[Photo courtesy of UVA Athletics]
Rijo Walker could not believe that the College Football Playoff was interested in his services.
Last summer he received an email from Gerry Capone, Virginia’s director of football operations, concerning a job opportunity. Capone has served as a volunteer at the CFP where he has gotten to know Laila Brock, the organization’s director of operations and logistics. Through Brock he became aware of a director of team operations position at the CFP.
Capone forwarded the email to Walker, a former defensive back and special teamer at Virginia. The job description was very much to Walker’s liking, though he wondered if he really had much of a chance at landing the position.
“I was looking at the email like, ‘The College Football Playoff, what?’” he said laughing at the memory. “Me? Are you kidding me? I could have easily thought that it would never happen and not apply. I went ahead and applied and this has been the biggest move of my life. I must have said something right in the interview.”
Saying the right things during the interview process may have merely been icing on the cake. Though only 24 his education and college football experience spoke volumes and he got that job.
It has since been a whirlwind few months for Walker, who in August relocated from Virginia to the CFP’s offices in Irving, Texas, about 15 miles west of downtown Dallas. The season moved along swiftly and he has closed it out by traveling to Arizona to handle many CFP semifinal responsibilities at the Fiesta Bowl. Forty-eight hours later he was in Tampa to tackle the demands of the championship game between Alabama and Clemson.
“I have been learning on the fly,” he said Tuesday in the lobby of the CFP’s hotel headquarters in downtown Tampa. “Every time I learn something new something else comes up. It is keeping me on my toes and making me learn different things, how the business works.”
The business is in very large part catered to the players. Walker knows what it is like to be a student-athlete, but this opportunity has provided him a broad perspective from the other side of the table.
“The biggest thing I have learned is how unique it is to be a student-athlete because what is going on in Tampa is for the student-athletes,” he said.
Which Walker was recently when he played four seasons under former Cavaliers coach Mike London, playing in all possible 49 games. He was named a team captain for his senior season of 2013. It was an honor he did not take lightly then and does not today.
“That was a great honor and it still blows my mind to this day that my teammates would think that highly of me to elect me to that position,” said the avid reader of books pertaining to leadership and interpersonal communication.
Walker completed his undergraduate degree in sociology in three and a half years, earning ACC academic honors along the way. In May, he received his master’s in sports administration from Virginia’s Curry School of Education.
The semester after completing his undergrad Walker, who was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Virginia when he was two, got a head start on his graduate studies by taking a few classes. That autumn he served as a graduate assistant at Virginia State under Latrell Scott, who recruited Walker when the latter was an assistant at Virginia.
Walker, the oldest of five siblings, returned to Charlottesville as a fulltime student in the spring of 2015. It was at that time London asked him to be a graduate assistant for special teams, a role he gladly accepted. When Bronco Mendenhall took over the program a year ago he reassigned Walker to GA for recruiting, another feather in his cap.
“I got to see the players side, the coaches side and the recruiting side,” he said of his various roles as a GA. “I did a few things operationally, too, with Gerry Capone.”
It all added up to a couple of years of priceless experience that he ultimately parlayed into his current position at the CFP.
“I think this is the perfect opportunity because through my experience I have learned how to communicate with people and I have learned to see how various sides think,” said Walker, an animal lover who likely would have become a veterinarian if not for the direction football has taken him.
Among his tasks at the CFP is helping in compiling a manual, or as he put it a “road map” for the teams pertaining to hospitality, scheduled events and required appearances by coaches from the various media outlets. Information about tickets, hotels and security are also a part of the deal.
His experience as a student-athlete provided a very solid base for his current role. Through football Walker, whose brother Ricky is a defensive tackle at Virginia Tech, understood that no matter a player’s standing on the team it is best to place personal interests behind those of the group. It is how he conducted himself on the field at UVA and it is how he conducts himself today.
“The game taught me to delay gratification,” he said. “To never consider anything to be about you. You are never bigger than anything that you are a part of. I may have been a team captain, but I am not above the team. I had to follow the same rules and make sure the team is taken care of prior to my needs. You put in your work, lay your foundation and the gratification will come to you on the back end.”
It sounds like the CFP made the right hire.