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Former athlete, Navy SEAL candidate Walylko opens Fall Fest

Hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd entertained students with pineapples and colorful outerwear over the weekend. Meghan Sunners / Senior Staff Photographer.

Hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd entertained students with pineapples and colorful outerwear over the weekend. Meghan Sunners / Senior Staff Photographer.

Hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd entertained students with pineapples and colorful outerwear over the weekend. Meghan Sunners / Senior Staff Photographer.

By David Robinson / For the Pitt News

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After a shortened career in baseball and a stint training as a Navy SEAL, Pitt senior Johnny Walylko picked up a guitar and an opening gig at this year’s Fall Fest.

Pitt welcomed about 6,500 students to the annual celebration Saturday afternoon. Sponsored by the Pitt Program Council, the seasonal event showcased music acts Rae Sremmurd, FRENSHIP, NAWAS and Walylko this year on the closed-off Bigelow Boulevard.

Walylko, the 26 year-old who won Pitt’s Battle of the Bands competition on Sept. 8, kicked off the show with a relaxing folk style that stood in sharp contrast to the rambunctious nature of hip-hop duo and headliner Rae Sremmurd, best known for their 2015 hit single “No Flex Zone.”

Winning Battle of the Bands was a rush for Walylko — he only found out about the competition on the day he competed.

“I went down and put my name in,” Walylko said. “I went out there and just tried to have fun.”

It wasn’t until later that day, while playing guitar with a fellow student after class, that Walylko realized he had won.

“Someone came by and was like, ‘Hey, aren’t you Johnny? Aren’t you the guy who won Battle of the Bands?’ And it just blew my mind. It was an out-of-body experience,” Walylko said.

At 1 p.m., Walylko, known by his stage name Johnny Wall, started the show, coming onstage with nothing but his guitar. The self-described singer-songwriter, split his acoustic folk melodies between monologues to the audience about what he finds appealing and engaging about music.

The senior, who transferred from Pitt-Johnstown in the spring of 2014, said his musical inspiration comes from Indie pop singer Jack Johnson.

“[Johnson] understands the beauty in life comes through simplicity — it’s not through money and through fame,” Walylko said.

Walylko exclusively plays his own songs because he said he never had the taste for covers. In “Stuck in My Head,” an upbeat number, Walylko’s tells the story of meeting his girlfriend, underlining the awkward nervousness of new romance.

Symone Quinn, a first-year at Pitt, said the opener’s style was reminiscent of Never Shout Never, an American Indie musician known for his songs “Trouble” and “On the Brightside.”

“[Walylko is] a really vibey type person — it’s a nice mood,” Quinn said.

While they waited and vibed to Johnny Wall’s music, students had access to games including cornhole and a test-your-strength game. The Tasty Tacos food truck provided free brisket tacos and buffalo cauliflower tacos, and students could also get free T-shirts by playing Mario on a Wii U at a video game table. Early in the afternoon, Truth X LIVE brought therapy dogs to the event.

Onstage, Walylko was performing with a microphone for one of only a few times in his life. He found it a sharp contrast from the Mount Washington street performances he’s used to.

“I’ve played in front of a mic before, and I never felt good about it,” Walylko said. “I like to do a lot of street performances.”

Phil Thompson, communications coordinator of Pitt’s music department and Walylko’s music theory instructor, said Walylko has notable persistence and puts a significant amount of effort into the tunes he brings to class.

“The thing that’s really obvious to me is his openness to music,” Thompson said.

Though Walylko has been playing guitar since 2008 — when he taught himself to write his own songs — music hasn’t always been his primary passion.

The transfer senior attempted a career in baseball, having attended IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a boarding college-preparatory school specializing in athletics, before a shoulder injury in 2006 took him out of the game. With that dream out of reach, Walylko pursued a different path. In 2009, he began training as a Navy SEAL candidate. But an EKG revealed he had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome ––  a form of tachycardia, or rapid heartbeat–– and discontinued his training.

“It was hard. I was trying to find an identity,” Walylko said.

After his medical discharge, Walylko began practicing MMA –– mixed martial arts –– and wrestling at Pitt Johnstown after a cardiac ablation fixed his condition. In 2013 he went through Army Infantry Basic Training and is still enlisted in the National Guard.

He came to Oakland in the spring of 2014 and is currently a senior at Pitt studying nonfiction writing, though he’s decided to stay an extra year for a degree in music, his newest passion.

A man who’s walked several different paths, Walylko said he learned from his SEAL training to embrace adversity in life.

“The mindset of the SEALs is priceless,” Walylko said.

Fall Fest might have been his big debut — to a crowd somewhere in the thousands depending on the time of day — but Walylko said he’s just getting started.  

“I have high expectations, so I feel like [this] was a good starting point, but I know I can perform better,” Walylko said. “I love being onstage — I love the experience.”

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this article, the headline called Walylko a Navy SEAL, rather than a Navy SEAL candidate. We have updated the headline to reflect the accurate information, The Pitt News regrets this error. 

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Former athlete, Navy SEAL candidate Walylko opens Fall Fest