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His Town, His People: Travon Walker
The community that helped raise #44
By John Oehser Jul 20, 2023
Photographs By Kam Nedd

THOMASTON, Ga. – It's mid-May, and Travon Walker is talking about home.

He is discussing family, too, which is fitting because this tiny Georgia town – wedged into gritty red clay and rolling green hills – is home and family to Walker. It's where his story began a little more than two decades ago and from here, it still grows.

Walker, a Jaguars outside linebacker and the No. 1 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, is in a very real sense larger than life here. Elementary schoolers and adults proudly wear Jaguars "44" t-Shirts and jerseys; road signs unabashedly bear his name. And in another sense …

Well, in another very real sense, he fits perfectly.

"This town definitely shaped me," he says, adding with a smile: "It's home to me, but a lot of people … even if I try to explain it to them, they still wouldn't know what it is, where it is."

Walker's football story began here in legendary fashion at Upson-Lee High School. But this isn't a football story as much as one about a town's pride in a player and a player's pride in his town – with a heavy dose of family, too.

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"Being in the small community shaped him," Walker's father, Stead, says of Thomaston – population 9,000ish, 80 minutes south of Atlanta, 30 minutes west of Macon. "Living in the city, there are so many things you can get involved in that draw you away from athletics and academics.

"We're minutes from the city limits, but there's still a difference. Here, it's all family."

Yes, this is the story of Walker’s town. And his people. And the best part of the story may be that the story’s focus doesn’t care about being the focus at all.

"It's awesome to see how humble and selfless he really has become," says Justin Elder, Walker's head football coach his last two seasons at Upson-Lee. "He was like that coming up, but not as much as he is now. He has just really turned into a great young man."

It is the morning of May 19, a big day in Thomaston.

Walker, Thomaston's most famous athlete, is home for the day. His high school number, 44 – same as at the University of Georgia and with the Jaguars – is to be retired at the Upson-Lee spring game that night. That morning, he visited his elementary school. He spoke of integrity and community, doing so under a gymnasium-long banner that read: "Congratulations, Travon Walker, No. 1 Pick."

He entered and left to standing ovations, high-fiving many students as those students deafened on-looking adults with cheer after wild cheer.

"He loves kids," his mother, Lasonia, says.

That was evident that morning at Upson-Lee pre-Kindergarten, a meaningful stop for Walker, who attended the school before working there as a high school senior. He smiled widely throughout the visit, reaching down to touch the students' reaching hands. As at the elementary school, multiple teachers – many of whom taught Travon in school – hugged him and posed for pictures. Shortly before he left the pre-K, director of student services Jessica Watson told him, "You're so easy to root for because you always went to class."

Travon, smiled, and said he perhaps occasionally got into a little trouble. Moments later, away from Travon, Watson refuted his version.

"He's so easy to root for because he's such a great kid," she said. "He's the hometown hero."

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This is his town, there are his people – and to learn how they shaped him, and how they still do, start on Traylor Road just outside Thomaston. Named for Lasonia's family, Traylor is a family street with relatives in each house. Travon grew up here, and here he wore his football helmet to condition himself to the heat while mowing the lawns of the family homes.

Travon’s story starts here – with Stead and Lasonia, high school sweethearts at Upson-Lee.

Stead became a Marine. When he returned, they married and reared three children – Charmaine, Nikeria and Travon – in a manner befitting a family in which some consider the ex-Marine the second-toughest parent.

"For Travon, having those two was critical," Elder says. "Not that I've coached a lot of Travons, but you see a lot of kids get lost because they don't have both parents – or they don't have somebody there that's keeping a thumb on them all the time."

The thumb was always there. The Walkers' modest home – UGA flag off the front porch, Jaguars banner at the end of the drive – is stuffed with pictures and diplomas documenting all three children's accomplishments. Love and family pride were plentiful. As for praise…

"I never tell him good job," Lasonia says of Travon, and Stead adds: "Absolutely not."

Neither smile as they say it and Lasonia explains: "That was a way to just keep him grounded, to not tell him, 'You played awesome.' We never really tell him that. Maybe every now and then, but not often. I think that's what has kept him grounded. I think it worked…

"I just want him to stay grounded, to stay focused, keep God in his life first and just go out and be all that he can be, be the best that he can be."

Then again, no one had to tell Travon he was good. Not only was he always the biggest in his class – and his sports leagues – he almost always was the best. He started football at age seven and played quarterback, running back … whatever position the team needed. Lasonia says other parents complained because he was so much better than the other kids.

"So yeah, he was good," she says.

Not that, that meant privileges on Traylor. Discipline mattered for Travon. So did rules. One: No grade lower than a B. "You had to stay on him; if you didn't, he kind of slacked," Lasonia says. Another rule involved commitment and effort, with Stead saying Travon "had the opportunity to pick and choose" his sports – with a condition.

"Whatever he did pick, he was going to do a hundred percent plus; you're just not going to play around with it," Stead says.

The sisters influenced, too – as older sisters do. "I have to say both of them toughened me up," Travon says, and family influence was everywhere. His cousin, Mario Cromer, now an Upson Sheriff, lived on Traylor, too. Though older, Travon says Cromer "still got out there with me to play ball … you know … what boys do."

"It's all community," Walker says. "Everybody helped raise me."

If bringing up Travon was a community thing, Mom and Dad were the heart. And while Stead is as tough as his background suggests, it was clear who Travon considered the tougher of the two.

"We'd just say, 'We're going to call mama," Darrell Lockhart, Walker's basketball coach at Upson-Lee, says. "Don't say, 'I'm going to tell your daddy.' You say, 'Mama,' and it was, 'Don't do that. All right coach. I'll be right.' Mama controls it right there."

Adds Walker with a smile, "I'm a mama's boy, obviously. I don't want my mama to see no wrong in me at all. My mom, she and I have to talk every day. My dad, he'll give me my break, but I'm just used to talking to my mom one time every day."

Jaguars outside linebacker Travon Walker returns to his hometown of Thomaston, Georgia for his high school jersey retirement on May 19, 2023.
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If father and son talk less, the relationship is equally strong. Walker calls Stead "my best friend, somebody I know I could go to regardless of right or wrong, whatever the situation is."

"No matter how hard he was when I was younger, any time of day, I know he'll pick up the phone for whatever reason," Walker says. "He's not going to tell me what I always want to hear, but he's going to tell me what I need to know or how I need to move about this situation. He's basically like a big brother that I never had, somebody to help guide me."

The guiding, Stead says, will never stop – and not just with Travon. "I'm proud, but then I also say, 'I can't give up now,'" Stead says of his approach with his now-adult children. "I'm not the one that's going to just give up and not push them. They all tell you that, I promise you."

Travon says that's a reason he doesn't call Stead after games –that a call usually isn't necessary.

"Nine times out of ten I'm going to have a text from him," Travon says, "or he might just call me out and be like, 'You still ain't done nothing.' I'm not the type person to get offended by that. Everybody can't handle that. That's just the type of relationship that we have and it always keeps me going."

And know this: However tough the approach, if the idea was to create an unbreakable family pride, it had the desired effect.

"My dad always told me, 'It is not about me, it's about the name on the back and just the representation of the family line,''' Travon says. "I never wanted to make my mom and dad look bad in any situation, my sisters or anybody. I never wanted to make anybody around me look bad. I just always do my best at whatever I do and keep my nose clean. In the end, that worked out for me and my family.

"My family drives me. It's not all about me at this point. If it was all stripped away from me today and I didn't have this opportunity anymore, my family is what keeps me going. As long as my family is taken care of, I feel accomplished as a man. They poured a lot into me growing up and I really appreciate them for that. I don't know how I'd be without them to be honest."

It’s May 19, shortly before noon on Travon’s special hometown day, and he’s doing something he doesn’t often do. He’s talking about himself.

"I like interacting with people but I'm not a big people person," he says.

He sits at a picnic table at Piggie Park BBQ, an iconic Thomaston eatery that has been in owner David Pasley's family since the early 1960s. Piggie Park dressed up as a McDonald's in 2017's, the Founder – starring Michael Keaton as McDonald's founder, Ray Kroc – and features drive-up slots with speakers and outdoor-only dining. It is renowned for "scrambled burgers," milkshakes and – of course – barbecue.

Walker has chosen Piggie Park for an extensive interview with Jaguars Media, and to eat. He is polite, quiet and well-spoken – "a big Teddy bear," Charmaine, older than Travon by 10 years, calls him. Nikeria says of her younger brother's persona: "I did hear stories that he used to talk trash on the basketball court. Even hearing that, I couldn't believe it. That's the only time I remember that."

Walker smiles when discussing this. "I speak when spoken to, know what I'm saying?" he says.

He speaks today on multiple subjects:

  • On criticism and having a chip on his shoulder: "I really don't get into that for the simple fact of, I know where I come from. Obviously, Thomaston, Georgia, there's not much here. To be in a position that I'm in, I already won. So I don't really care what people say about me. But sometimes, when I do sit on Twitter, it's nothing but fuel."
  • On career goals: "I wouldn't say it's about accolades, but my main accolade is the gold jacket [for the Pro Football Hall of Fame]. I feel like if I get the gold jacket, the Super Bowl, all of that'll come with that."
  • On Year Two in the NFL: "I want to focus more on just playing faster, not thinking as much, playing with a clear head. I've been in the scheme, so I really shouldn't be thinking as much. Now I should really be concentrating on the game of football to understand how veteran players do certain things, what are some tendencies I can pick up on from formations, things of that nature. There's so much going on in the rookie season, coming into a new scheme, new coaches, just having to get a feel of the people that I'm going to be around. Now I just really go back to the basic fundamental game of football."

A woman approaches during lunch and asks for a picture. Travon politely asks if he can eat first. The woman as politely says yes. Walker is engaging during lunch, speaking with Pasley, Piggie Park employees and members of Jaguars Media. After about 10 minutes, Walker takes the picture with the woman.

During the interview, he says of Thomaston: "You see the same people every day. You get out of school, you go to the store after school, you see the same exact people every day. It's never going to fail. Everybody in town has known me ever since I was a little kid. I'm very appreciative of it. Being raised in this small town, it was obviously my family who put the most into me. We're all one community, everybody knows everybody. So, it's basically everybody as a community helping raise you as well."

He continues: "Growing up in this community, the majority of the people are behind me and always proud of me. They never held information from me. We're all one community and we all know each other so nobody holds anything back. Everybody just pours what they know into others."

Walker still returns home regularly. He was home for Mother's Day this year and again the next weekend to have his number retired. He mostly goes to see his family.

He doesn't seek attention here. Neither does he avoid it.

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"When I come home, I still pop up," he said. "If people see me riding through town, if we're at a red light, I'll roll the window down, we'll have a little short conversation at the red light. I've never been a selfish person. Whatever I can do to help somebody else, especially in my community, I'll do it without questioning."

That's why this day in mid-May isn't just about number retirement. Maybe the biggest part of the day for Walker and his family is debuting the Travon Walker Foundation. Like most Walker things, it's a family thing – with Charmaine the point person. The mission statement is to empower youth – particularly Thomaston youth – to reach their full potential.

Walker's passion for the project was clear as evening approached.

"I grew up in this town," Walker says. "There's not many people around here, so of course I'm going to remember faces, remember names and things I did growing up more than somebody in a bigger city may have. That's why the little things that I did have growing up, the people that I did have pointing to me … it will always stick with me.

"There was always a part of me that wanted to be able to give back to my community. There's not a lot of business opportunities around. Now as I grow up, I want to expose kids to more job opportunities, to help them enhance themselves and see things that in this community we don't even have."

Says Stead, "He definitely wants to put more into the community than what the community gave him. He wants to do things that he didn't have the opportunity to do here." Says says, "He wants to come back and do so much – for the community, for the kids. He wants to bring things he didn't have growing up. He wants to bring things back for the other kids to have.

"He's going to do some great things."

This is his town, these are his people – and early on, pretty much everyone around Thomaston knew Travon was special.

For Stead, the moment came in middle school – and it wasn't as much about what he did on the field as how he practiced and prepared.

"He would actually go apply [coaching] without being told," Stead says. "I would look out the window or be out in the yard and he's going through some little drills of his own. I'm like, 'Well, maybe he's going to do it on his own and I don't have to just stay on him all the time.'

"I talked to some of his coaches and they really did feel, 'A lot of kids don't do that.' For him to have that self-motivation, that's pretty telling to have it as early on as it did."

The off-field approach produced results on the field – and on the court. Initial success came in basketball. That was his first love – "it came a lot easier for me," he says – but it was clear early that football would be his next-level sport.

"He loved basketball," Lockhart says. "We played in some basketball camps and every time, the head coach was in awe of his athletic ability – and his ability to play basketball. They also knew he would be a football guy, so they didn't come after him that much. Had he said he wanted to play basketball, he would've been a major recruit for somebody."

Travon was a major recruit for pretty much everybody in football, but only one school had a real chance. Not only did his first football team wear black and red, and not only is Thomaston a Bulldogs town, but University of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had a big-time edge.

That edge was Tommy Parks.

Walker's first football coach at Upton-Lee, Parks – like many coaches around Thomaston – worked around the athletes long before high school. It was Parks who took a not-yet singularly-focused Walker aside in the eighth grade.

"I didn't even know who Coach Parks was," Walker says. "Once I get in the weight room, he pulled me to the side. I'm like, 'What did I do?' My middle school coach had already told him, 'He's a pretty good guy, but he can be mischievous sometimes.' I wasn't a bad kid, but I was one of those kids that wanted to be class clown.

"He just had a little talk with me. From that point on, he showed me how to go about real life and how to play the game of football the correct way. He taught me to actually know the game of football."

Walker added, "Coach Parks never fed me information that I wanted to hear. He always told me what I needed to hear once he first got it."

Parks around that time took Walker to a football camp at the University of Alabama to meet Smart, then an assistant there. This was Walker's first real recruiting visit, heading into ninth grade.

"He was like, 'Kirby's about to get the head coaching job at Georgia,''' Travon says. "A week later, we get back from the camp and I get a call to go to the athletic director's office. Kirby's on the phone and he's saying he's at Georgia. He offered me. That was my first offer. I was nine times out of 10 always going to go to Georgia."

Parks suffered a heart attack before Walker's junior high school season, never fully recovering from oxygen loss to his brain and passing away in 2020. In 2018, when Walker committed to Georgia, his commitment video included scenes of him telling Sparks his decision.

"Him and Kirby were like this," Travon says, crossing his fingers. "He had always worked camps with Kirby, and he introduced me into that situation. He leant out the hand to help me meet Kirby. I felt it was only right for him to be one of the first ones to know that's where I was going to commit because he brought that relationship together."

A general view of a digital board that reads Georgia defensive end Travon Walker after being selected the number one overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars of the 2022 NFL Draft on Thursday, April 28, 2022 in Las Vegas. (Logan Bowles via AP)
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Not that Parks was the only coach with a special relationship with Travon – and the Walkers. And those relationships came about for the simplest of reasons – that while Travon was the best athlete on his Upson-Lee teams, the Walkers never were those sports parents.

"Most of the time, parents liked to back their kid first," Elder said. "Stead backed the coaches because he knew we wanted what was best for him."

Lockhart says, "They let coaches coach. A lot of parents want input, but these are two people confident in their son's ability. I was never on bad terms with them. They always believed in me and believed in their son and knew I was trying to do the right thing. It was always, 'Do what you've got to do.'''

Those coaches, like many in Thomaston, watched proudly as the 2022 NFL Draft approached and Travon kept ascending -- into Round 1, then into the Top 10 and finally into a player many analysts believed could be selected No. 1 overall.

The NFL invited Travon to the draft in Las Vegas. If what happened next surprised some observers, they didn't know Travon – who instead watched the draft in Atlanta with family and friends, many of whom were from Thomaston.

"That says a lot about him," Elder says. "He probably had close to a hundred friends and family up. He bought them dinner and had a nice meal. He wanted to include everybody, and he wanted people that had impacted his life to be with him that night. It was a special event, a special night. I was grateful. My family got to go with me and I actually got to be there when he got the call.

"It was an unreal moment. When we first saw Travon, we knew he was going to play on Saturdays. As he grew, we said, 'Man, he's probably going to play on Sundays.' For him to be the first pick, to be as humble as he was about it and to want everybody to be there, shows how special a young man he is."

Says Walker, "It's one of the best days of my life. I wanted to make sure I was around people who had genuine feelings for me and were genuinely happy. I love my fans, but I'd rather spend that time with my family, with the people who've been pushing me, who've been behind me ever since Day One. Why not be around that?"

It’s May 19. Night is falling and the spring game is starting at Matthews Field in Thomaston. The halftime ceremony that will retire No. 44 is at hand.

"Did they tell you he was Prom King?" says Karen Truesdale, Thomaston-Upson Schools director of school and community relations.

Like many school officials on this night, Truesdale is working the game. At one end of the field, Charmaine and others hand out Travon Walker Foundation fliers. At this end, Truesdale adds of Walker: "He's always been personable. Old and young, everybody loves him. He's not just a good athlete. He's a good person. He's always been a good person. That draws people to him.

"You love it when good people have good things happen to them."

Upson-Lee Elementary assistant principal Amy Ellington echoes those thoughts. "He doesn't think, 'OK, I'm better than anybody else.' That comes back to how he was raised. From ground up, that's just how he's been."

No. 44 is retired at halftime. People who knew him when, who saw his story begin and continue to watch proudly now, speak. Others watch from the stands and listen to words about a player – but more about a person.

"I'm just super proud he didn't mess it up," Elder says. "So many kids go off to college and get in the coach's doghouse and they wind up just throwing it away. He didn't. He made the most out of everything. I'm just so proud of him, to see how humble he's become, how selfless he's become. He's growing into a great young man and I couldn't be more proud."

This is his town, these are his people.

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