When Devon Walker returned to the Tulane University campus last week, he was greeted with kisses in the hallways. Students and faculty applauded him.
One year ago this weekend, in the second game of the football season, Walker, a team captain for Tulane, went in for a tackle and broke his neck. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
For months, he recovered far from home in two different hospitals. But now he's back in Louisiana and re-enrolling at Tulane, in New Orleans.
When asked how he's doing, Walker keeps it simple. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he says. He usually doesn't go into the details: the challenge of using a ventilator to talk. How he can't sleep at night because he just can't get comfortable. Or about the searing nerve pain he suffers all too often, his whole body burning like it's on fire.
There was no need to rush back to school. But Walker did.
"I guess I'm pretty stubborn when it comes to a lot of things. You can ask a lot of my friends and stuff; they can attest to that," Walker says. "When I get something on my mind, I just do it. And if it doesn't happen when I think it's gonna happen, I'm going to keep fighting to make it happen sooner or later."
'Just A Skinny Little Kid'
Of course, that's why Walker made the football team in the first place.
Curtis Johnson knew Walker long before he took the job as Tulane's head coach a season ago. The two lived in the same suburb when Johnson was an assistant coach for the New Orleans Saints. When he saw Walker play in high school, he was sure the kid was too small for college football.
"When he came in, I looked at him — he was just a skinny little kid," Johnson says. "And I said, 'That skinny little kid, he can't play.' "
But Walker proved Johnson — and everyone else — wrong. He made the football team as a walk-on safety, with no athletic scholarship, four years ago. He played when he had no chance of playing.
And when Johnson got hired before last season, Walker's senior year, the coach realized something about the undersized player in the No. 18 jersey. "This guy, he is a starter," Johnson recalls thinking.
Then came the game against Tulsa last September. It was the last play of the half. With the ball at Tulane's 33-yard line, Johnson called a blitz. The Tulsa running back reeled in a short pass, and Walker, all 173 pounds of him, came straight for him.
But then the Tulsa running back stumbled, falling.
"And I'm going in to ensure he goes to the ground," Walker recounts. "So I'm going head first. And I completely don't see my defensive lineman behind him, running straight towards me."
No one saw him — until the players collided and Walker's body went limp.
Instantly, his teammates called for help as Walker struggled to breathe. The team's doctors, concerned he had no pulse, performed chest compressions on the field. They finally got him stabilized, but there was no reversing the damage caused by Walker's fractured vertebrae.
'Play Like You May Never Play Again'
A year later, the football team still prays for Walker's recovery while Walker himself is working for it. He's bound to a wheelchair. Just leaving the house in the morning takes 90 minutes and the help of a nurse.
Still, three days a week, he's at a rehabilitation center at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans, pushing his therapists to push him.
"I'll put it this way: Sometimes I need a break before Devon needs a break," says Holly Pellerito, Walker's occupational therapist. She worries that Walker might be trying to do too much, too soon.
But this young man has goals. He wants to graduate, with a degree in cell and molecular biology, in the spring. And physically, there's at least some reason for hope. In Walker's arm muscles, Pellerito says, there's twitching.
"So there's something there. There's some connection being made," she says. "So we're not gonna stop until we can try to make something functional."
The football team isn't giving up on Walker, either. Just before the season opener last week against Jackson State University, coach Johnson addressed his team. Then he introduced the player in the fresh, new No. 18 jersey, given to Walker just that night.
With that, Walker began to speak.
"There's not much I can say that hasn't been said already, and there's not much more that I can do that I haven't done already," he told the players. "The fact of the matter is, my days are up on playing football. Y'all days are still in front of you all."
Walker talked about where he had come from and where they might still go. He asked them to play that night as if they might never play again — to play hard always. And then they took the field.
Jackson State never had a chance. Tulane jumped out to a 27-0 lead and went on to win 34-7.
"It's a different feeling, but it's a good feeling," Walker said from the sidelines. "It's good to be back. Close to my friends, close to my teammates. As close as I can get to the game right now."
The next morning, away from the spotlight, he would awake again with nerve trouble. For two days, his body would burn, itching with pain. Rehab, and other plans, would be canceled.
But that night at the game, Devon Walker felt like a player again — and he looked like one, too. He went home still wearing his jersey.