Tulane’s Walker making progress

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 31, 2013

By RYAN ARENA
L’Observateur

LAPLACE – It was a game Devon Walker never seemed likely to play in, on a night his team seemed destined to lose.
Destrehan trailed 18-6 in the fourth quarter of its 2008 Class 5A quarterfinal game at Higgins. Walker, a senior, took the field despite totaling his car that morning in a rainy day accident. Walker suffered scratches and abrasions, his face slightly burned from the airbag that deployed on impact.
He was cleared to play, but it seemed the night would be a bitter finish to his stellar prep career. Then, as Walker recalled, a teammate’s fourth quarter speech sparked a furious comeback, and the Wildcats scored 21 unanswered points.
“We’d just seen the movie ‘300,’” he said. “And I just remember someone screaming that quote from the movie. ‘Will you quit?’ And we’d shout, ‘No!’ It fired everyone up and we came all the way back.”
Walker went on to win a second consecutive state championship with the Wildcats before signing with Tulane. But his life changed forever almost one year ago. And just as in the Higgins game, he has designs on a furious comeback, on beating the odds and on answering that ‘300’ question with even more defiance.
As one might expect of a man who once helped lead his team to consecutive state championships, Walker sported a determined expression on his face Thursday evening.
“I’m always a little bit ahead of where I was,” said Walker.
On Sept. 8, 2012, Walker experienced the realization of every athlete’s worst fears. The Tulane safety attempted a tackle during the first half of the Green Wave’s game against Tulsa in the second game of his senior year. His head hit the ballcarrier and then a teammate crossing his path before laying motionless on the turf; Walker had broken his neck and severed part of his spinal cord.
He stopped breathing for a short time before being transported to the hospital for emergency surgery to stabilize his neck. The injuries rendered him paralyzed, and he’s been undergoing physical therapy since.
The 2008 DHS graduate is confined to a wheelchair, fighting daily in a quest to walk again.
“I’m getting some range of motion back,” he said. “I can push with my legs, push with my triceps.’
“I still don’t have the strength to stand up or to even pick up my arms. But I’m making progress. I can get my fingers to jiggle and I’ve got a lot more range in my shoulders … As long as I’m not going backwards, I feel like I’m doing alright.”
Walker said his doctors are encouraged by his progress but don’t want to make any declarative statements about where his progress will ultimately lead.
“That seems like a rule with doctors,” Walker said with a wry smile. “They won’t give you anything definite. They opt for that cautious approach.”
Walker now lives at his parents’ home in Destrehan. Nurses stay with him throughout each day, and he makes up to five trips a week to physical therapy, which Walker said provides a source of constant stimulation and challenge.
“They find different things for me every day,” he said. “They challenge me by making it harder to do the exercises I’m already able to do and by giving me something I haven’t seen before. The main thing that sticks in my head, my doctors, my family, my friends … they’re all pushing me forward. It keeps me going.”
The hope is that this series of small, daily victories will add up to a bigger picture one. Walker has some experience in that regard — a proven winner, he knows how a strong belief in the process can lead to great things.
In 2007 and 2008, his Destrehan teams didn’t lose a single game en route to two Class 5A state crowns, going a perfect 29-0 through the two-year period. Those were the school’s first state championship victories since 1973.
While in 2007 the Wildcats were known primarily for their offensive firepower, the 2008 team shifted gears completely, with Walker and his defense emerging as the dominant unit and putting together one of the best defensive seasons in recent memory.
That season culminated with a 14-3 state championship victory over West Monroe in the Superdome.
“We were so together on that defense. So much toughness,” Walker said. “Our attitude was always, ‘You’re not gonna beat me, and even if you do, my brother back there is gonna take care of you.’
“(Against West Monroe) we’re up 7-3, they’re driving down to score, and then we intercept and score to seal it. The energy in that building, it was just amazing.”
Walker’s efforts to recover have inspired others, and others, in turn, have inspired him.
He receives letters regularly, some by fans wishing him well, others from people who are also dealing with recovery from paralysis.
“I hear from people who have been in a wheelchair for four or five years, trying to get back. Even trying to get to where I am right now,” said Walker. ““Another letter came from someone who’s fully functional again after a year and a half in a wheelchair. So when I see that, I can’t feel sorry for myself. And I can’t quit.”
Walker plans to complete his education at Tulane, where he is studying cell and molecular biology. He’s also keeping up with his coaches and teammates at Tulane, including recent visits from his fellow defensive backs and head coach Curtis Johnson.
He’s also making strides back toward normalcy as the weeks go by. Walker has made recent trips to go out and eat – he recently dined at Ruth Chris’ Steakhouse with his longtime girlfriend, Leslie, for their five-year anniversary. He’s also been to the mall and spends much of his time not occupied by therapy checking out cars, a hobby of his.
“Looking at them, reading articles about them … I’m an auto-maniac,” he said. “I’m focused on the issue at hand with my therapy, but otherwise I’m living my life, as much as I can. I’m handicapped right now, but I try not to dwell on it.”
A fund has been set up dedicated to supporting Walker’s recovery. Those who would like to contribute can do so at http://tulane.edu/devonwalker/support-for-devon.cfm.