After years of playing professional football, Pierre Walters has stepped off the gridiron and into the metal cage to test his skills as a mixed-martial artist. He competed in his first professional match against former Olympic fighter James Shorter on Feb. 3. Walters, 31, of Forest Park, tooled him. Then he ran to the hospital to say goodbye to his dying mother Geraldine, who passed from bone cancer on Feb. 5. 

“I’m on a mission, it’s as simple as that,” Walters said. “I lost something dear to me, and it was all my fault. I lost my passion.”  

Since his successful debut and the death of his mother, Walters has been recuperating, spending time with his family, practicing yoga and reflecting on his future. The death of his mother has inspired him to further his laser focus on his dream of becoming the first professional footballer-turned-champ in mixed martial arts. To that end, he is training full-time. On any given day, you’ll find him at Victory Martial Arts, 1401 Circle Ave., doing yoga, cardio, boxing or more. Walters aims to have his next fight by late April. 

He draws strength from his football career and upbringing in Forest Park. 

As a child, Walters played basketball with friends near Desplaines Avenue, watched X-Men, and attended school at Grant-White Elementary and Forest Park Middle School. He didn’t play football until entering St. Joseph High School, where the coach immediately recruited the scrawny Walters for the varsity, despite his slim frame. 

“I was super skinny and I had a lot of people who told me, ‘You’re going to get killed,’ and I guess that gave me more motivation. But as soon as I hit the field, the camaraderie, the teamwork and just the rough nature of it, I was sunk. It just snowballed from there,” he said. 

Although St. Joseph had never been known for its football program, Walters excelled, falling in love with the sport and catching the attention of college recruiters, earning a full-ride scholarship to Eastern Illinois University, where he majored in sociology. But after missing the deadline to submit his high school transcripts, Walters lost his scholarship for his freshman year. He shrugged his shoulders, delivered the bad news to his parents, and trained on. 

After Eastern, Walters signed up as a free agent for the National Football League, and was later picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs. He also played indoor football for the Chicago Rush and more. It was during this time that football started to feel like a job to Walters. He lost his passion for the game and his discipline, playing through a sore knee, pneumonia and losing himself to prescription medication and binge drinking, his ego ballooning. 

“When I was playing football I was sick, I was beat up, and still thought I was one of the best football players that a team could be blessed by signing. I was a shell of myself,” he said, adding: “It was like, ‘I have to go to practice, I have to do this, I have to be here,’ and ultimately that was my demise. I got too comfortable and before I knew it, it was all gone.” 

He returned home to Forest Park in 2012, bitter over losing his love for the game that had so far defined his life. He took a job coaching football at his high school alma mater, leading the team to its first winning season. But by the time his high school freshman had graduated to senior status, Walters’ mother had come down with serious medical issues. He took some time off to take care of her, continuing to reflect on his next steps. Walters loved teaching but knew he needed to move and compete. 

“I started to get that itch again, I started to get the craving to move again, so I started to build myself up,” he said.  

He also began reflecting on things he enjoyed as kid — ninjas, X-men, street fighting and how world cultures combine, and discovered the practice of mixed-martial arts, which combines fighting styles from across the globe. Walters searched for gyms near him, and found Victory MMA in his hometown. His first trip to the gym he bonded with coach Danny Sosa, who is also a professional fighter. Walters appreciated Sosa’s humility and Sosa found Walters’ focus inspiring. 

“He’s one of the most humble, hardest workers I know,” Sosa said. 

Walters concentrated on keeping his head down and training up. He also made sure he engaged in activities outside the sport. 

“Whereas when it was football, it was just football. I’d just go ahead and think about football and deal with the repercussions in negative ways, escaping the pain in different ways. Now MMA is a big part of my life, but it’s still going to be just a blip in my life.

“I’m climbing the ranks but I’m living the dream while doing it,” he said. 

Want to support Walters? Follow his career on Twitter at JKDWorkhorse or on Instagram at Workhorse__.