJ-O logo stitched right above his heart, and shorts, it's not hard to imagine Walsh as the quarterback in charge of the Spartans' offense.

Because the now 27-year-old once was, just a decade ago for one of Champaign County's most successful high school football programs.

This fall, though, just like the last two falls, Walsh is trying to help the Spartans reclaim some of their past success. He enters his third season as the SJ-O offensive coordinator and gets his first test of the season at 8 p.m. Friday when the Spartans host Monticello at Dick Duval Field.

"He's really sharp," said Smith, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior back for his second season as the Spartans' starting quarterback after he threw for 2,582 yards and 28 touchdowns a season ago with Walsh calling the plays. "They had a really good team when he played, so that's the only thing he's known. He has high expectations."

Expectations Walsh helped create with his own playing style during the 2012 and 2013 seasons when SJ-O went a combined 20-5 and reached the Class 3A state title game with Walsh as its quarterback. The Spartans fell just short of winning the program's first state title a decade ago, losing 43-41 in overtime to Stillman Valley at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

But on that cold late Friday the day after Thanksgiving, Walsh performed exceptional in his final game, completing 24 of 35 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns.

"I was surprised it was a high-scoring game, with Stillman Valley running the wing T, and that wasn't our best matchup, scheme-wise, because our team that year was more small and fast," Walsh said, looking back ever so briefly once this current SJ-O team finished practice. "We had a lead with about four minutes left. That part stings the most. You have a lead with four minutes left in the state championship game, you've got to close it out."

Walsh and his teammates nearly did.

Yet Walsh played that game — much like he did nearly every game of his high school career and every game since that he's coached his alma mater in —without one of his biggest supporters in attendance.

His mom.

Dealing with tragedy

Walsh was a 14-year-old freshman just starting high school at SJ-O when the course of his life and his family's life changed forever.

His mom, Tammy, was killed in a freak accident at a freshman football jamboree at the old Jamaica High School in late August 2010. A woman leaving the event struck a guy-wire attached to a utility pole. The tension that created on a cable connecting that pole to another about 50 yards away caused the second pole to snap and fall behind bleachers on the east side of the field, striking Tammy and Dalton.

Dalton lived. Tammy died. She was just 36 years old.

"When it happens at a young age like that, it's just a day-by-day thing," Dalton said. "You've got to learn to do stuff without her now, no matter how hard it is. I said it back then and I still say it now, what got us through that was just having a really good family around and our friends. I leaned on them a lot. I tried to stay busy and keep my mind off things."

Which is where sports came into play. He started at quarterback for the Spartans in 2012 and 2013, while also playing significant minutes for the SJ-O boys' basketball team both those seasons. His junior season in basketball ended with SJ-O making its first trip to the Class 2A state tournament, eventually placing fourth in state.

"All sports were an outlet," Walsh said. "When I was doing that, whether it was practicing or playing, I wasn't thinking about anything other than sports. It was really good to have that, being with my friends and doing what I was doing since I was 5 or 6 years old."

What would his mom, who was the SJ-O cheerleading coach at the time of her death, think about her son as a coach?

"She probably would have told me to stop yelling so much every now and then," Walsh said with a laugh. "But I think she would like how hard I've worked and seeing me work with kids, because she did that also. Ultimately, she'd be happy because she knows I'm happy."

It wasn't always easy in high school for Walsh in the days, months and years after his mom's tragic death.

"I tried to stay out of trouble and be around good people, but ultimately, when you go home and are laying down at night, that's what you think about," he said. "It's still a day-by-day thing that you've got to live without. By far, the hardest thing we've ever had to deal with."

Walsh has had other life-changing moments more recently. In an uplifting way. He and his girlfriend, MaKenzie Gayler, are the parents of a 2-year-old daughter, Adley, and a 7-month-old son Cooper.

"Not outside the football field, but it's probably made me a little softer," Walsh said with a grin spreading on his face. "Those two have changed my life so much. I didn't expect it to happen, but it's been the biggest blessing in my life. I enjoy working all day and then coming out here to practice, but it's seriously the best thing ever to come home to them, roll around on the floor and hang out with them."

Offensive control

Shawn Skinner had an up-close view to Walsh's final two seasons playing football with the Spartans since Skinner was an assistant coach on Dick Duval's staff. Skinner became the Spartans' coach in 2016 following Duval's retirement, and it didn't take long to notice Walsh's coaching skills with the SJ-O boys' basketball program, where he was an assistant coach for the Spartans.

"The biggest thing is we had reached a point in the program where we didn't have any crossover coaches," Skinner said. "What I mean by that is we had no coaches who were coaching other sports. So we just felt that it was really important to try and get some guys on the coaching staff who were with the kids not just in football season."

Walsh started helping coach the SJ-O boys' basketball program in 2017 and then started as a volunteer assistant coach in football, first working with the defensive backs in 2019. He became SJ-O's offensive coordinator for the fall 2021 season and helped the Spartans post their first winning record last fall since the 2015 season, with the Spartans averaging 34.1 points last season.

Still, Walsh wants to see more consistency this upcoming season than what the Spartans' offense showed last season en route to a 7-4 record.

"Last year, we had times where we were pretty good and other times where we looked pretty lost," Walsh said. "I want to be much more physical. That's something we've talked about as a staff, and we have to get better at. As a former quarterback, I love to throw the ball as much as anybody, but once you get deep in the playoffs and the weather starts changing, you have to have a sustained run game. That's how you win and advance in the playoffs. I want to see a more, improved balanced attack."

His offense will get tested right away with SJ-O going against two Hall of Fame coaches in Monticello's Cully Welter and Unity's Scott Hamilton in the Spartans' first two games. But Walsh has earned Skinner's trust through his first two seasons as coordinator where he has full say on what plays SJ-O's offense runs.

"I've always known how competitive and how creative he is," Skinner said. "He has a lot of ideas when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. You saw that when he was a quarterback. When I watched him teaching and coaching in basketball, it impressed me. I had a pretty good feeling he would take to this role in football and be good at it. He's just done a tremendous job."

Coaching his way up

Walsh said he had the opportunity to play football at a few Division III and a few small D-II schools once he graduated from SJ-O in 2014, but opted to go into the workforce right away. He now owns and operates his own landscaping and mowing company, Major League Mowing.

Getting the desire to coach, though, didn't seem like a path Walsh would follow once his own athletic career ended. Especially because getting motivated to practice wasn't always there.

"I enjoy practice much more now," he said with a laugh. "Maybe it was because I was playing both ways and had to tackle people along with throwing the ball every day, but I didn't like practice much as a football player."

He understands some of the current SJ-O players on this season's roster may feel the same way. Or may have had a bad day in school before they strap on their shoulder pads.

"That's something I'm trying to be better at," Walsh said. "I try to think what it was like when I was a 16-, 17-year-old kid having to sit through class every day when some days you didn't want to be there and then having to come out and practice in 90-degree heat and a coach is on your butt yelling at you and you don't want to deal with it. I'm trying to put myself back in that position and trying to work with them as far as that goes."

He credits the influence of the Duval family on his own coaching journey. Dick Duval died in August 2021 from pancreatic cancer after a Hall of Fame football coaching career saw him lead the Spartans to 251 wins and five state runner-up finishes from 1988 to 2015. Kiel Duval, Dick's son, just wrapped up his fifth season as SJ-O's boys' basketball coach and already owns a 101-38 record that includes two consecutive Class 2A regional championships.

"The biggest thing I miss about not having Coach Duval around now is just being able to talk to him every single day," Walsh said. "He was always great to talk to about, 'What would he do in these types of situations?' He had a huge impact."

Same for Kiel Duval, who relies on Walsh as the Spartans' junior-varsity boys' basketball coach.

"He's turned into a friend more than just a mentor and coach," Walsh said. "We're together a lot in the offseason in the weight room. I've got a lot of respect for what he does. I don't think it's probably easy to be a coach behind all the success that his dad had, but I'm happy to be on staff with him and continuing to learn from him."

Coming full circle

Deep postseason runs and trips to state championship games became commonplace for the SJ-O football program for years. Decades even.

Which is why Walsh doesn't hesitate in his answer to this particular query.

How badly does Walsh the coach want the Spartans — who broke through and won the program's first playoff game since 2015 last fall — returning to those lofty heights Walsh the player helped the school achieve?

"Real bad," he said. "That's the ultimate goal. It's hard to talk to these kids about it because it's been so long since they've even seen it. Most of them don't even understand it, but coming out of high school, that was my goal to get back to where I believe this program should be. That's my same exact goal as a coach. It's not going to be easy. It takes a lot of work to get back to that level, but I don't believe you should be competing or coaching in this program if you don't want to get there."

It's that attitude and ethos that has Skinner fully believing what Walsh can deliver to the Spartans these days. Just from the sidelines with a headset on instead of out there in an SJ-O uniform, making plays with his arm and feet.

"He's got a lot of emotion and energy. He can be animated," Skinner said. "He's very direct, but there's nobody who wants to see our kids do better. He's got their backs all the time, and I think our kids respond to that."

Smith echoes the sentiment, having worked with Walsh closely now the last two seasons to get the Spartans' offense operating at peak efficiency with Smith responsible now as SJ-O's quarterback.

"I can talk to him if I see something that he doesn't since he's not on the field," Smith said. "I feel like I have a couple years where he trusts me now, and I trust him. We have the comfort to say what we want and what needs to be said."

It's a journey the Spartans will start on Friday night against Monticello. Even if it's a journey Walsh didn't see for himself a decade ago when he was the confident SJ-O quarterback making those plays under the Friday night lights. It's a journey he's more than happy he's involved with. And one he's sure his mom would be proud of, too.

"The expectation level here with this program is really high," Walsh said. "I'm just trying to push these kids to be the best version of themselves."