When Shari Cassingham tells neighbors about her son, Shane Walton, soccer star turned football player for Notre Dame, she usually gets the same response. "They'll ask, 'Oh, is he the kicker?' " Cassingham says. "I have to tell them, 'No, he likes to hit!' "
Indeed, Walton is striking a blow for strikers everywhere. Since giving up collegiate soccer in November 1998 for a Rudy-like shot at gridiron glory, Walton, a 5'11", 186-pound junior, has become a starting cornerback. Through last Saturday's 45-14 victory over Navy, he led the Fighting Irish with two interceptions and had made 23 tackles, eighth most on the team. "I enjoy soccer," says Walton, "but I love football."
Purdue quarterback Drew Brees found that out in the Boilermakers' 23-21 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 16. After getting an earful from Walton, who's an ardent trash talker, Brees fired a pass over the middle late in the first quarter, only to have Walton pick it off and race 60 yards for a touchdown. Not since the celebrated Western of the 1950s have the words Shane! Come back! been uttered so plaintively.
Two years ago Walton heard similar pleas from his soccer teammates after he had decided to switch sports. As a freshman he had been Notre Dame's best player, scoring 10 goals to earn second-team All-Big East honors. His coach, Mike Berticelli, predicted Walton would become an All-America and go on to a career in Major League Soccer. Walton, however, had his heart set on football and playing in front of 80,000 fans.
He was Division V all-state at cornerback in his senior season at the Bishop's School, a private school in La Jolla, Calif., but no major school tendered him a football scholarship. Enter Berticelli, who made an offer Walton couldn't refuse: Come play soccer on scholarship at Notre Dame, and I'll talk to football coach Bob Davie about giving you a tryout in the spring. Six weeks after soccer season ended, Walton joined the football team's winter conditioning program. In spring practice he impressed Davie with his footwork and ability to anticipate plays—attributes sharpened, Walton says, by his soccer experience. He also showed he could deliver some punishment. "He won me over because he'll hit," says Davie, who gave Walton a football scholarship.
During two-a-days in August 1999, however, Walton strained his right hamstring and played sparingly. Then, in January, Berticelli died at age 48 of a heart attack. Despite the setbacks, Walton kept working on his football dream and was named a starter for this year's season opener against Texas A&M. Against Nebraska a week later, he got his first interception, picking off Cornhuskers quarterback Eric Crouch in the third quarter.
Walton knows that by giving up soccer he's risking his only chance at a pro sports career. "You have to follow your heart," he says. "This is what I wanted to do. I didn't want to play soccer if my heart wasn't in it. I'd be letting down the team. I wouldn't be giving it my all."
Besides, there are stereotypes to break. When Stanford lined up for an onside kick during a 20-14 loss to the Irish two weeks ago, Walton was among those sent out to man the front line. A soccer player on the good-hands team? Wait until Cassingham tells the neighbors.