Thursday, November 8, 2012 | Valley Football
PLAYER FEATURE: Matt Brown/Tyrone Walker

(courtesy ISU Media Relations, reprinted from Redbird Magazine)

In the spring of 1940, legendary comic book artist and writer Bob Kane decided that his most popular character, Batman, needed a sidekick. After some thought and some early inspiration from reading Robin Hood as a child, he created Robin, and “The Dynamic Duo” was born. The Batman and Robin team would go on to become legendary, remembered forever in the written pages of comic books and captured on screen in live-action television shows, movies and cartoons.

The idea of two superheroes working together has become the norm in comic books and assembling a team of superheroes resulted in one of the biggest movies of all time this past summer in “The Avengers”. Because of the forethought of Kane and his fellow artists and writers, the idea of dynamic duos has transcended pop culture and found its way into all walks of life, including sport.

One quick look at the Illinois State football program and its easy to see that it has a “Dynamic Duo” of its own in seniors Matt Brown and Tyrone Walker. Unlike Batman and Robin, who were separated in age by several years, Brown and Walker are peers and have worked together over the past four years to change the culture of the program, much like Batman and Robin changed the crime problem in Gotham City.

Brown was the first to arrive on campus in the fall of 2008, and quickly turned the film rooms at the Kaufman Football Building into his Batcave. He spent countless hours watching and breaking down film, working to understand his foes better and prepare himself for the next challenge. That first year on campus was instrumental in Brown’s development and helped him become the standard by which the Redbird offense is judged upon.

“The redshirt year was great for me. You figure out quickly from standing on the sidelines and studying the film that this level of football is very competitive, and this conference is great,” Brown stated. “I don’t think I realized that when I first got to Illinois State, but I figured that out quickly. It made me realize that I had to get better each week, do my work in the offseason and be ready to play next year in order to help the team win ballgames.”

At the start of the 2009 season, Brown and the rest of the team were learning a new system under head coach Brock Spack, and he worked hard throughout the spring and fall to earn a spot on the field. He was beat out for the starting position by veteran quarterback Drew Kiel, who started the season in the first game at Eastern Illinois. However, when Kiel went down with a wrist injury, Spack had to send up his version of the Bat signa,l and Brown was called into action.

He completed the game against the Panthers and quickly realized that he now had to lead his team against a formidable foe the following week. Brown’s first career start at the collegiate level was in front of over 62,000 loud Illinois fans at Memorial Stadium, and he knew then what his new calling would be.

“I kind of got thrown into the fire a bit with Drew going down and then having to start my first game in front of 62,000 fans at Illinois the following week,” Brown remembered. “It was quite a surreal feeling for me to finally be out there playing college football, but I just took it in stride, kept things in perspective and went out there to do what I had been coached to do.”

Brown did just that and went on to be named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Freshman of the Year. His success was immediate and his consistency has made him into one of the best quarterbacks in Illinois State and conference history. He is one of just two players in school history to throw for over 2,000 yards in three-straight seasons, and that consistency has paved the way for his legendary status.

“I’ve just tried to be as consistent as possible,” Brown said. “The quarterback position isn’t about showing up every once in a while with a big play or a good game. The quarterback needs to be steady every week, make the routine plays and be accurate with his passes. I’ve started to realize that fact more and more throughout my career. If I can be consistent week-in and week-out, then by the end of my career I can be proud of what I’ve done.”

There’s no doubt that Brown can be proud of his accomplishments. His name will appear at the top of the record books in almost every passing category by the time his career is over, and he will be the standard to which all future Redbird quarterbacks are compared to.

However, he couldn’t have achieved the things he has without some help. When Batman needed help, he would look to his utility belt and pull out some sort of device or gadget that would get him out of a tough spot. When Brown reaches into his utility belt, he’s pulls out several offensive weapons that have help and the Redbirds be successful.

“Whether it’s been handing the ball off to guys like Ashton Leggett and Darrelynn Dunn or throwing to Eyad Salem, Marvon Sanders or Tyrone Walker, I’ve been lucky to have a lot of weapons out there to help me,” Brown said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have players like them and many more throughout my career here and I’m thankful that the coaches have brought those guys in to help our offense progress over the past four seasons. It takes a lot of pressure off me to have to be the one to make the big plays. I have total faith that they can go out there and get the job done.”

In the pages of DC Comics, Dick Grayson had something to prove after watching his family die at the hands of a mob boss. He wanted to show that he wasn’t weak and he sought revenge on those criminals by becoming Robin and working side-by-side with Batman to rid the city of its evil.

Robin became Batman’s most trusted ally, much like Walker has become Brown’s most trusted teammate. Also like Robin, Walker had something to prove to those he felt wronged him and he felt that Illinois State was the perfect place to do that when he was looking for a place to continue his football career.

“The people who didn’t want me to come to their school or didn’t think I could help their program were a big motivating factor for me when I got to Illinois State,” Walker said with authority. “I knew I was good enough to play at this level. My family supported me and knew I could play Division I football, but those people who didn’t give me a chance have always played a big part in my career.”

Walker’s motivation propelled his strong work ethic, and he quickly found a partner in Brown, who had been on campus for a year and learned the ropes a bit. He and Brown began working together during the summer, and when fall practice started, both found themselves on the practice squad seeking to crack the starting lineup.

“We both got thrown out there as freshmen and were expected to play at a high level,” Walker said. “We started together on the scout team and that’s when our chemistry began to develop. We both thought we should have been starting right away because we are competitors, but it didn’t work out that way, and we had to earn our stripes. He got his shot when Drew got hurt and I got my chance in week three when coach (Taylor) Stubblefield took a chance on me and put me out there. From there, the rest has been us working together, putting in extra time and trusting each other out there on the field.”

That trust has built over the years and is the key factor in both players’ success, according to Walker.

“I think we just understand each other completely and trust in each other’s abilities on the field,” Walker said. “Matt feels like he can make all the throws, and I feel like I can make all of the grabs. He’ll just sense when I’m open. There are times where I will give him a hint on what to look for from a certain defender, and he will have already seen it and have a play called to take advantage of it. Most of that doesn’t even need to be talked about between us, but we can just give each other a look and understand what needs to happen.”

That sixth sense is something that can’t be bought or taught. Four years of hard work, countless hours of running routes and watching film together have formed a connection between the two that is extraordinary. Walker realizes that Brown has led by example in that category, and that is something he has tried to do as well to be a good example for the younger wide receivers he now mentors like Lechein Neblett and Donovan Harden.

“Matt puts in more time than any other person on our team,” Walker stated. “He is constantly in the film room studying tape, and when he’s not doing that, he throwing routes to the receivers on the side. The other thing about Matt that makes him a great quarterback is his confidence. He rarely second-guesses himself on the field and if he makes a mistake, he moves on quickly and learns from it. I’ve tried to do the same thing over the past four years and try to get our younger players to follow our lead.”

As senior leaders, Brown and Walker are looked up to and depended upom by their teammates and coaches. Like Batman and Robin, they are trusted to protect the thing they care about the most and in the case of Brown and Walker, it’s their team. That trust has been earned through years of hard work and determination, and Brown cites trust as a big factor in their success as a tandem.

“The biggest thing about Tyrone is that I trust him completely. I have faith in him to make a big play when we need it or get that crucial touchdown at the end of the game to get a victory,” Brown said. “We’ve been through a lot together in this program and have seen just about everything that this conference has to offer. Aside from the trust, he has ridiculous hands and comes down with a lot of footballs that most receivers would drop. When you can combine that trust factor with great hands, then that’s when you get a special receiver.

“It’s a unique relationship because we both respect each other a lot,” Brown continued. “I know that if I throw a ball up to him, he is going to go get it, and he knows that if he’s open, I’m going to do the best I can to give him the best opportunity to catch it and make a play.”

When Redbird fans look back on Walker’s career, they should remember him as a player that always made the big play. As a sophomore in 2010, he set new career-highs with 206 yards receiving and three touchdowns against Youngstown State. In that game, he caught the game-winning touchdown as time expired, and earlier this season, he caught the game-winning touchdown in double overtime to help the Redbirds earn a 54-51 victory over in-state rival Eastern Illinois.

Like Brown, Walker’s name will appear at or near the top of nearly every receiving category in the Redbird history books by the time his career is over. His career numbers and accomplishments will be staggering, and Walker has no qualms about stating how he would like to be remembered in the future.

“I want people to remember me as the best Redbird receiver of all time,” Walker said without pause. “I know there have been great receivers here in the past like Laurént Robinson who have gone on and done great things, but I want people to think that I was the best they saw. I would also want people to think that I gave it my all every game and played with a lot of passion and pride for this team and university.”

Brown and Walker’s legacy in Redbird Football history is cemented forever, but both believe there is a lot more to do. Individual achievements are nice and both have piled up enough honors and awards to fill stately Wayne Manor. However, the duo wants the scope of their careers to be focused on this team’s success and what they and the rest of their 2012 teammates were able to accomplish.

“These last four years couldn’t have gone any better for me if I scripted them out myself. A lot of people have come and gone from this team over the past four years, many of which are some of my best friends. But, to say that the rest of us made it through and achieved our goals would mean a lot to me and the rest of the seniors,” Walker said with a grin. “We have helped this team to four-straight winning seasons and set a foundation for the future, which is very important to all of us going forward after the season is over.”

“I’m very thankful for the opportunities I have been blessed with at Illinois State,” Brown concluded. “I hope people look back at this team and think we were special. I hope that they remember that we played with a passion that this team hasn’t had in the past. I want them to remember that everyone on this team was pulling towards the same goal: a conference championship and a chance to win a national title in the playoffs. I want them to think that we truly cared about playing football and represented our university with a lot of pride. I think if we are remembered that way, then no matter what we accomplish this year, we will have been successful.”

When asked about who would be Batman and who would be Robin, both Brown and Walker stated they would be Batman simultaneously. That tells the story about the competitive fire and confidence that both have shown through their last four years, better than any artist could show in the pages of a comic book, including the legendary Bob Kane.

The comparisons between Batman and Robin and Brown and Walker may not be exact, but there’s no doubt that the Redbird “Dynamic Duo” will be revered, remembered and celebrated in stories by ISU fans for years to come, like the Caped Crusader and his faithful sidekick have been for over 70 years by comic book fans around the world.