Current Troy Athens football coach Billy Keenist Jr., left, is pictured with former Athens coach John Walker.

Current Troy Athens football coach Billy Keenist Jr., left, is pictured with former Athens coach John Walker.

Photo provided by Billy Keenist Jr.


Athens community reflects on John Walker’s life

By: Mark Vest | Troy Times | Published July 23, 2019

 Walker was inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017. Following his death July 8, Athens Athletic Director Robert Dowd said Walker was an “outstanding educator” and “outstanding coach.”

Walker was inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017. Following his death July 8, Athens Athletic Director Robert Dowd said Walker was an “outstanding educator” and “outstanding coach.”

Photo provided by Billy Keenist Jr.

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TROY — For many people who played sports as a youth or an adult, they count coaches as some of the most influential people in their lives.

John Walker was one such person who impacted the lives of others as a result of his role as a coach.

Walker was the head football coach at Troy Athens from 1976 to 2004. He died July 8 at the age of 70.

Some of Walker’s coaching accomplishments include helping lead Athens to the playoffs six times and winning three league championships.

Among his multiple Coach of the Year honors, Walker was selected as the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association (MHSFCA) Regional Coach of the Year six times.

He had an overall record of 148-112 with Athens. Those achievements are in addition to the role he played as an assistant coach at Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes and Birmingham Brother Rice prior to taking over at Athens.

In 2017, Walker was inducted into the MHSFCA Hall of Fame.

But for those who knew him, those achievements aren’t likely to be the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Walker, who was also a teacher at Athens.

“John was one of the most remarkable humans I’ve ever met in my life,” said Athens Athletic Director Robert Dowd. “An outstanding educator, an outstanding coach.”

While other coaches had different preferences for how to spend their time after a big game, Dowd recalled that “John’s idea was to grab his staff, and they would go to a local Big Boy and get milkshakes.”

“Very quiet, very family-oriented guy,” Dowd said. “He was (an) extremely Christian gentleman. I would tell John constantly that I would love to have had him coach my son.”

Marc Sturm is a 1994 Athens graduate who played for Walker. Sturm sent a text to Walker not long before he died to let him know that he loved him.

He credited Walker for helping him learn a lot about what it was to be a man, a father and a leader.

“He had a keen sense of what was going on in your life,” Sturm said. “I always felt looked after. … I always felt like he had my back. He was a tremendous influence in my life.”

Current Athens football coach Billy Keenist Jr. said that Walker’s son, David, is “one of my best friends in the world,” and that he was very close with John Walker.

“We’d normally talk about coaching or football, but we’d sometimes talk about our faith, or life, or whatever the case may be,” Keenist said. “I always felt like when I ended a conversation with John that I became a better man.”

Last season was Keenist’s first leading Athens. Previously, he coached at Berkley High for one season.

Keenist recalled that he would talk to or text Walker after “basically every game.”

“When things got tough a little bit last year, the year before, I would call John and he would pump me up and pick me up,” Keenist said. “It wasn’t like a quick two-minute conversation, either; it was probably like a 45 (minute) to an hour conversation. We would just talk. We’d talk about coaching and kids, football and high school football, and what it takes to be good. I’m really (going to) miss those conversations a lot. They meant a lot.”

Although Dowd said that Walker was extremely competitive, from his perspective, as a coach and an educator, he was more interested in the development of the players and students.

“He taught our students and our student-athletes the importance of loyalty, the importance of faith, the importance of doing the right thing all the time because it was the right thing to do,” Dowd said. “The lessons that John taught his players and his students, those people are teaching their children.”

Call Sports Writer Mark Vest at (586) 279-1112. Follow Sports on Twitter @CandGSports.

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