For RJ Rickert and Dejzon Walker, 2014 was supposed to be their final season. They had come to Northern Arizona in 2011 straight out of high school. Both got the opportunity to play as true freshmen, and last season was supposed to be their long awaited senior year.
"It was great (to play as a true freshman)," said Rickert. "The coaches told me coming in that I had a chance to compete to play. When I got the opportunity in our first game versus UofA I had butterflies but the whole season it humbled me as a football player because it's a different level going from high school to college. It made me grow and help me move forward within this program."
After having successful years since their arrival in Flagstaff, both Rickert and Walker had good spring seasons that were supposed to propel them into their senior year. That wouldn't be the case for either.
Walker was just a few weeks away from fall camp when he was injured.
"When the news hit me at first (about sitting out the season), I was shell shocked," said Walker. "I really didn't know how to respond at first. I had never had to sit out for a year from football, and I began playing when I was four years old. I had to take my playing mentality and rally around my guys and watch the younger players grow."
For Rickert, he took the injury as something that wouldn't hold him back.
"It (the injury) definitely motivated me as a player," Rickert said. "Sitting in the stands watching the team go through ups and downs and beating No. 2 Eastern Washington motivated me. I knew I had to get in the weight room, work hard during the off season, and get my ankle better. I've been so focused and ready to get back on the field with my guys. The injury really helped me realize that you can't take this game for granted and I'm just happy that I have one more season."
Rickert entered the 2014 season as a Big Sky All-Conference Preseason pick with many in the sports world ready to see what the tight end from Gilbert, Ariz. was going to be able to do.
The tight end had finished his junior season with multiple honors including being named to the College Sports Madness All-American FCS Third Team, All-Big Sky First Team, and the College Sports Madness Big Sky All-Conference First Team. Rickert had earned the team's Outstanding Junior of the Year Award and the Lumberjack Award which is given to the player that exhibits competitive greatness.
You would think that after hearing the news of not being able to play last season that Rickert would just disappear into the shadows, but you are wrong. Rickert still came to practices while doing his rehab and made his presence known on the sidelines encouraging his fellow teammates along the way.
"It was different when I played. I liked to lead by example," said Rickert. "It was nice to be in the film room with the guys and show them things that I may have seen. It was cool to be able to give them a different perspective. I wanted to help them any way I could."
Walker, a wide receiver, led NAU with 40 yards per game and 15 yards per reception. Standing six foot three, Walker is a physical threat at the wide out position, allowing him to barrel past defenders. He caught 24 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns, and recorded a season-high 93 receiving yards in NAU's FCS Playoff first round game versus South Dakota State.
Walker seemed to have everything moving in the right direction for him, so to be sidelined with a season ending injury that took him out of the game before camp even started it was hard.
"When the news hit me, I was shell shocked," Walker said. "I really didn't know how to respond at first. I had never had to sit out for a year from football, and I began playing when I was four years old. I really had to rally around my guys and watch the younger players grow."
The Chandler, Ariz. native used his "off" time putting a lot of effort into community service activities. He has accumulated over 100 hours of community service during his time as a Lumberjack, and is a nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team.
But Lumberjack fans do not have to wait much longer to see Rickert and Walker in action. Both players have been very active in fall camp, and they are just a few weeks away from stepping on the competitive playing field for the first time in over a year.
"When I got the news about Dejzon, we both just looked at each other and said 'let's work hard in the offseason and tear it up one last time," Rickert said.
Sorry for the wait, but in 24 days it will be over. The time has come for Rickert and Walker to experience their long awaited senior year and Lumberjack fans have a lot to look forward to.
"I'm looking forward to the game in Texas and just getting that football feel back," said Walker. "The emotions of the game and being able to conquer them will be exciting. I can't wait."
Well, NAU fans don't have to wait too long. Rickert, Walker, and the rest of the NAU squad will open the season on the road at Stephen. F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas. It'll be the Lumberjacks versus the Lumberjacks in the season opener.