Football is Dickinson State. It takes hard work to get better, to learn, and it brings success to those that play the game. But there is one football athlete that stands out among the rest, one that due to circumstances brought him to America from Canada, only to go back to become a legend. His name, Chris Walby.
Walby played at Dickinson State from 1978-81. After finishing his collegiate career as a Blue Hawk, he was ready to take a chance and play professional football in the Canadian Football League. The big offensive lineman was dominant throughout his career and allowed him to be named into the CFL Hall of Fame.
“It was a blessing in disguise (going to Dickinson State),” Walby said. “It really did turn my life around … I’m so grateful to the school for what they’ve given me.”
Walby was raised in Winnipeg, Canada. Like most Canadians, Walby labeled himself a “hockey puck.” Walby did find some success on the ice, being able to play in Junior ‘A’ Hockey, now commonly known as the Canadian Junior Hockey League.
However, in an era in which hockey was very physical and more aggressive than today’s era, including the fights, as documented in the 1977 sports classic ‘Slap Shot,’ Walby got into a severe physical altercation during the championship game in Manitoba. As a consequence, not only was the series suspended, Walby received the heavier consequence for giving the most punishment in the fight and, as Walby put it, was suspended indefinitely from the sport of hockey. Just like that, his hockey career was over.
With few options available, Walby decided it was time to attempt to play the game of football. Walby tried out for a semi-pro football team. To Walby’s surprise, the team that he says never cuts anyone, cut him. He called it a very embarrassing, yet very humbling moment in his career, and after another football coach told him he would never make it as a football player, it was then Walby had the one thing all athletes need, motivation.
After playing some minor football in Winnipeg, Walby attracted the attention of Dickinson State head football coach Hank Biesiot. Despite having other offers from other colleges across the country, Walby respected coach Biesiot and his honest coaching strategy, he then decided to leave his friends, his family and his home to become a Dickinson State Blue Hawk.
Despite the adjustment, Walby loved being around the campus, being around nice classmates and being able to create a family with his teammates. With this, and the help of coach Biesiot preaching to his players the importance of academics, Walby was able to play strong football mainly on the defensive tackle.
“It just was a great time,” he said. “I realized, probably my (sophomore) year that I was enjoying (football), and I was actually not bad at it and then (junior) year I got even better and I realized, ‘you know, maybe I could do something with this.’ ”
By 1981, Walby played on the defensive side of the ball at DSU and was labeled an All-American and helped lead his team go undefeated and went into the NAIA playoffs in which the team just fell short to Concordia (Minn.) 15-9. At the time Walby was being looked at from NFL scouts. And was getting strong recognition. However, Walby admitted he did not put too much effort into the recognition, just stayed focused.
But he knew he was going to go pro, he just didn’t know where, then he did.
“I think the biggest thing that happened to me was, and the best thing that probably happened to me, now (looking back,) … draft day of the CFL came, I was taken in the first round fourth by a team out of Montreal Quebec,” Walby said.
To Walby’s surprise, he stated the day he turned in his two-year contract to play in the CFL, was the same day he learned he had NFL potential, but the deed was done.
“I’m not lying, I wish I was. Within about three hours (after turning in the contract,) I get a phone call from the San Francisco 49ers saying, ‘we think we’re going to take you late in the draft, or actually bring you in as a free agent,’” he said. Walby told the 49ers he had signed a contract with the CFL, and the 49ers said, according to Walby, they would see what the future would bring. “It was really an interesting thing.”
After playing with the Montreal Alouettes for only a brief time, Walby was traded to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers., Walby was coming home.
“To come home, it was nerve wracking a little bit,” Walby said. “I had this opportunity to come back to my hometown … I went to Winnipeg, and going to Winnipeg was cool.”
It was in Winnipeg that Walby was switched over to offense and the role of an offensive lineman. During his 15-year career in the CFL, Walby remained with the Blue Bombers and in his time was an outstanding offensive lineman.
Walby ended with numerous awards, being All-Western Offensive Tackle three times, All-Canadian Offensive Tackle eight times and All-Eastern Offensive Tackle seven times. Walby also earned the Leo Dandurand Trophy four times, the Schenley Award for Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 1987, the CFL Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 1993, and played in the Grey Cup Championship five times and winning three.
Needless to say, Walby was one of the best.
After his playing career, Walby was elected into the CFL Hall of Fame in 2003, a monumental moment for Walby’s career. Walby was later chosen to be 22nd amongst the CFL’s 50 Greatest Players.
“When I got the call from the commissioner in 2003, I thought it was a joke,” Walby said. “I thought it was one of my buddies making a prank call, so I almost hung up on him.”
Walby remembers being able to enjoy being able to enjoy the day with his entire family, but will always cherish the memory of seeing his son’s smiling at him and being proud of their father, every father’s dream.
“I think looking back at that, I get more pride at watching the smile on their faces and the smile on my parent’s faces, it was pretty cool,” he said.
Despite all the awards, and high honors, he will always be proud to say where it all started, Dickinson State University.
“Nothing is possible, nothing would have happened, had it not been for Dickinson State University,” Walby said. “Allowing me to go to school, giving me the opportunity, I mean, I can tell you right now … Had it not been for DSU I would have never been (as success) as I am right now.”
Walby is one of the top athletes, especially in terms of football, to have ever played at Dickinson State. But there are still two other athletes that help stand out amongst the elite. Stay tuned.