Walker has personality in adversity
DESTREHAN, La. -- It started with a labored shrug of his shoulders. Progress continued when he wiggled one of his big toes, a physical feat more meaningful than any bone-rattling tackle he ever made on the football field. Then -- after much grunting and straining -- he partially extended his left leg.
With that Devon Walker, a Tulane senior who sustained a freak spinal cord injury on the football field last season that had left him paralyzed from the neck down, gained an elusive intangible that he used to chase with his teammates each autumn Saturday: momentum.
Armed with his faith, patience and an unbridled sense of optimism following an auspicious summer of rehab, Walker is determined to keep pushing his body to its absolute limit.
"I've accomplished a lot over the past few months," Walker said. "It's a marathon, not a sprint. I'm taking it day by day."
And when necessary, inch by painful inch.
"Devon has a great attitude," Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he [stood] up tomorrow. Devon is the toughest person I've ever been around."
Walker first cultivated this tough-guy reputation as a gangly, undersized freshman attempting to play Division I football. He worked feverishly over the years, filling in roles as a defensive reserve and regular on special teams before finally earning his way into Tulane's starting lineup as a team captain in 2012.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound safety recorded nine tackles in the Green Wave's season-opening loss to Rutgers.
"Devon was not big at all, but he had something inside of him that was different from other players," Tulane receiver Jacob Davis said. "Pound for pound, Devon was probably the hardest hitter on our team. He was a flash coming from the secondary position, and he had a killer instinct."
Walker's daring mentality worked against him the following week in the team's Sept. 8 road tilt against Tulsa. Footage shows Walker surging across the field, long dreadlocks fluttering in the air, homing in on Hurricane ball carrier Willie Carter. Walker dips his shoulder, goes low and completes the tackle while simultaneously smacking helmets with teammate Julius Warmsley.
The collision appeared to be innocuous, but the damage was catastrophic.
"Everything beneath my shoulders went numb," Walker said. "It felt like my arms and legs were floating straight up in the air, but they were flat on the ground."
The impact caused Walker's vertebrae to slam against his spinal cord with enough force to pinch off his breathing. His blood pressure plummeted and he desperately gasped for air. He blacked out as paramedics were cutting off his pads. As he was being carted off the field, he regained consciousness on the gurney, then blacked out again in the ambulance.
"I woke up in the hospital with tubes going into my mouth," Walker said. "I was there for about 10 days, but it felt like 10 seconds because I was on so much medication."
Doctors fused the bones in Walker's neck, relieving pressure on his spinal cord. He also underwent a tracheotomy, and he has undergone multiple procedures since the fall to enhance his breathing and speaking.
These days, Walker gets around with the aid of a sip-and-puff (SNP), a device that allows him to navigate his wheelchair by inhaling and exhaling through a straw. He's driven to New Orleans three days a week to complete physical therapy sessions that drain every ounce of his strength. Walker misses brushing his own teeth and surfing the Web and wistfully longs for the day he'll be able pump his music to thunderous volumes and hang out on Tulane's campus without the aid of a nurse.
He winces when discussing the recent release of "Call of Duty: Ghosts" on Xbox 360.
"I used to be really good at it, but I still can't pull the trigger," he said. "I'll just have to find another way to play it."
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Even though life continues to present a series of challenges and adjustments, Walker has never harbored resentment toward the sport that limited his ability to move. He said he thinks the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel's new rule that permits officials to eject players who target and hit defenseless players above the shoulders is a step in the right direction, but he believes it won't prevent inadvertent injuries such as the one he endured.
"If a receiver is coming across the middle, I'm going to hit him hard enough so that he'll never want to come across the field again," Walker explained. "Hitting and injuries are a part of the game. Any rule that can cut down on injuries is good, but you can't stop the way the game is played. It's a rough sport. It's like warfare."
The Tulane community hasn't forgotten about its wounded warrior. Students sell Devon Walker-inspired T-shirts and charm bracelets, with all of the net proceeds going to the Devon Walker Fund. Money from the philanthropy helps to fund the completion of "Devon's Den," an apartment being built in the Walker family's backyard in Destrehan. The facility will include a huge bedroom and handicap-accessible bathroom, with technology and amenities to assist Walker's rehabilitation. It will serve as Walker's new home while he works toward completing his molecular biology degree this fall.
"There are a lot of people behind Devon, backing him up," Davis said. "We all try to keep him strong-minded, but I don't think he really needs it. You see his physical therapy videos and it almost brings a tear to your eyes. He's always in good spirits and making jokes about being in a wheelchair."
Walker's gregarious personality continues to resurface with each physical accomplishment. Most recently, he experienced slight movement in his fingers. It marked another seminal victory for a college student determined to live life on his own terms.
He's hoping the next step in his rehab will be the one he takes out of his wheelchair.
"Devon is a soldier with a huge heart," Davis said. "He'll be walking again. It's only a matter of time."
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