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Jayland Walker's wrestling coach remembers 'one of the sweetest kids'

Jayland Walker (right) with his former wrestling coach Robert Hubbard in February 2020.
Robert Hubbard
Jayland Walker (right) with his former wrestling coach Robert Hubbard in February 2020.

"When I first heard, I was just shocked — just total shock," said Robert Hubbard. "It made no sense to me knowing the gentleman I knew, the young wrestler I knew since he was about 8 or 9 years old. It just made no sense."

Hubbard is a high school wrestling coach in Akron, Ohio and is still processing the death of 25-year-old Jayland Walker — shot by police dozens of times after a traffic stop on June 27.

Police video shows a stream of gunshots following a chase with eight officers, although Walker was unarmed at the time. The released footage sparked protests in downtown Akron this week as Walker became the latest symbol of outrage over Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

But Hubbard will remember Walker as "one of the sweetest kids." He coached him as a young wrestler for years.

"One of those kids, you know, I wish I had 10 of them on my team. That was the type of kid he was," Hubbard said.

"His father brought him to a youth wrestling team we have. And eventually I got him in high school, and he was a kid that I never had any problems from. I've had some kids that have tested me and pushed me. Jayland Walker was not one of those kids."

Demonstrators hold "Justice for Jayland" signs as they gather outside Akron City Hall on July 3.
Matthew Hatcher / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold "Justice for Jayland" signs as they gather outside Akron City Hall on July 3.

Hubbard said police video of the shooting was too traumatic for him to watch in its entirety, but from what he could tell, Walker's behavior in trying to run from police was unusual.

"The Jayland I know — that's totally out of character. I don't know. I understand he was going through some stuff. He'd just lost his fiancée in a terrible car accident."

Akron Police Chief Steve Mylett said officers tried to pull Walker over for unspecified traffic and equipment violations, but that he didn't comply right away and that the sound of a shot was heard from the car, changing the scene from a standard traffic stop to a "public safety issue." Officers said they feared that Walker was preparing to fire a gun when they discharged their weapons.

The incident has made Hubbard hold his own family a little closer lately. As he talks about his sons, there's an undercurrent of fear that one of them might be next.

"My son was home this weekend from school because he just graduated from Ohio State in Columbus," Hubbard said. "Man, I had to give him an extra hug. Like, I'm so glad I have my son here. I can hug you."

Demonstrators gather outside Akron City Hall on July 3 to protest the killing of Jayland Walker.
MATTHEW HATCHER / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators gather outside Akron City Hall on July 3 to protest the killing of Jayland Walker.

Hubbard said he hoped that if someone he loves was ever in the same situation as Walker was with the police, that they try to assist, not harm.

"My wish is that they can get them the help — not be judge and jury," he said. "But actually, you know, if he needs to be arrested, get him arrested. That would be my wish — not to be afraid of him to the point that after I've put 60 rounds in him, he still needs to be handcuffed."

More than 60 gunshot wounds were found on Jayland Walker's body. Officers were filmed providing aid after the shooting, and one said he felt a pulse. But Walker was later pronounced dead at the scene. The family's attorney said the shooting continued even after Walker fell to the ground, and that he was handcuffed before being given medical aid. The officers involved have been placed on paid administrative leave.

"I'm not a police expert on protocol or anything," Hubbard said. "You know, over these years, we've been talking about de-escalation. It seemed like there was no de-escalation. And once that car stopped, they were just on a hundred as soon as they got out there. As the families say, it seems like you wouldn't treat an animal that way. That was — it was heartbreaking."

Hubbard wants to know why the officers didn't see someone in need, rather than a threat.

"I think at worst, Jayland might have needed some help," he said. "If they had handled it differently, if they had, you know, subdued him and got him in, they probably could've gotten him some help. This is somebody that has not hurt anybody."

This week, President Joe Biden made brief remarks about the shooting of Walker, saying that the Justice Department's civil rights division and the local U.S. attorney's office was closely monitoring what had happened. He also said the FBI was coordinating with state and local partners.

"If the evidence reveals potential violations of federal criminal statutes, the Justice Department will take appropriate action," Biden said.

When asked what he thinks justice would look like here, Hubbard said he hadn't thought of that. He was still trying to process the loss of the person he knew and loved. But he knows one thing:

"What I want is for nobody else to have to lose a loved one the way Jayland's family lost him."

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.