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Happy Father's Day

On Father’s Day, an NFL dad says his sacrifices were for love

Former Lions player Tim Walton Sr. says his family was always his first priority — no matter what

Nearly 21 years ago, Tim Walton Sr. was forced to make the most difficult phone call of his professional career.

His wife, Teri, was in labor with his daughter, Tristyn. His team, the San Antonio Texans of the Canadian Football League, was in the biggest playoff game against the Baltimore Stallions that they had experienced in over a decade. He had to decide: be a father or be a player?

It didn’t take Walton long to choose, either. He called coach Wayne Fontes and told him he wasn’t going to make the game.

“It was one of the fondest moments of my career as a professional football player,” said Walton, 51. Little did he know, his football career would be coming to a close in 1995. Walton avoided concussions, unlike some of his NFL peers. His career ended because of a biceps tendon tear, but his journey as a father had just begun.

“Sometimes my family likes to joke around and call me the ‘bad luck charm’ that ended his career,” said Tristyn, 21, a senior at Michigan State University, “… but we all know I’m his favorite child.” Walton’s son, Tim Jr., was born in 1998.

Before the children came along, Walton made a name for himself by playing professional football for seven years. After a successful college career at Ball State, Walton signed a free agent contract with the Detroit Lions in 1989. Walton also played for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals. He retired with the San Antonio Texans of the CFL in 1995.

“I don’t want to say I feel blessed, because I don’t currently notice any symptoms,” Walton said of concussions from playing football. As a retired player, he has seen many NFL alumni who have dealt with concussions, which keeps him cautious. “Even though I don’t see or feel them now, it doesn’t mean later on in life I won’t feel them.”

Those concerns are a stark reality for the current generation of football players. Tim Jr., 19, is a part of that generation, carrying on his father’s football legacy. He is a linebacker for the Syracuse University football team, playing the same position his father did.

Just like his father, Tim Jr. has been injured multiple times but was fortunate enough to fully recover from those injuries. He has fractured an ankle, torn a plantar plate and broken a pinky finger. Still, he hopes to play football professionally, and his father supports him.

“If playing pro football is what Tim’s dream is, then I couldn’t be more happy,” said Walton. Although his career ended through injury and despite the concern over concussions in the past decade, he remains supportive of his son’s pursuit. Rule changes and regulations are making professional football safer than when Walton played 20-plus years ago. He has faith and trust in the safety of the game. “I trust God when my son is playing on the field, so I’m never worried,” said Walton.

Both children started playing sports at 8 years old. Tristyn played volleyball and ran track, while Tim took up football and basketball. They’ve been active in competitive sports ever since, and their father is proud.

Tristyn played varsity volleyball in high school and served as team captain. As a senior in high school, Tim led his team with 121 tackles and two interceptions.

“I think my career really impacted both Tristyn and Timothy because it pushed them to be a beast on the field and on the court. They were always in the top rankings,” said Walton.

While both Walton children benefited from having a father who played professional football, there were some negatives as well. His daughter, Tristyn, was especially affected.

“As I reflect back on navigating through high school, a problem I felt I had was figuring out who my genuine friends were and those who kind of just hung around me because they knew my dad played in the NFL,” Tristyn said. “I think I also felt like a lot of people thought that my family was something we really weren’t — we still grew up as just another normal family, blessed and living in the city of Detroit.”

Having a former NFL player as a father has actually made things harder, said Tim Jr.

“Being a college football player comes with a lot of higher expectations from both my coaches and teammates once they find out my dad played in the NFL. That can sometimes really be a stressful situation, especially with all of the pressure already on you,” he said.

Yet, having a former pro as a parent has some perks. During their younger years, when Tristyn and Tim had breaks from school, the family would travel to games and conventions, exposing their family to the larger NFL family.

“One benefit of my dad being a former player is having a village of other NFL players and his old teammates who have treated my family, and I, like family. I’m a huge sports fanatic, so having the opportunity to travel and watch NFL games, and even NBA games, just because of who my dad is has been exciting,” said Tristyn.

Even after Walton left the game in 1995 he remained part of the NFL, but this made it difficult for him to be with his actual family.

“It was hard for my family to travel with me once school started for my kids, so I was forced to be without them for months out of the year. It’s hard to be away from your family during the season,” said Walton.

He now serves as president of the NFLPA Detroit Chapter. He also is one of eight captains of the Peer-to-Peer Pride Program with the Detroit Lions. He says none of these responsibilities is more important to him than being a father.

Tristyn and Tim say they are appreciative of their father for being an active part of their lives.

“Witnessing my kids live out their dreams and knowing I had so much to do with shaping their lives is such a rewarding feeling as a father,” said Walton.

Kyla Wright is a Rhoden Fellow from Hampton University, majoring in journalism with a minor in graphic design.