HOUSTON — The ultimate goal hasn’t changed for P.J. Walker. He wants to be an NFL quarterback.
But the chance to play in the XFL for the Houston Roughnecks — where he has emerged as one of the league’s best through the first two weeks — has made football fun again, regardless of whether he gets that shot.
“[It’s] bringing the joy back to the game,” said Walker, whose Roughnecks (2-0) will face the Tampa Bay Vipers (0-2) on Saturday (2 p.m. ET, ABC). “Me just going out there having fun, playing with the guys, and also just progressing every day.”
It has been more than three years since Walker finished his college career at Temple, after which he went undrafted and spent parts of two seasons on the fringes of the Indianapolis Colts’ roster. He was on and off the team’s practice squad before he was cut before the start of the 2019 season.
Walker was first approached about NFL alternatives by his agent about two years ago, right around the launch of the short-lived Alliance of American Football (AAF), when Walker was still on the practice squad in Indianapolis. He passed on the AAF, trying to stay in the NFL as long as he could.
But after he was cut by the Colts last fall, he decided the XFL would at least give him the opportunity to play again.
P.J. Walker, who turns 27 next week, has thrown for seven touchdowns in Houston’s 2-0 start. Thomas Campbell/XFL via Getty Images
When Walker was assigned to the Roughnecks in October, coach June Jones was already familiar with him. But Walker wasn’t handed the job automatically. He had to beat out former Oakland Raiders quarterback Connor Cook in camp and wasn’t named the starter until three days before the opener.
Perhaps it helped that Jones remembered Walker’s performance against SMU, where Jones was head coach, in 2013. Walker had 293 yards passing, 92 rushing and five total touchdowns.
“I was sold because I watched him as an 18-year-old freshman at Temple,” Jones said. “And that’s when I knew he was going to be a good player.”
In his first two XFL games, more than six years later, Walker has put on a similar display, throwing for 442 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception. His seven touchdowns and passer rating of 107.4 lead the league.
“He’s an accurate passer,” Jones said. “He can make all the throws, and when plays break down, he’s done what I thought he would do and that is scramble around and make things happen.”
Walker credits his success to what he learned in Indianapolis being around quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett.
“How to be a professional,” Walker said. “I saw so many different ways to grow as a player, to grow as a person, you know — to even grow as a … eventually when I have kids, to grow as a father. So just to see those guys and the way they work every day … It just showed me how to be a professional, showed me that this business is really legit and you need to be on your P’s and Q’s every day.”
Not that Walker didn’t work hard in college — he finished his career as Temple’s all-time passing leader with more than 10,669 yards — but he had no idea what the next level would be like until he was around professionals in an NFL locker room.
“It’s just different, you know? You work at it, you’re competing for a job,” Walker said. “This is how you feed your family at this point. I felt like my approach wasn’t strong enough when I first got to the league, but now I’m getting another opportunity at this level. This is my second time going around.”
P.J. Walker played for Matt Rhule — now the Carolina Panthers’ head coach — at Temple, where he was a four-year starter and threw for more than 10,000 yards. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
And he made connections. Luck put in a good word about Walker to his father, XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, and that helped Walker land in Houston.
“It was awesome [when Luck recommended me],” Walker said. “… The way he approaches every day is awesome. He goes in there with work on his mind. Nothing else distracts him outside of that. When he’s in that building, he’s there to work. And that right there showed me … this is what I need to be doing. You know, also, same with Jacoby. It was both of them. They actually showed me how to be a professional and how to work.
“… I’m sure [Andrew Luck] saw what I could do on the football field and he believed in me, so you know, he went to his dad and gave him advice to tell him that I can actually play.”
If Walker continues to play the way he has in the first two weeks of the XFL season, he’ll likely get another chance to compete for an NFL roster spot.
“That’s the goal, you know? That’s the mindset,” Walker said. “So for me, it’s just taking it one day at a time and, you know, not looking down a lot. Just taking it one day and, you know, whatever happens, happens at the end of the season.”