It’s been two years since that bad, bad day in Tulsa — the one that changed Devon Walker’s life forever when he and a Tulane teammate collided as they were closing in on a tackle.
But despite nearly dying on the field and being paralyzed from the neck down with two broken vertebrae, Walker hasn’t soured on life, or even football.
In fact, if and when he ever has son, Walker wants him to play.
“It’s a dangerous sport — always has been, always will be as long as they call it football,” he said. “The idea of getting hurt is just something that you live with, something that you learn to deal with, something you try to train to avoid — not to get hurt and not to hurt others.
“Injuries are just part of football and I had a bad one. But I don’t love the game any less now than I did then.”
And it’s why Walker is returning where it happened Thursday, to be recognized at halftime during Tulane’s first game at Tulsa since then and, more importantly, to thank those who saved his life in the immediate aftermath and who cared for him for the next 10 days until he could be transferred to a spine rehab facility in Atlanta plus the many Tulsa fans whom he’s heard from.
Before leaving New Orleans, Walker filmed a video doing just that.
For Walker, there’s no trepidation about being back at H.A. Chapman Stadium causing any horrific flashbacks (“The field is just the spot where it happened.”). His only concern was that that the logistics of getting himself and his wheelchair to and from the game aboard the team charter and having the necessary support system on the ground in Tulsa would be more trouble than it’s worth (They’re not, at least not to Athletic Director Rick Dickson and Coach Curtis Johnson who first broached the idea of Walker a few weeks ago).
“Just for him to go to back to thank them, to be around them again and the site of the injury is just too courageous for me,” said Johnson, who called the 2012 Tulsa game “one of the worst days of my life.”
Walker’s injury occurred in Johnson’s second game as a head coach, and he has acknowledged that it shook up a fragile group that had lost its final 10 games of 2011 and would drop three more what wound up as a 45-10 loss to Tulsa.
It was a low ebb in a program that’s had plenty of them over the years, and a relatively stark contrast from the numerous positive developments of the past two years.
Since Walker’s injury Tulane has moved from Conference USA to the what is now the American Athletic Conference, experienced its first winning season and bowl game in 11 years and, at long-last, seen a commitment from the university to support the football program to the hilt, including a contact extension for Johnson and raises for his assistants that’s kept it much intact.
Plus, of course, there’s Yulman Stadium, which has a sold out opening against Georgia Tech a week from Saturday.
For the first time since the Green Wave’s undefeated of 16 yars ago, there’s a local buzz about Tulane football.
On campus, too. It was a shock to the system this week to see students lined up outside the Wilson Center to get their tickets, something they didn’t need for games in the Superdome.
“When I came here, I never thought we’d have our own stadium,” said Walker, who began his career Tulane career in 2008 as a walk-on from Destrehan. “And we’ve got people talking about how much they’re looking forward to the first game.
“I never thought I’d see that either.”
Walker is especially happy for the teammates remaining from his playing days, people like Lorenzo Doss, his road roommate for the Tulsa game when he was a freshman and safety Darion Monroe, another player Walker had taken under his wing back then.
Rather than envying them for their football futures — not to mention their health — he talks about his pride in seeing them develop as players and persons.
Besides, Walker’s too busy with his own future plans.
After graduating in May with a degree in cell and molecular biology, Walker is in graduate school with the ultimate goal of gaining a doctorate in neuroscience.
It’s only a coincidence that his chosen field also relates to his condition. Although his movements are controlled by his blowing into a plastic tube, the only limitation on Walker’s career path is that he will never be a surgeon.
“What I’m doing isn’t based on physical ability,” Walker said. “It’s knowledge based – what you know and how you know to do what you know.”
Walker does admit to being depressed at times about the hand fate has dealt him. Who wouldn’t?
But when he does get down, Walker draws on another lesson from football.
“Football is not just a sport — it’s a way of life,” he said. “A lot of what I am today is because of football — my determination, my strength, being able to get hurt and play through it.
“You have a tough practice, or something bad happens in a game, you just put it behind you and keep going. Life doesn’t stop just because you have a little adversity.”
A little adversity?
You don’t have to be a football player to draw strength from Devon Walker.