Life Outside the Lines - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Life Outside the Lines: Devon Walker talks about painful triumphs, new goals

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NEW ORLEANS - This past year has been filled with many painful triumphs for former Tulane football player Devon Walker.

They're not the victories Walker envisioned for his senior year of college, but perhaps his life outside the lines is more inspiring than anything he could have accomplished on the field. 

The big, open smile is there, the sense of humor is firmly intact, the brain - sharp as ever. It's just Walker's body that isn't the same. He's paralyzed from the neck down - at least for now. But the former Tulane safety is as competitive and determined as ever.

Walker is in therapy at least three full days a week, fighting to regain the use of his limbs.

"I go to oxygen therapy, which is hyperbaric treatments early in the morning," Walker said. "Then from there, I go to PT and OT therapies. My whole day is spent trying to move or get a little sensation."

There's no time to waste: At 22-years-old, Walker has already been cheated out of a year - and so much more. That's part of the reason he pushed himself to return to classes this fall, just a few days shy of the one-year mark of his spinal cord injury.

True - Walker now tackles the task of finishing his cell and molecular biology degree a little differently, packing all of his classes into a Tuesday and Thursday schedule so he can dedicate all of Monday, Wednesday and Friday to rehab.

Without the use of his hands, Walker now wears special glasses that allow him to type notes with his eyes. He moves his wheelchair using a series of sips and puffs of air through this white straw. A tracheotomy tube helps Walker breathe: His voice isn't quite as strong as it once was, despite multiple procedures aiming to bolster his breathing and speaking. 

It's a painful process, as Walker's nerves try to reconnect. It's also exhausting: Walker is slowly weaning himself off of his trach tube, but training his body to breathe on its own again is tiring when one keeps up a schedule like the one Walker is juggling.

 

It may be frustrating, but Walker believes these trials are temporary.

"Definitely, that's the only way I can go about it," Walker said. "If I thought that I would never walk again, then I would just be somebody sitting in a wheelchair just moping around all the time. So it's something that I'm for strong, I'm just going to keep at it, whether it be a year from now, two years from now, whenever.

The events of September 8, 2012, still haunt Walker and likely anyone who watched Tulane play at Tulsa that day, when Walker collided head-on with one of his own linemen as they both went in for a tackle.

"I remember the first initial hit, everything kind of went numb. I thought it was just a stinger," Walker said. "A lot of times we call it that when you get hit too hard or get hit a certain way and you lose feeling for a little while, but it comes back. So I thought it would come back, but then I started to notice that I couldn't breathe and that none of my limbs were moving."

Walker had broken his C-4 vertebra.

"I had a feeling kind of like in the cartoons, you see when the dog dies, the legs and arms are just straight up in the air," Walker said. "That's kind of how I felt, I felt like my legs and my arms were sticking straight in the air, but they were by my side."

Coach Curtis Johnson was devastated and felt frighteningly helpless, watching his player lying motionless except for occasional uncontrollable shaking, unable to breathe, slipping in and out of consciousness.

"It was almost to the point where it was just over the top," Johnson said. "It was the worst thing."

Johnson -  even during his NFL coaching days with the New Orleans Saints - had never seen a player injured like this.

"Never," Johnson said. "I've never seen a player lay on the field...and they want to keep him on the field for that long! I've never even heard of that much concern about him just breathing."

Johnson and his wife, Angel, have known Walker since he was child  - which made the situation all that more heart-wrenching. Walker is like a son to them.

"We heard a really loud clash," Angel Johnson recalled. "My brother and I, who is best friends with his dad, were sitting there and he said, 'I think that's Devon.'"

Angel Johnson was sitting 50 yards downfield from where Walker was injured - up in the stands. But she could still hear the impact.

"It was just a significant clash, a significant sound where you know that it was a serious hit," she said. 

For the next few months, Walker lived in a rehabilitation hospital, battling through the initial stages of rehab. The mental aspect, though, was just as challenging:  

"I started realizing that it's not getting better, I'm not getting the movement where I thought I'd get it," Walker said. "It was just something that I had to learn: it takes time, it takes patience. Everything is not going to come all at once. Sometimes people take years to recover from a spinal cord injury, or to fully recover after even recovering halfway. So I had to learn to accept that."

That acceptance wasn't easy - there was a steep emotional price.

"I went through stages of grief," Walker said. "One - over the fact that I couldn't really come to grasp with the terms that I might not walk again. I might not be able to hold my niece again, because at the time I just had a little niece, and she was about a month, two months old. I held her for the first time about four days before my accident actually happened."

Walker ultimately came to the conclusion that although his senior year and his future weren't what he'd envisioned, there were so many other goals he could accomplish and new dreams he could realize.

"I decided for myself that I'm not going to feel sorry for myself," Walker said. "People are in worse-case scenarios than I am, so I just decided to go about my life like nothing else ever happened."

Besides juggling his classes and therapy, Walker is also a mentor to Tulane's football team: He gives the pre-game speech, then cheers the Green Wave on from the sidelines.

Walker has quickly become a fan favorite, relishing the chance to share his story. Ironically, Walker says the people he meets give him back whatever motivation he tries to offer them. 

"They come up to me and say, 'You're an inspiration to me, I'm hoping the best for you, I'm praying for you,' something like that," Walker said. "It kind of drives me to the fact that I don't want to let myself down. I don't want to let them down either."

Walker has 30 hours of class work left until graduation. After that, he's debating between enrolling in medical school or pursuing a masters in engineering.

"The future is everything for me, and anything I want it to be," Walker said. "It just depends on where I want to go from here. Right now, I'm set on getting my degree, graduating, walking across, or wheeling across the stage this spring, hopefully."

Walker is also starting a non-profit to help others in similar situations afford medical care and technology.

Perhaps the T-shirt he's wearing sums it up best: "Pain is temporary, victory is forever."

"It's a personal message that I really took heart to because the pain that I'm going through right now won't be forever," Walker said."I will win over this injury. It will be a victory for me."

Former Saints safety Steve Gleason has played a big role in guiding and encouraging Walker - introducing Walker to much of the technology he's using at school and at home in his specially designed "Devon's Den."  If you want to keep up with Walker's progress and all he's accomplishing, head over to the Tulane blog chronicling his life. 

 

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