‘I always did love Auburn’: Walker Kessler finds joy in coming home

AUBURN, Ala. – Walker Kessler likes going to class. He enjoys hanging out with his teammates away from the court, whether that’s grabbing a bite to eat or going to the football games. He simply loves the college experience and being part of the Auburn community. Sometimes he’ll get in his car and just drive around and see people.

It might sound odd, but Kessler has learned not to take any of it for granted. Not after last year, his freshman year at North Carolina, where he couldn’t get out and be himself.

It had nothing to do with North Carolina and how Kessler was treated there – he loved his coaches and his teammates. It had everything to do with COVID. He was essentially forced to stay in his dorm room with the exception of practice and games. His classes were all on Zoom. He played most of the season without fans. 

It was that way for every student-athlete across the country, but it took a toll on Kessler.

“The hardest part was the isolation,” he said. “Just being cooped up in a room by yourself. Obviously, you grow really close with your teammates and your coaching staff, but just being by yourself in the room, not being able to go out and see people or go get food or anything like that. It was a tough year for everyone.”

Going through last year and all the obstacles that came with it, it made Kessler realize he needed his inner circle closer to him. It made him want to come home … to Auburn. 

MBB: Auburn vs ULM
MBB Practice, Walker Kessler

Technically, Kessler isn’t from Auburn. He grew up an hour northeast on I-85 in Newnan, Georgia, and his family also has a place on Lake Martin, an hour west of Auburn. He’s close enough now to where he can go home and have a home-cooked meal – his mom’s “Million Dollar Spaghetti Pie” is his favorite – and he can easily get to the lake, too.

But proximity aside, Kessler has always loved Auburn. Even after he initially committed to North Carolina and ultimately signed there, Auburn still held a special place in his heart. So it was Auburn who won out ahead of Gonzaga and North Carolina after he opted to enter the transfer portal. He signed with the Tigers in April.

“I always did love Auburn,” Kessler said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, well this school is close. I’m going to go there.’ It was like I already know Auburn, I loved Auburn, this is clearly the best choice.

“Coach (Bruce) Pearl is such an unbelievable coach and what he’s done with this program is just so unbelievable in the fact that he’s such a player’s coach and really believes in his players. That was the initial thing that drew me. And then obviously, being close to home. And then the people – the players, the coaching staff – it’s just been special to me.”

“I think Walker’s decision to come back to Auburn had as much to do with him recognizing what this university is all about and what being an Auburn man is all about and the kind of people he wanted to surround himself with,” added his head coach, Bruce Pearl. “And he just wanted to come home.”

Being able to go see my family or get a home-cooked meal, it’s been great for my mental health and just well-being in general.

Walker Kessler

It’s been six months since Kessler first arrived on campus, and he’s had no regrets. Auburn has not only lived up to expectations. It’s exceeded them. And that was said before Kessler ever played his first game for the Tigers.

The former five-star center has also found a home on the court as well. He’s started all three games this season. He leads the team in blocks (11) and is second in rebounds (17), and while his offense has been slow out of the gate – he’s averaging just 4.3 points per game – he doesn’t mind as long as the team is winning.

“I want to do the best I can and help my team the best way,” Kessler said. “If that’s grabbing 20 rebounds a game and scoring nothing, I just want to win.”

That unselfish attitude and Kessler’s infectious personality has rubbed off on his teammates.

“Walker is the kindest teammate I think I’ve ever had,” junior Jaylin Williams said back in September. “He’s a good kid. He wants to make his teammates better. He’s not like – this team isn’t focused on themselves – they want to be great as a whole team.”

Basketball: Auburn vs Southern Indiana

At 7-foot-1, it’s easy to think “basketball player” when you see Walker Kessler around campus. And you’d be right. But what you might not know is that he’s a self-described nerd who loves Lord of the Rings. He plays the guitar. And he’s got a pretty mean ping pong game.

“I always say if Ping Pong was more mainstream, I think I would ditch basketball and focus all my effort on ping pong,” he said.

More than anything, though, Kessler wants to be known as a good person.  

“Who is Walker Kessler? It’s a good question,” he said. “I’ve never really thought about that. I think I’m just a good guy. I think I’m my mother and father’s son. It sounds naive, but they raised me to be a good person. I think that’s really the biggest thing.

“I want to be a good man, good husband, good father.”

This week, Kessler will miss Thanksgiving at home. He’ll be in the Bahamas helping Auburn try to win three games in three days and bring back the Battle 4 Atlantis championship. But when he gets back, he’s already planning to make the short drive home Saturday after the Iron Bowl and eat plenty of leftovers – a luxury he didn’t have a year ago.

“It’s so different,” Kessler said. “Being able to go see my family or get a home-cooked meal, it’s been great for my mental health and just well-being in general.”

“I still hope and pray that the people in North Carolina – who he loved – and the coaching staff at North Carolina – that he loved and was committed to – will forgive him and understand that he just wanted to come home,” Pearl said. “I know they can understand that because I’d love for them to root for him some day.”

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