Doctor's orders means nap time for Walker

Northwestern coach Randy Walker can charm a recruit, break down a zone blitz or discuss the anthropological origins of football. (Think cavemen carrying a stick.)

But until recently, Walker was unable to do one of life's most elemental things -- take a nap.

That changed two weeks ago when Walker was hospitalized and diagnosed with inflammation of the heart muscle. He was back on the sidelines just six days later, watching his Wildcats topple Purdue 13-10.

But all is not quite back to normal for Walker, who promised his wife, Tammy, he would follow doctor's orders.

Walker still arrives at his Evanston office before 8 a.m. to meet with his coaches and formulate a practice plan. But now he returns home from 11-2 p.m. armed with tapes of recruits or Northwestern's upcoming opponent.

Walker watches the tapes from an easy chair or while lying in bed. For a few hours, he's in his own world, free from worrying about little things such as the team's training table or the condition of the practice fields.

"It's a lot more relaxing here," he said. "Nobody's calling. There are no crises here at the Walker house."

Said Tammy, his wife of 29 years: "I tease him because he has such a high energy level and he had a couple of notches taken off. I said: 'Now you have a normal energy level, so I can keep up with you.'"

Walker felt ill when he woke up on the morning of Oct. 25, but he figured it was indigestion and didn't tell Tammy about it. But after complaining of chest pains, Walker was taken to an area hospital by his son, Jamie, a Northwestern recruiting assistant.

Doctors diagnosed him with myocarditis, a condition that usually stems from a viral infection. In this case, doctors said antibodies that Walker's body produced to fight a previous infection attacked his heart instead.

By Oct. 27, Walker had returned to practice. He reluctantly used a golf cart to get around.

But the bigger challenge would be to get Walker to return home for about three hours each day.

"The doctors wanted him to sleep," Tammy said. "But he said: 'I'm not a napper. I don't know if I can do that.' The first few days, he was tired enough. He actually fell asleep a couple of times."

Tammy first learned about myocarditis at a health workshop she took at Miami of Ohio, where Walker coached from 1990-98. The person she studied with the condition needed a heart transplant.

"I didn't tell (Randy) about that until I thought I might need it to get him to follow instructions," she said. "When I told him, his eyes got real big and he said: 'I'm going to rest.'"

Walker's somewhat relaxed schedule certainly hasn't hurt his team. A week after upsetting Purdue, the Cats held on for a 14-7 victory at Penn State to improve to 5-4 and 4-2 in the Big Ten.

Next up is a colossal task -- a meeting with No. 9 Michigan on Saturday. If the Wolverines win, NU will have to beat Illinois next Saturday and Hawaii Nov. 27 to reach a bowl game for the second straight year.

That would be a satisfying way to conclude a season in which Walker has learned to shift gears, from first into neutral.

"I can't say enough about our kids," Walker said of his players. "It's one thing to expect moms and dads to send cards with best wishes, but even the kids will ask: 'You doing all right? You doing OK?'

"I reassure them all the time: 'I'm doing great. We're ready to go.'"

Teddy Greenstein covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Tribune.