About two years ago, P.J. Walker’s mother, Tamicha Drake, called him.
She had a dream about him. At the time, Walker was a backup quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and hadn’t played in an NFL regular-season game before. He was still waiting on his opportunity.
“I had a dream you were playing for the Panthers,” she told him.
“Really? That’s weird,” he responded.
That dream came true, and on Sunday against the Lions, Walker took it one step further. He started in his first NFL game after Matt Rhule made the decision minutes before kickoff to sit Teddy Bridgewater, who suffered a knee injury last week against the Buccaneers.
The decision, it turned out, was the right one.
The Panthers won 20-0 and Bridgewater got to rest his knee for at least a week. Walker threw for 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“Life just comes full circle,” Walker said, smiling as he recalled the phone call with his mother.
The plan all week was that Walker would start if Bridgewater couldn’t go. But no one knew until Sunday that Bridgewater was going to be inactive.
Not Rhule, Bridgewater or Walker.
Rhule said he made the decision after watching Bridgewater warm up. He said everyone felt he could play if needed, and Bridgewater wanted to play. The doctors cleared him, too.
But Rhule said his gut was telling him to rest his starting quarterback.
“I just felt like as I watched him move, he moved at like, 80-85%,” Rhule said, “and I didn’t feel like, at that position, especially with his history on the left knee, I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do to ask him to go out there and go against his instincts.
“I just felt like P.J. or Will could go win the game for us.”
Rhule said he chose to start Walker over 2019 third-round pick Will Grier based on this week’s practice; Walker simply looked better.
Walker said he prepared all week as if he would start. Before the game, he talked to his mother, who told him, to “go be him.”
He picked up his first career win in his first NFL start.
The former XFL star who also played at Temple under Rhule had some good and bad moments in Sunday’s game. The bad was the two interceptions he threw in the end zone— one in the second quarter and one in the fourth.
The good was the 52-yard dime he threw to DJ Moore, who beat his defender on a go-route. The ball dropped in Moore’s hands as he was running in stride. The pass and catch put the Panthers in good field position to score their first touchdown of the game, a 1-yard run by Mike Davis, four plays later.
He also threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel in the third quarter, which was his first career touchdown pass. Walker said whenever he came back to the sideline after each drive, Bridgewater helped him and told him what he’d be thinking in certain situations. Walker said that helped him settle down.
“Every time I came back to the sideline, he did a great job showing me what he saw,” Walker said. “Showing me everything from the pictures that he saw, and what he was thinking. … That helped me just to have that extra eye out there, and I’m noticing things now that when I see something, just because he showed me.”
Rhule was happy with Walker’s performance. So were his teammates. They gave him the game ball in the locker room after the win.
“I thought he played really well today,” Rhule said. “Obviously, P.J. can’t have the two goal-to-goal interceptions. That could have cost us the game. … But to go 24 for 34 in your first start, you played pretty well.”
This was the moment Walker and his mother had been dreaming about since he was a child.
“ ’You belong here.’ That was something she always told me,” Walker said of his mother. “You belong at this place, and just go make the best of it.”
And he did.