Xavier Fulton has watched dozens of teammates come and go during his collegiate and professional football career. Welcoming Derek Walker to the Saskatchewan Roughriders locker-room this season brought back fond memories for the veteran offensive lineman.
“He was one of my best friends and you always hope you get to play with your best friends again,” Fulton said of Walker, a defensive lineman who was his teammate for four seasons at the University of Illinois. “It took a strange path and almost five and a half years and here we are again. It all worked out. It feels like old times.”
Fulton and Walker were freshman teammates and roommates with the Illini in 2004. They shared unforgettable memories as roommates and even more as teammates, including an appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl.
During their 2006 season at Illinois, the pair nearly experienced an upset victory over the No.1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, led by the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith. Smith, now under centre with the 1-5 Montreal Alouettes, will visit the 4-2 Roughriders on Saturday at Mosaic Stadium.
Aspects of the game and many from life have changed since Fulton and Walker were in school.
“You’re going through the same thing — your first year at college, you’re just trying to figure out what you’re doing,” Walker explained. “You think about things a lot. You wonder if you’re going to go to the (NFL), you’re wondering if you’re going to get a job.
“The games come and go, but it’s the bonds you make with certain guys that will stick with you forever.”
Fulton, 28, was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played in four pre-season contests with the Bucs before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Meanwhile, Walker, 27, was across the country with the San Francisco 49ers, where he played in four pre-season games. He also spent time with the Seattle Seahawks that year.
The former roommates kept tabs on each other, but it was a safe bet they likely would be opponents rather than teammates again.
“We always talked but I never thought we would ever play with each other again,” Walker said. “Coming in here (Saskatchewan) and playing together on the same team feels like college all over again.
“Things just happen that way. Funny things happen along the way that you just don’t see coming. I was close to never playing again after a couple of injuries. (But) I still had that fire and that passion to play the game. And here we are.”
As one might expect, Fulton and Walker are sharing living quarters this season. They get along famously now, slightly better than when they were students. Fulton’s reluctance to humour Walker, a fan of sports games for PlayStation, during video games sometimes caused tension in their Illinois dorm.
“We never really argued over anything,” Fulton said. “He would play his games and I would be reading or studying or listening to music. It all worked out very well. But there was this one time.”
Walker was on a date and tried to make a good impression by ordering anything on the menu at the restaurant of choice. The trouble was that he couldn’t pay the bill. He called Fulton and asked for a small loan to cover the tab. Fulton obliged.
A few weeks had passed when Fulton noticed a receipt in the dorm.
“I see my card number on the receipt and then I noticed the full amount was something like $97. I thought I had only paid something like $20,” he said. “I checked my bank statement and I had over-drafted and it just kept building up and building up to something like $300.
“I’m normally a very calm and cool guy, but after I saw that I exploded. I threw one of our desk chairs down the hallway all the way to the elevator. I wasn’t yelling at him, but I was yelling in his presence.”
They can laugh about it now as the pair is enjoying their time together again. A win over the Alouettes on Saturday would mark a third straight victory for the Riders. Montreal, meanwhile, is looking to snap a four-game losing skid. The Als offence is yet to hit full stride as it has scored a league-low 98 points through six games.
“They’re still very dangerous. They have some big-time playmakers on that team,” Fulton said. “And they’ve been struggling so you know they’re hungry for a win. You can’t overlook anyone in this league, especially a team that’s desperate for a win.”