Closing his eyes, Willard Walker sees the equation. A mathematical variable. The “y” drops from one side and algebraically floats to the other. The rest of the numbers add and subtract to cancel each other out.
The former math teacher can do it in his head, but he’s not envisioning chalk and a blackboard this time. He sees a gridiron.
The “x” figures are linemen, rearing for the upcoming spread formation, and on the quarterback’s command, the variables will all slide into place. The “y” receiver is wide open, and Walker has the solution.
“I used the same technique and visualized, ‘How is this play going to work?’” Walker, the founder and coach of Kappa Express football, said, closing his eyes to focus. “I’m closing my eyes, watching how this all is going to play out.”
There’s a lot to learn from Walker, an 83-year-old African American from Columbus, Georgia.
He played every sport imaginable, from football to swimming. He worked with the Urban League in Alabama to end segregation. He served in the military between World War II and the Korean War. He earned two master’s degrees from Michigan State University.
The list goes on, culminating in awards and recognitions.
Yet, even with his many interests and experiences, football sticks out. You see the prolate spheroid jutting out as soon as you walk into his living room, a Lansing Football League President’s Award gleaming near the living room window.
Walker humbly downplays a legacy of winning — once capturing 11 consecutive championships locally. The rest of his trophies, gathered over about four decades of coaching Kappa Express, collect dust in a backroom of his basement.
Only seven are displayed at all — those being the seven he won in 2017. All are on a bottom shelf in the basement, obscured from view at a standing height.
For Walker, final scores aren’t important, no matter what his record says. Football, contrarily, is how he teaches life lessons that improve grades and subsequently careers; undefeated seasons are bonuses.
“As an old classroom teacher, I know most kids can learn,” Walker said. “Now, they might not learn the same way, but they have to think that if they come and they participate, that they’ll be treated fairly.”
Walker, Harold Singleton, Charlie Brown and George Cannon established Kappa Express in the mid-1970s, naming it after their college fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, and the railroad that runs behind St. Joseph Park, where the team has always practiced.
At its inception, Kappa Express took the place of the recently defunct Blackhawks, the only black team in the area. The goal, Walker said, was to “build a team so good that the referees couldn’t take the games from us,” referencing calls favoring white teams playing against the Blackhawks.
Still, the founders had greater ambitions than winning against whistles. They wanted to forge a lasting legacy and a mainstay program, unlike ones that came before; that required an investment in community and scholastic achievement.
“We think everything happens on the field,” Walker said. “Sometimes, some good things happen off the field as a result of what you do on the field.”
DeYeya Jones connected with the mission of the program. From Chicago, Jones came to Lansing and played for Kappa Express as a kid, going on to play football and run track for Northwood University.
After settling down in Lansing, Jones realized many players came from unstructured, single-parent and lower-income home environments. It reminded him of his own neighborhood growing up.
“The kids that we have on our team that do come from those backgrounds, we try to embrace those kids, spend extra time with those kids,” said Jones, who has coached Kappa Express for 16 years.
Athletic participation, studies have found, correlates with higher grades and test scores. Jones says discipline carries over from football to the classroom, and socialization allows for self-discovery.
“Sometimes, people will look at the success we’ve had at Kappa Express and think, ‘Oh, well they’re just all about winning,’” Jones said. “For us, the winning is a byproduct of the things that we teach these children, and it’s a byproduct of the relationship that we try to have with these children.”
John Johnson, director of broadcast properties for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said extracurriculars introduce students to new cultures and learning styles. Having different coaches and being in diverse environments can enrich learning and prepare students for professional environments, such as balancing responsibilities.
“They have a schedule that is demanding that really helps them hone their time management skills,” Johnson said.
With Kappa Express, the difference in learning styles is central to the mission, and players from the four age-sorted teams learn from one another. There is no magical GPA number that the athletes have to reach, as Walker understands there are different types of students. If you drop out, however, you won’t play.
But for the close to 160 athletes, between the four football teams and four cheer squads, each one has their academic success monitored before and during the season gets going. If parents or Kappa Express coaches pick up on a problem, Walker will handle it.
“They enjoy the fact that we will go up to the schools and check on their kids if they want us to,” Walker said about parents.
In addition to diversity in age and gender, Kappa Express had a player last year who was deaf. Neither the coaching staff nor the players knew sign language, and they were hesitant to risk the child’s safety.
After more than a half-century spent fighting for civil rights, equality and education, Walker wasn’t about to give up in 2017.
Collaborating with the parent and counselor, Walker developed a way to communicate, and the player eventually saw the field — with his teammates directing him into position.
“This kid came off the field, and I’ve never felt so proud of a kid in my life,” Walker said. “He was elated. He was just so happy and so excited.”
Next year, Walker said, he’ll get significant playing time if he comes back.
For Walker, that was a win.
When he’s greeted with a wave by office workers at high schools where he routinely visits former players, that’s a win. When grandparents bring grandchildren, whose fathers or mothers are Kappa Express alumni, to practice, that’s a win. When eight cheerleaders adopt him as their “grandfather,” that’s a win.
As for those seven trophies from this year, they’ll soon be out of view, tucked away hidden in a basement closet, out of sight.
Although the awards are stowed away, Walker’s work helped bring Kappa Express a permanent home. The newly named William K. Walker Stadium will host Kappa Express and Lansing Football League games in Risdale Park.
“It’s like winning (a) second prize,” Walker said. “I know I didn’t sit up on my dad’s knee and say, ‘I want a stadium named after me.’”