TULSA, Okla. — Devon Walker said his decision to return to the field where he broke his neck was easy.
Walker knew he would have mixed emotions at Chapman Stadium, but it felt right. Nearly two years after a collision with teammate Julius Warmsley left him paralyzed from the neck down, he wanted to thank the Tulsa community for its overwhelming reaction during his recovery.
“I actually got more support from the people in Tulsa sometimes than the people in Louisiana as a state,” he said as he talked to reporters before the game. “I was getting thousands of letters from people saying I inspired them.”
Even before the day began, Walker found the trip well worth the physical and emotional toll it took when he flew with the team to Tulsa on Wednesday. At a team hotel function, he met and thanked the people who helped him directly after his collision near the end of the first half left him motionless and struggling to breathe — the medics, the trainers and the hospital workers.
“I lived here 39 years and never had the key of the city given to me,” Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson said. “But it happened to (Walker last night). I’ve been doing it for 28 years, and he’s probably the most remarkable student-athlete I’ve ever had.”
This day was not about the sadness he admitted he still naturally felt at times about being confined to a wheelchair. It was about celebrating the depth of his recovery two years after his bleakest moment.
As Walker wheeled himself into the interview room at the Reynolds Center next to the football stadium two hours before kickoff, he noticed a piece of tape on the floor and asked if that was his official stopping point. He joked that the Tulsa weather, in the mid-90s but with low humidity, was not too bad because it “was a dry heat.”
Walker’s whole career was accidental. After graduating from Destrehan High School as a three-year letterman, he arrived at Tulane with no intention of playing football. Thursday, he recalled that Dickson approached him about joining the team as a walk-on, how he went home to mull it over and how he decided to take on the challenge.
He played in nine games as a freshman, all 12 as a sophomore and nine more as a junior, earning a scholarship by the fall of 2011. When he took the field at Chapman Stadium on Sept. 8, 2012, he was a starting safety coming off a career-high nine tackles against Rutgers.
His life changed forever that day, but he has rebounded as well as humanly possible. That recovery was there for everyone to see as a video aired at halftime with him thanking the people of Tulsa. After receiving loud applause, he rolled his wheelchair on to the field and accepted a football signed by the Tulsa players.
When Dickson approached him about making his first road trip with the team — Walker went to all of Tulane’s games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season — he said yes again, just as he had when Dickson asked him to join the team.
“I don’t think it’s as much a healing factor,” Walker said. “Coming back just feels like a hurdle in my life I’d like to get over and move on.”
Inez Walker, his mother, admitted she was not sure how she would feel once the game started. But she knew her son would handle it with composure and class.
“I always knew he was a strong young man,” she said. “But with this, he kind of amazes me.”
Junior running back Josh Rounds, who was getting reps with the first unit at times in preseason practice, was left off the 70-man travel roster in what team officials labeled a “coach’s decision.”
Deep in the backfield, the Wave did not miss him in the first half, with Sherman Badie racing for a 90-yard touchdown and senior Dante Butler getting his first career TD on a reception. Lazedrick Thompson started and carried on the first play, and freshman Dontrell Hilliard had three rushing attempts, too.
Freshman defensive tackle Eric Bell from West St. John High has been suspended from the team for unspecified reasons. … Badie’s TD run was the longest gain on the ground for Tulane since Jerold Sowell’s 98-yarder against Alabama in 1993. … Freshman tight end Charles Jones’ 15-yard touchdown catch was the first score by a Tulane tight end since Brock Sanders scored against Duke in 2011.