When Khirey Walker graduated from Elon University in 2011, it would not be the last time he would step on campus. The Elon football defensive lineman would return to the Phoenix 11 years later, but this time as an assistant professor of sport management.
“Being back here with people I know, just being able to establish old relationships with people that were so beneficial to me to get to this point is something I'm so grateful for,” Walker said. “It’s been an outstanding feeling. I think once summer hits and I'm able to reflect a little bit, I’ll sit back and say, ‘Wow, that just happened.’”
His return came after earning his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University and teaching for five years at Ball State University. Now, he’s working with students and athletes in the classroom. Being close to finishing up his first year, Walker is now reflecting on his journey that got him to return home.
Donning the maroon and gold
Walker first stepped onto Elon’s campus June 17, 2007, the day after he graduated from Kempsville High School in Virginia. Walker immediately transitioned to attending summer classes and intense preseason football practices. Over his four years at Elon, one in which he redshirted, Walker said he was very proud of his football career and the people he played with.
“I was part of a great team, some great teammates and outstanding young men at the time — who are now fathers, who are business owners, who are just doing great things,” Walker said. “I'm very proud of what we did on the field.”
During his time at Elon, Walker helped lead the team to its first-ever NCAA playoff banner in 2009. In that same season, Walker recorded 20 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
“I was able to be a part of a group that was outstanding,” Walker said. “I played hard. I gave it everything I had.”
But, Walker said what he mostly recalls about Elon was the experience he gained inside the classroom, especially as a marketing major with a minor in leadership studies. In 2010, Walker was awarded the Phillips Perry Black Excellence Special Award, having the highest GPA of all male athletes on campus. He said juggling between class and football as a full-time student-athlete was demanding.
“You learn very quickly that college, as far as the expectation and demands of being a student-athlete, is much different than I could have ever expected,” Walker said. “Taking certain classes during the season like accounting and economics and trying to fulfill that expectation of not only just being OK in the classroom, but meeting my expectation and being great in the classroom — it was tough.”
Walker said despite the challenges, he always loved learning, which has stuck with him to this day.
“It built a lot of character and I think really developed a level of discipline in me in addition to what I did on the field, to just try to make me the best student-athlete that I could possibly be,” Walker said.
Returning to higher education after graduation
Walker’s initial goal after graduating from Elon University was to become a football coach. He also toyed with the idea of becoming an elementary educator, but he ended up attending Louisiana State University to pursue a master’s degree in sport administration.
“My goal was to maybe teach in an elementary school fourth, fifth grade, p.e. wearing a whistle and breakaway sweatpants everyday playing tetherball,” Walker said. “That would have definitely been the dream. But I never once thought that higher education and teaching in higher education was going to be my path. But it has been the perfect fit.”
Walker then began to pursue a different realm of sport: research. After realizing how much he enjoyed it, he was advised to stay at LSU and earn his Ph.D. His education then pushed him to become an assistant professor of sport administration at Ball State.
“I would not trade my five years in Muncie for anything in the world,” Walker said. “I learned a lot about myself as a teacher, as a scholar, as a mentor, as an advisor. But, just as I would tell any student, there comes a moment where it's time to take a chance.”
And that he did, as he applied for a position at Elon as an assistant professor of sport management in 2022. As the academic school year comes to a close, so does Walker’s first year teaching at Elon.
Walker said that being back on campus for the first time felt surreal, as he was returning to the place he once called home for four years. His former experiences as a student-athlete would soon be shared with Elon students today.
“I was able to utilize those experiences to say, ‘Hey, this is something that I could do and enjoy and wake up every morning excited to be a part of,’’’ Walker said.
Over his year at Elon, Walker has taught SPT 3510: Sport Marketing, COR: 3060 College Athletic Administration and SPT 2120: Contemporary Sport Management.
Contemporary Sport Management is an introductory course to the sport management major and minor, and through these courses, Walker is able to be part of student’s first experiences on campus.
“We get to laugh,” Walker said. “We get to be serious. But they get introduced to academic life here at Elon.”
During football season, Walker can be found in the broadcast booth as the color commentator for Elon football, working with the play-by-play commentator to analyze the game from a different perspective. Walker said he had no prior experience with commentating and was terrified during his first broadcast, but he’s enjoyed his new role with the team.
“Once I got into the booth I just had fun,” Walker said. “It is such a fun experience to be able to sit and analyze the game from that perspective and watch these young men with the Elon across their chest represent our university so well.”
Walker is often found cheering in the stands at any home athletic event. He said his passion and support for other teams stems from his time on campus.
“I just love seeing people support us and for me, whether it was a faculty member or staff member. If I saw them at our sporting event, it meant something to me because they took time out of their day to support us,” Walker said. “If I'm teaching a student-athlete, I want them to know that I'm there for them. That's not just in the classroom, but also at their athletic events. … I'm going to support you in the things that you do because I want the best for you.”
Walker said it's not just student-athletes that he cares for.
“We have to showcase a level of care and compassion to our students and showcasing support for them,” Walker said. “I try to support all our student-athletes or all of our students here at Elon, regardless of what they do so they know that I have their back in any situation, and I want to see them successful or succeed at anything that they do.”
Two student-athletes Walker has impacted have come from his Contemporary Sport Management class. Both freshman lacrosse midfielder Anna Hackett and freshman women’s soccer midfielder Rachel Buckle said they love Walker’s enthusiasm in the classroom.
“He's very energetic, very high energy all the time and I love it,” Buckle said. “I love how positive he is when we come into class and always trying to start a conversation before class starts, but I think at the same time he’s very informational and giving us the tools that we need to succeed in the sport world.”
Hackett said seeing Walker support her during her games has been a motivational factor throughout the season.
“I definitely remember during major points in our game, we were tied, and I saw him cheering with his cute little bulldog — it was awesome,” Hackett said. “He's just really a big part on the sidelines.”
Buckle and Hackett said they are both able to relate to Walker being a former student-athlete at Elon.
“He really wants to help student-athletes, not only people in the sport management department to just get better and to grow,” Buckle said. “He understands what student-athletes are going through, but at the same time how engaged and how involved you have to be in the sport management department in order to be successful.”
Due to her intense regular season schedule, Hackett said she has missed classes, but Walker has been nothing short of understanding.
“I'm able to relate to him because he understands the 20 hour schedules and the busy weeks,” Hackett said. “With traveling, I have sadly missed a few classes, but he sets your own individual office hour time which I think is really personable because each week you are able to go to him during office hour time, so when I miss class I am able to go and talk with him to catch up.”
Buckle said that although Walker only just started this year, she believes he is instrumental on campus and in the athletic department.
“He’s the type of person you see on campus and you want to say hi to him and you want to have a conversation with, which I think is awesome,” Buckle said. “I can’t say that for every professor at Elon that I’ve had, so that’s why I think he’s made a really big impact here.”
Buckle said she’s looking forward to her season in the fall, where she knows she will find Walker cheering her on in the stands.
“I think with how much Dr. Walker’s already helped me, it's going to be cool to go and play and be on the field and playing for people that have done so much for you already in such a short time,” Buckle said. “And I feel like Dr. Walker has been one of those people.”
Walker said his biggest role on campus is to not only help each student succeed, but make sure they know they are loved and cared for.
“I know this experience,” Walker said. “I've lived this experience. I've loved this experience. And I just want our students to be able to walk across that stage in Schar in May and be able to say, ‘I gave my best effort. I had a great support system of individuals at Elon behind me, and I can go attack the world.’”