Nearly a year ago Devon Walker was just beginning his last of year of football as a starting safety for the Tulane University Green Wave.
The Destrehan graduate had been a member of the 2007 and 2008 high school state championship teams, the latter of which he started on as safety in his senior year.
Prior to his days in high school and collegiate football, Devon got his start at six years old playing in the fall recreation football league hosted by the St. Charles Parish Recreation Department and booster clubs throughout the parish.
"He actually won a championship before high school when they were playing in the recreation league," Devonís father, Booker Walker, said. "He won the with 12, 13 and 14 year old age group. It took them three years to do it, but they did it."Despite his number of years on the football field it was his high level of academic achievement that got him into Tulane not his accomplishments in athletics. In fact, Devon was a walk-on to the Tulane football squad.
"Most people donít know that his scholarship was in academics and he walked on and got these other athletic scholarships later on," Booker said.
In 2012 Walker was coming back from a severely broken arm he had suffered a year earlier, the first injury he had in his football career up until that point.
"I snapped it in half on kickoff. I was running down on kickoff and it was smashed between two helmets," Devon said. "I have a rod and six screws in my left arm."
He also broke his cheekbone in practice prior to the 2012 football season, but he was able to return for the beginning of the season.
Given all the time and energy he had devoted to the game, and spending three years playing mostly on special teams at the collegiate level, it was a no-brainer as to whether he would return from his injuries to take on the role of starting safety for Tulane in his senior year. However, his time at the top of the lineup would be short lived.
On Sept. 8, 2012, in the second game of the season, Tulane faced Tulsa, the same team Walker had broken his arm against the previous year. At the end of the first half Walker went in for a tackle and his head hit both the receiver and then a teammate crossing in his path. He landed on the turf and did not move.
In that moment Devonís life would change forever. He had broken his neck and severed part of his spinal cord.
Booker said his son was lucky that he made it to the hospital without dying.
"He quit breathing. If they wouldnít have had all those medical personnel and an ambulance waiting he probably wouldnít have made it," he said.
After an emergency surgery to stabilize his neck and many months in the hospital Devon has been on the long road towards recovery.
He is now back at his parentís home located off Ormond Boulevard in Destrehan, only a little under two miles away from Ed Reed Stadium where he spent so many Friday nights under the bright lights in front of throngs of cheering fans.
In the front of the Walker home and just to the side of a wheelchair ramp is a sign reading 'Tulane Stadium. Coming Home' promoting the efforts by the university to construct a new football stadium next to the Uptown New Orleans campus.
Meanwhile construction workers are busy at work building an addition onto the back of the house specifically for Devon. The addition is being paid for as part of a fundraising effort by Tulane supporters as well as others.
"The Tulane Alumni Association and organizations such as the Saints and Steve Gleason have been helping me with the new addition to the house and technology that is going to help," Devon said.
In addition to living with his parents, he also has nurses who stay with him 10 hours a day, every day. Itís a big change for a young man who has spent the past four years living independently on a college campus, but Devon is taking in stride.
"I donít feel as though I was cheated. I would have liked to have spent that last year on campus, that last month or last seconds or whatever," he said. "You always miss college life after it has gone by, but you always appreciate things after they have happened." Devonís life is now devoted to his recovery and he has been getting incrementally better. "Iíve gotten back probably full mobility in my shoulders in my rotator cuffs and everything. A little bit of triceps movement here and there," he said.
Three to five times a week he makes the trip to physical therapy where they have him go through a variety of exercises including a bicycle that works his legs and arms and a brace that allows him to be in the upright position.
"Almost every session they stretch me out and they tell me to try and move different parts of my body," Devon said. "So it is always seeing what I can do, whatís next, whatís here or what is different from yesterday."
He said he gets occasional movement in his extremities, but it has not stayed consistent.
"Iíve been able to push my arms out and every now and then Iíll get a little movement muscle wise in my legs and might be able to push my leg back and forth sometimes," Devon said.
Although he understands the severity of Devonís injury, Booker is upbeat about his sonís recovery.
"Itís just a day to day process. We take it one day at a time. Every small amount of movement that he gets is a godsend," he said. "Heís determined and I am just hoping that I am around to see him stand up and walk again and I really think that is going to happen because a lot of people with his type of injury usually it has been somewhere of the neighborhood of three or four years before they regain all of the movement or some of the movement that he has."
Despite the rapid improvement in his sonís condition Booker said the future is still uncertain.
"Doctors donít know," he said. "One day he could wake up and he could be moving everything or moving a leg. We just have to wait and keep praying. Thatís what we have to do, keep praying. He is determined. Heís always been that type of individual."
In the meantime Devon must go on with his life with the help and support of others. It is with their support and his will and determination that will see him back in school this fall despite being confined to a wheelchair.
"My injury hasnít changed my drive. If not itís made me realize and know what I want even more," he said.
Devon is planning on finishing up his undergraduate degree in cell and molecular biology. He has always been interested in the medical field and had thought about going to medical school after receiving his undergraduate degree, but lately has been leaning more toward business.
"I am thinking about whether I want to stay or not and get a minor or masterís in business or some other degree that might help me later on in maybe creating a charity organization just for my type of injury or for people who are paralyzed or have ALS (Lou Gehrigís Disease) or MS (multiple sclerosis)," he said. "Just basically trying to find out better ways than what we have so far of dealing with these conditions."
However, he has not written off the idea of becoming a doctor just yet.
"Itís definitely a possibility. Itís all on how much I push myself. Not just my movement, but how much I push myself in my academics as well," Devon said.
As part of his back-to-school effort Devon has been training on software that allows him to operate a computer just by moving his eyes and another program that turns his speech into text so he can write papers. Looking back now on his football career itís easy to say he wishes he had not decided to play his senior year of college, but he knows he could not pass up the chance to be in the starting lineup of a Division I football team. Devon said athletics helped him and continues to help others and that he does not regret spending so much of his young life participating in sports. "Sports kept me motivated. It helped my drive in school also. It helped me with my grades," he said. "It helps kids go full circle into adults and after high school it helped pay for me through college. It helps keep you motivated. It teaches you a lot of responsibility." Just by observing Devon for a few minutes and seeing that he is not letting his injury determine his future it is easy to envision that he will continue to take the drive and determination he developed on the field and devote it to the rest of his life whatever it may hold. Those who like to donate to a fund dedicated to Devon's recovery can do so at http://tulane.edu/devonwalker/support-for-devon.cfm.
|Devon Walker sits in his parentís living room in Destrehan. He is recovering from a broken neck he suffered while playing football for Tulane University last year.|