After enjoying a stellar career at the University of Oregon as a defensive end, Mike Walter had to decide if he wanted to put on more pounds to continue playing the same position in the NFL, or learn a new spot on the field all together s as a linebacker.
"I played as a pass rush, outside kind of guy in college and I was really too small to play defensive line in the NFL," Walter said looking back on his start in pro football. "In the pros, guys were just so much bigger at that position. It looked like if I wanted to play in the NFL, I'd have to switch positions."
The former 49ers linebacker ultimately decided against adding more weight to his then 240-pound body, and decided to give outside linebacker a shot. Little did he know, the decision would pay off in the form of a decade-long career with the San Francisco 49ers and a spot amongst the 45 members of the 49ers 10-Year Club.
Walter initially thought legendary 49ers head coach Bill Walsh was interested in drafting him since Walsh attended his workout at Oregon. Instead, the Cowboys selected him in the second round of the 1983 NFL Draft.
But as it turned out, Walsh was indeed interested.
After struggling in coverage, the Cowboys opted to draft another linebacker the following year, and released Walter after only one season.
Soon after, Walsh and the 49ers came calling.
"Dallas drafted a kid the next year to play linebacker, basically there wasn't any room for me. I ended up in San Francisco, where I kind of wanted to be anyway," Walter admitted.
Although he grew up in Oregon, Walter adopted the 49ers as his team, and said that during his youth, he idolized former 49ers Hall of Fame linebacker and Oregon-native Dave Wilcox.
"When I grew up, there wasn't a Seattle franchise," Walter explained. "So I was always a big John Brodie and Gene Washington fan. And of course Dave Wilcox was an Oregon guy I used to watch."
In his first season with the 49ers in 1984, Walsh and the coaching staff moved Walter to inside backer, where he played behind Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds.
Although Reynolds was in the latter stages of his career, Walter cherished the opportunity to play behind the wise veteran, all the while learning the method to Reynolds' madness.
"It was great to play with Jack," Walter said. "He was an interesting guy - what a personality! But at the end of the day, Jack worked so hard at his craft. He wouldn't even live with his wife during the season. He was such a student of the game. He would take notes and notes. He'd have huge piles of notebooks from all the notes he would take!"
According to Walter, even more in abundance than the notebooks, were the pencils Reynolds used to write with.
"He used to have this box of pencils and he'd have like 100 pencils in there. He'd write one note with a pencil on the sharp side until it became dull, then he'd take the next pencil and write his notes," Walter recalled. "Throughout a meeting, he'd go through 100 pencils, because he believed you had to have a sharp focus on the game – that was his thing. If you asked him to borrow a pencil he'd yell at you."
Walter learned that particular lesson during his very first meeting with the 49ers.
"I went to the first meeting and I didn't have a pencil. So I said, 'Hey Jack, can I borrow one of those pencils?' And he said, 'You don't go out on a football field without a helmet, don't come to the meeting without a pencil!'"
Walter said Reynolds might have been a bit
excessive, but the things he did held true as far as studying was concerned.
The two linebackers finished the '84 season as Super Bowl Champions, which was especially sweet for Walter, considering the struggles he went through as a rookie in Dallas.
"The first Super Bowl Championship was huge, because it was my first year with the 49ers and I had just come from a frustrating year in Dallas, where I wasn't playing," he said of his first of three World Championships. "To come to a team and right away to be participating and being a part of the success, that was a great thing."
Walter learned from Reynolds how to study the game and how to read where the play was going. The following season, the pupil replaced his mentor in the starting lineup, going from playing only 50 percent of the game to almost every down. For a couple of seasons, Walter played everything from nickel, to all the special teams. But as the years wore on Walter worked at inside backer only.
Walter cherished his role in 49ers head coach George Siefert's defense since it allowed him to play all over the field, as well as utilized his pass-rushing talents from his days in Oregon.
"I played a hybrid position, which was kind of fun because I would have to cover wide receivers and running backs," he said. "I was over the guard some and I got to come off the outside and get to pass rush off the corner. So the position was a lot of fun. At that time George was real creative with some of the stuff we did defensively, so it was kind of a neat position. You weren't stuck over the guard for every play. I got to do a lot of different things."
Walter led the 49ers in tackles in three consecutive seasons, with 94, 97 and 103 tackles in 1987, '88 and '89 respectively. But his proudest moment was being a key member of the 49ers Super Bowl winning team in '88, in the game more commonly referred to as "The Drive."
"They still play that game all the time on ESPN Classic. It's one of the all-time come from behind Super Bowl victories when we had the drive. How could you ever forget that game?"
Walter still remembers what was going on in his mind, while watching Joe Montana lead the 49ers down the field 92-yards for the go-ahead score.
"It was a weird feeling," Walter said. "I tell people all the time, everyone in the stands kind of knew what we were going to do. You just had this feeling. And everyone on our team knew what Joe was going to do and what our team was going to do. But the weird thing was, you could look at their team and you could tell that they kind of knew what was going to happen too."
The following season, the 49ers resumed their on-field success, and Walter had arguably his best season in '89.
Besides leading the team in tackles, Walter also intercepted Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway in Super Bowl XXIV.
"That's definitely one of the fonder memories of my career," Walter said. "I played football against Elway all through college and in some All-Star games together, so that was a special deal."
As much as his three world titles mean to him, Walter looks back at the NFC Championship games as being the more important matchups.
"It's funny, because people always talk about the Super Bowls, but to me the biggest games that I think about from my career, were always the NFC Championship games," he said. "It was just the right to play in the Super Bowl and I remember all of those games. Even my last two years, we lost to Dallas and how tough that was. But the NFC championship games were always the biggest ones."
After those losses to Dallas, Walter decided to retire following the '93 season. He finished his career with 605 tackles, eight sacks, six fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
For the last eleven years since his retirement, Walter has worked in the insurance industry as a commercial insurance broker, a job that allowed him the opportunity to also coach both of his daughters, Sarah and Allison, in a few different sports.
With both girls now at the University of Oregon, Walter and his wife Toni have had to adjust to being empty-nesters.
"I don't know how much I like it," he said.
Walter does his best to keep himself occupied with different charities and groups in Oregon.
"We used to have a golf tournament up here and we got Joe Montana, Harris Barton and a bunch of 49ers to play in it," he said. "And I've been on the NFL Alumni board as part of the Oregon chapter's committee, so we've done some golf tournaments up here and some different charitable events."
Walter's post football life has certainly kept him busy, but it can never erase the memories of his time as a member of the 49ers and the pride he felt in being a part of the organization, and in particular, what it's like to own a piece of the Ten-Year Club.
"I used to walk by the wall and look at it all the time. You look at the greats and I grew up a 49ers fan. You'd go by the wall and you'd see these guys, who I grew up watching – it was kind of neat. You always hoped you could make the wall."
And so he did.