Wrestling with the Past

A cheating scandal sank his lifelong dream of a military career. Now Rodney Walker -- aka Rukkus -- is a very different kind of warrior.

Cover Story

July 11, 1999|By Neal Thompson | By Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

It's 6:30 on a Friday night, almost show time at the Big Kahuna, a gaudy, beach-themed complex of restaurants and bars just off Interstate 95 in Wilmington, Del. Backstage, large men in sequined costumes drink and smoke, stubbing out their butts in plates of cold spaghetti. They tell raunchy jokes to women in bikinis and await orders from the promoter of tonight's show, a frenetic, tuxedoed man with slicked-back hair named Izzy.

"Where's the midget?!" Izzy screams.

Izzy scurries about, barking instructions to these men a foot taller than himself. Men named the Giant Leprechaun and the Hustler, all of them minor-league wrestlers with dreams of bigger venues. Izzy tells them when they will go on tonight, and whether they will win or lose.

Off to one side, keeping his distance from the others, sits Rodney Walker. Instead of sequins, he wears a simple uniform of black tights and boots. As show time nears, he finds a spot between an ice machine and a pizza oven to stretch and exercise. He peels off a T-shirt to reveal a thick, well-toned, tattooed torso. On one arm, in blue ink, is the name "Rukkus." On the other, the words "No Fear." Etched in blue on his chest is the face of an infant boy.

For all his menacing muscle, Walker, a handsome man with a shiny bald head and a big smile on his round face, is polite and almost shy. If you met him elsewhere, you'd never guess that three to five nights a week, he transforms himself into Rukkus -- a snarling, fan-taunting, body-slamming, chair-throwing professional wrestler.

As he strides through the crowd in time to a thumping rap beat, his tattooed muscles glistening with baby oil, you'd certainly never guess that only a few years before, he'd worn the crisp dress white uniform of an aspiring Marine officer at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

But that was six long, painful years ago. Rodney Walker is 29 now. He's 80 pounds heavier, more worldly wise than he was then.

The Big Kahuna crowd is ready for him. As Walker approaches the ring to face 300-pound Frank "The Delaware Destroyer" Finnegan, they scream obscenities, call him unspeakable things. He screams right back.

It's the sort of treatment you get when you are the bad guy. Walker is used to it. It was worse in his final, grueling days at the Naval Academy, when they called him cheater, traitor, liar. In this dark and smoky place, at least, the taunts are his applause.

Walker puts his hand over the tattoo on his chest. This is for you, Mykelti. Then he steps through the ropes and into the ring.

Seeds of a scandal

The transformation of a promising midshipman named Rodney Walker into a wrestler named Rukkus began at the Naval Academy in the last days of the fall semester of 1992, when a cheating scandal rocked Annapolis.

Some details of the scandal have been widely reported. But the full story of the next 18 months, of how events triggered by Walker grew beyond his control, forever changing many lives -- and the academy itself -- has remained untold. Interviews with numerous former midshipmen, Navy investigators and officers and a review of thousands of Navy documents shed new light on some of the academy's darkest hours.

Walker was a well-liked, sharp-dressed junior. The Atlanta native had arrived at the academy a bit older than most classmates; he enlisted for a year in the Marines and then, at the suggestion of the academy's admissions board, spent a year at the Naval Academy Prep School in Rhode Island.

Walker wanted to become a Marine officer, a chance given to one in six academy graduates. He also wanted to earn the respect of his father, his hero, a successful businessman despite only a third-grade education. And by early December of 1992, Walker was getting there. Just 18 months from graduating, his grades were A's and B's, and Christmas break was nearing.

But first, there was the final exam in Electrical Engineering. EE-311, also known as "Double E" or "wires," was one of the academy's most difficult courses, full of complicated math and arcane terminology.

The EE exam was still almost two weeks away on Dec. 1 when Professor Raymond Wasta, the course coordinator, sent the test he'd prepared via campus mail to the academy photocopy center. A log book would show it never arrived. So, a week later, Wasta hand-delivered a backup copy. Two days later, a Friday, he picked up stacks of photocopies and went home.

About that same time, a friend and classmate of Walker's named Christopher Rounds knocked on his buddy's door. The two, pals since freshman year, lived on the same floor of Bancroft Hall, the massive stone dormitory where all 4,000-plus midshipmen lived.

Rounds told Walker he wanted to take his girlfriend to dinner, but needed money. He had, he confided, a copy of the EE final; would Walker help him sell a few copies at $50 apiece?

Walker, who was pulling an "A" in the class, didn't need the test himself. But he liked to be liked. Plus, he owed Rounds $100. So he agreed.

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