Jim Walker has seen it all when it comes to soccer in Houston - from the U.S. National Team and one of the game’s greats playing in front of a few thousand people on a dusty high school football field to the explosion of the youth club community and beyond.
Walker came to Houston to become the general manager of the Houston Dynamos of the United Soccer League in 1986 and has been a fixture on fields across the city ever since. As Houston Dynamo FC celebrates the Houston soccer community with City of Soccer Weekend, the Club will pay tribute to his contributions to the game at every level over the last 35 years from the Dynamos of pro soccer to the Dynamos Soccer Club in the youth ranks in Cy Fair.
In all, his career spanned more than 60 years and took him from Super Bowl III with the Baltimore Colts to the Chicago Sting before coming to the Bayou City. When you talk to Walker, one thing became readily apparent – the most important thing to him at every stop in his career has been the people and the relationships that he built with them.
“The whole goal that we set from the beginning…was player development, not only in the youth neighborhoods, but our own players,” Walker said. “We’re trying to develop citizens here as well as players. I think that part of it has been really fulfilling for me, because not only that we did it, because it was the trainers that bought into it.”
Ask Walker about his time as GM of the Dynamos and the Chicago Sting and you’ll hear stories of Glenn Davis and Billy McDonald loading up a van to set out for youth camps, or Paul Coffey going on trial in England and knocking out the team’s star striker in his first scrimmage. Ask him about his tenure as Director of Training for the Dynamos Soccer Club and he’s sure to turn the conversation to what kind of person a former pupil turned out to be, not what kind of player he was.
Eventually, though, the conversation comes back to soccer and Walker’s memories of trying to promote a game to casual sports fans who were barely familiar with it or to immigrant communities who saw the American game as inferior.
“Soccer was a hard job. You were trying to get people – not only the American people who didn’t know the game very well, but you were fighting (to attract) the ethnic groups of the city who already had their soccer,” he said. “They had Saturday night soccer with their heroes from Greece, Germany, all over the world. They said, ‘Why should we go out and watch Fourth Division English players?’”
Facilities were tough to come by as well.
“When I came to Houston, the first month I was here I spent time looking at practically every piece of ground around Houston that was big enough to have a stadium,” he said, noting that the Dynamos ultimately landed at Butler Stadium.
In the early years of American pro soccer, the GM didn’t just pick the players. He was responsible for attracting crowds, drumming up interest and, in Walker’s case, creating big fixtures on short notice.
“We had some international games and we had the U.S. Men’s National Team. The next year we brought Pelé in and he appeared at Delmar Stadium. We did some other presentations with him, brought teams in to have pictures taken with him before the game. But we got a schedule. We played Sheffield United and the Irish Cup champions two years running, the U.S. National Team.”
One of Walker’s favorite stories came from his transition from the Houston Dynamos to the Dynamos Soccer Club in 1991.
“Cy Fair was getting ready to put together their competitive program, and they came to me as general manager and said, ‘We’d like to use the name Dynamos,’ for one thing. They’d voted that they wanted to use the name Dynamos, so I asked (Dynamos owners) Peter Kane and John Gaughan, and they said, ‘Oh yeah. We’re proud that they want to do that,’ and so they named it the Dynamos,” Walker recalled.
Sure enough, that logo remains in use for the Cy Fair-based club to this day.
Thirty-five years after he arrived in Houston, Walker looks out on a soccer landscape that’s drastically different than the one he found in 1986. From Messi enjoying an audience of 70,000 at NRG Stadium to the local pro team having a downtown home of its own, the game has come a long way.
In the end, though, it comes back to people. Walker said he recently ran into a former player of his at the grocery store and the man was now a father with two boys of his own. He’s a lawyer who lives in Jim’s neighborhood.
Whether it’s his “kids” who used the lessons Walker and his staff taught to go on and become strong members of the community, or the MLS club that derives its name from his old teams, Walker’s influence can be found across the Houston Soccer community. That influence makes the I Houston Dynamo Football Club proud to honor him this weekend as one of the most influential people in our City of Soccer.