Ask people around the Texans how a seventh-round draft pick out of Eastern Michigan has lasted 10 seasons in the NFL and the answers about Libertyville High graduate Kevin Walter all sound alike.
"He's always in the right spot,'' Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said of his wide receiver.
Randy Kuceyeski, Walter's high school coach, knows that as well as anyone — yet it has nothing to do with football.
When doctors found a massive tumor on the back of Kuceyeski's tongue in May 2011 and diagnosed him with a mouth cancer known as squamous-cell carcinoma, Walter immediately offered support like so many in his close-knit Lake County community. The Texans' third all-time leading receiver considered it the least he could do for a man who molded the kid offered only one Division 1 scholarship into an NFL player.
"He's the one who pushed me, taught me how to work hard and be a competitor,'' Walter said in a phone interview. "Everybody at Libertyville played a role for me but it started with Coach Kuceyeski.''
If Walter thought Kuceyeski, 58, needed a pick-me-up to take his mind off chemotherapy, he called from Houston. Before and after big games during Kuceyeski's final season of coaching in '11, Walter sent encouraging texts. When Northwestern, where Kuceyeski's son, John, is a graduate assistant, played in a bowl game at Reliant Stadium last Dec. 31, a day before the Texans' home finale, it gave Kuceyeski a goal for which to get stronger.
The Texas trip Kuceyeski made with his wife, Martha, and daughter, Kristen, always will represent more than a football weekend because it came after four months of treatment at the University of Chicago and two weeks after surgery to remove his last cancerous lymph node. It gave Kuceyeski a chance to see the receiver with the surest hands he ever saw in 19 years as Libertyville's head coach show a soft touch.
Recalling how Walter lifted his spirits and the way it symbolized the indescribable bond between a player and his high school coach, Kuceyeski stopped several times Thursday to compose himself.
"We've always been close but especially last year … after what I had to go through … um, he was definitely a big part of it,'' said Kuceyeski, who celebrated being cancer-free last week at his checkup. "We stayed in contact through the whole experience. It was just good to have a relationship with a player, that when you have adversity, who took the time to contact me and share a lot of moments.''
His voice trailed.
"I'm sorry, I'm emotional about it,'' Kuceyeski said. "Kevin was an inspiration for me too.''
Kuceyeski and his family will be on hand Sunday night for the Bears-Texans showdown alongside Walter's. Walter's brother and sister are flying in but Walter kidded many friends don't need him to find tickets because they already are Bears season-ticket holders. He planned to maintain his regular pre-game road routine with one exception: Saturday night, Walter wants to treat his Texans teammates to an order from Lou Malnati's "to show the guys what Chicago-style pizza is all about.''
You can take the kid out of the Chicago area but …
Walter grew up loving the Bears and played in his hometown once before as a nondescript Bengals special-teamer in 2005. Obviously, this game feels different. This time, as the Texans' crafty starting wide receiver opposite Andre Johnson, Walter hopes to affect the NFL's first inter-conference game between two teams 7-1 or better since 1991.
"Growing up in Vernon Hills so close to Lake Forest, as a Bears fan wanting my whole life to play at Soldier Field, definitely it's emotional for me,'' said Walter, who has 21 receptions for 307 yards and two touchdowns.
In six seasons with the Texans before this one, Walter averaged 48 catches and 594 yards as a steady complement to Johnson. Like most years since the Texans signed Walter in 2006, they have younger, more explosive receivers. But they don't have another one Schaub called, "Mr. Do-Everything,'' or Texans coach Gary Kubiak described as "a grinder and survivor.'' Nor do they have another who religiously sees the chiropractor and masseuse or spends two hours a night three times a week in a hyperbaric chamber at his house to regenerate his 6-foot-3, 218-pound body.
"It's my 10th year but I feel young and fresh like it's my second or third,'' said Walter, 31. "I don't want to say it's an obsession but you have to take care of yourself. I always tell people it doesn't matter how you get in the league. It's about what you do with the opportunity once you do.''
And for Walter, never forgetting the people back home who helped create it.