By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal
NATCHITOCHES – Football was supposed to be a ticket to college for Jaheim Walters, a place he could escape and leave his troubles behind for a couple of hours each day.
Upon arriving at Northwestern State in the fall of 2020, that shifted quickly.
Walters, a New Orleans native who prepped at St. Augustine High School, saw his first college football season pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic, then did not play a snap in the fall of 2021.
Coupled with what was happening away from the field, the place Walters expected to spend most of his time was no longer a safe space.
“My first year when I got here, I was going through a lot of stuff, and I had a lot of bad thoughts,” Walters said. “I was scared to talk to anybody. I was scared to hear what they would think about it. The majority of the stuff I was dealing with, I’m not sure how many people had to go through it, and I was nervous about what people would think about me.
“My first two years, me not playing and having mental health issues, football was supposed to be my safe haven, but when I got here and couldn’t get on the field, my safe haven turned into different things.”
As Walters wrestled with not being on the field and challenges and his struggles away from the football field, he found himself in what he termed “a low spot.”
Assistant head coach DeVon Lockett recognized something was not quite right with Walters, whom he had helped recruit.
“He wasn’t getting his hair cut; his facial hair was growing all over the place,” Lockett said. “He had that look in his eye that he was stressed over something.”
Lockett’s keen eye and longstanding relationship with Walters, which began thanks in part to coach Clyde “CJ” Maiden, who coached Lockett in arena football and Walters at St. Augustine, led the longtime NSU assistant to say something to the young receiver.
“It was around this time last year, maybe earlier, I had a mental breakdown,” Walters said. “I was probably at my lowest. Coach Lockett called me and said, ‘Come outside and get in the car.’ We drove to his house and on the ride, we were talking about life. He told me some things he had to go through. That’s when it clicked in my head. Everybody goes through different situations and deals with them differently.”
Having overcome a childhood that was far from a fairy tale, Walters’ journey to Natchitoches was the epitome of the “it takes a village” mentality.
“(Former assistant coach) Anthony Scelfo had that area (New Orleans) and Alvin Slaughter was the receivers coach,” Lockett said of how NSU handled Walters’ recruitment. “I was the guy who came in with them because I knew coach CJ and the influence he had on Jaheim. I was able to meet (Walters’) mentor, Chris, who he lived with. I met the basketball coach (Mitch Johnson) as well. Those three guys were very influential in Jaheim’s recruiting process.”
Although he was not Walters’ primary recruiter, the connection formed through Maiden strengthened Lockett’s relationship with Walters and gave him a feeling of responsibility toward him especially after Scelfo and Slaughter departed NSU.
“Going down there multiple times and him coming up here on visits, it was good,” Lockett said. “Then, Jaheim gets here, and he has to redshirt. He’s going through his adversity – whether it’s academically, being in a new place up here without a lot of family support.
“I just didn’t want him to be the kid who goes four hours away from school and doesn’t make it. As a coach, you go in and tell them what you’re doing to do, then you don’t live it up to it? That’s not how I am. That’s not how I roll.”
Lockett’s support – and a couple of additional car rides — has paid dividends for Walters and for the Demons.
In his first three games in uniform, Walters has caught nine passes for 100 yards, ranking fourth and tied for third on the team, respectively, in those categories.
Walters caught three passes in his NSU debut at Montana and followed it with a five-catch performance against Grambling. With each catch, Walters continues to make a statement about perseverance and the importance of transparency.
“When I see him make a catch or make a play or a block, that’s why we do what we do,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “When you watch a young man like that go through adversity and find a way to be here, still in school – it’s been tough, but you see the rewards of staying with it and being able to work your way through tough times.
“It’s been fun to watch him grow not just on the field but seeing him handle the situations he‘s been handed. It’s made him a better person and a better football player.”
As the Demons prepare to face Lamar at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Turpin Stadium for their home opener, Walters said he feels similar to his nerve-wracked Demon debut at Montana for a couple of reasons.
“It’s the first one here,” he said. “More of my family will be able to attend and see me play for the first time in three years. I’m a little anxious and nervous but ready for it to happen.”
Those family members remain bonded despite rarely seeing one another.
“(Sunday night) I talked to all of my brothers and sisters for the first time in almost two years,” Walters said. “We have a bond, but we hadn’t talked in a long time. It’s still a strong connection. They were telling me we’re ready to see you play. We want to see you score. They’re ready to see me happy.”
And Walters can thank Lockett and others for that and for gaining perspective as he worked his way onto the field for the first time.
Said Walters: “I’ve learned don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to talk to somebody. I really want to thank coach Lockett. If it wasn’t for him, I would be back home by now. He’s been a shoulder I can lean on.”
Contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State