Just one year ago, Devon Walker needed his community to help keep him alive. Now, Walker is the one uplifting the community around him.
The former Tulane safety, who suffered a spinal cord injury in the second week of the 2012 season, can’t walk or even lift his arms and legs. But that hasn’t stopped him from emotionally carrying Tulane teammates, fans, administrators and admirers from around the country.
Nowhere was his lofty place in the Green Wave program more evident than last week’s season-opening win over Jackson State.
Rolling in on a wheelchair he powered via his breathing and sip-and-puff system, Walker’s presence sparked the locker room before kickoff and lit it up again when he jubilantly followed his former teammates back from the field after the game. Walker passionately spoke to the team that night, never mentioning his misfortune and physical limitations, choosing instead to focus on making the most of your opportunities and what a blessing football is.
“I couldn’t do much better than his pregame speech,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “It was awesome. I almost cried. We’ve got his spot, we’ve got his locker and we had his jersey on him. It was good. It was a good night for him.”
His words had an immediate impact.
“It was incredible to hear him speak in there and see his smiling face because it just showed us that, no matter what our problems are, if this guy can be fired up and excited and happy, we definitely can be,” sophomore safety Darion Monroe said.
“He really means so much to us, and to have him back around the team was just such a lift for everybody in the locker room. I hope he can go to every game. He’s one of us on that field, even if he can’t play.”
Teammates carried a flag emblazoned with Walker’s No. 18 onto the field. The same number was printed on T-shirts, wristbands and banners around Tulane’s campus as a unifying symbol in the dark days following his injury; it’s now a mark of hope and passion.
“He just made you happy to be out there,” linebacker Dominique Robertson said. “You look at him and then listen to him and it’s hard to let anything in the world get you down. He makes you want to play your hardest at all times and really soak in the moment because he tells you nothing is guaranteed.”
The Green Wave grappled with an entirely different set of emotions in the aftermath of his injury. For weeks, Walker’s health status was still unclear, even to those closest to him, and teammates went long periods without any meaningful contact.
Walker was in need of constant care for nearly the entire season. He was transported from his first hospital in Tulsa, Okla., to a rehab facility in Georgia before coming anywhere near his teammates. The memory of his injury was more prominent in the players’ minds than his recovery.
Uncertain whether Walker’s personality would emerge from a wheelchair or whether he would be able to communicate with them, teammates and coaches were in a monthlong haze as the Green Wave’s dreadful start trudged on.
Then, as weeks passed by and the calendar turned to 2013, Walker was able to flash his smile, speak with friends and get back around the team and football field this August.
“I never played with him or even met him before his accident, and I think he’s one of the most important people I know,” said defensive tackle Chris Davenport, a transfer from LSU. “Ask anyone in this building, and they’ll all say the greatest things about him. After listening to him a few times now, I understand it all. Everyone is so happy to see him that it lifts everybody’s spirit. He means the world to this football team, and I’m proud he’s a part of us.”
Walker’s inspiration carries far beyond the locker room. Athletic Director Rick Dickson said there has been no better symbol for the university and its athletes than Walker, who re-entered the classroom for the first time last week to continue his pursuit of a molecular biology degree.
It was a watershed moment for Dickson and the benefactors, well-wishers and pro-bono workers who have given time and money to aid Walker’s recovery and return to everyday life.
“I remember being back in Tulsa as he was struggling to do anything. We had no plan in place, and we’re just trying to get him to a rehab facility and wondering what the long-term possibilities were,” Dickson said. “It was all kind of a fog. But after about six days in Tulsa, I had to go back to New Orleans to speak with our board, and I was asked to provide an update on Devon. Once I told everyone what was going on, (school President Scott Cowen) stood up and made everyone understand there won’t be a day when Tulane won’t be by this kid’s side.
“I’ve taken that command literally. So, starting with that mandate, we have gone through every avenue we can think of to provide care, and Devon has been the greatest ambassador in the world because he’s not letting anything stand in his way.”
The latest phase of Walker’s recovery is the construction of “Devon’s Den,” a state-of-the-art apartment attached to his parent’s backyard in Destrehan. Corporate sponsorships and donated time will allow Walker to live in the $400,000 addition, equipped with the best technology available, for no additional cost.
So while Walker is still depending on the kindness of others in his recovery, Dickson and many other members of the Tulane community insist it’s not a one-way gift.
“There’s nothing we can do for Devon that he hasn’t already given back to us,” Dickson said. “The people who have rallied around this cause have shown everything that’s great about our communities, both in New Orleans and around college athletics.
“But if it weren’t for the way Devon has handled himself through this whole process and the spirit he’s shown everyone, I don’t think we could have ever gotten this far. There is no telling how this story ends, but I know there’s nobody better equipped to face it. ”