Last updated: Thursday September 11, 2008, EDT 11:06 PM
By IAN O'CONNOR
In the small hours of night, Wesley Walker is no longer a football star rewinding his glory days and summoning the echo of a sellout crowd’s roar. He is merely a prisoner of his own pain, another victim of a blood sport that often leaves its most virile men whispering the prayers of a desperate child.
God, please make it go away.
Wide awake at 3 a.m., his battered 53-year-old body raging against the hits taken and the needles absorbed over 13 years with the Jets, Walker often asks his maker for relief that never comes. Devastating NFL injuries were all over the news this week, from Tom Brady’s to Shawne Merriman’s, reminding that generations of predecessors are out there suffering in relative silence, men who played a game packaged and promoted as a simulated exercise in war.
Walker is the face of those veterans, a once-chiseled star reduced to an atrophied father of three grown children who hate seeing him in such a diminished state. The wide receiver who averaged 19 yards per reception for his career, a franchise record, and whose 71 touchdown catches ranks him second (behind Don Maynard) on the Jets’ all time list, said he hasn’t felt his feet since he quit playing in 1989.
Sometimes the numbness is a blessing, the best available option on the board. The pain that attacks Walker from within is so relentless, he can’t separate the body parts that hurt from those that don’t.
One doctor thought he might have Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Fifteen months back, while suffering from spinal stenosis and the lingering effects of the nerve damage he endured at the end of his playing days, Walker had fourteen screws and a plate inserted into his neck.
But the Jets’ signature deep threat, the receiver with the breakaway speed, can’t run away from his occupational hazards. His torso has caved in. He experiences tingling in his arms and hands. He gets chest spasms that feel like heart attacks.
Walker fears a stormy weather forecast: the rain makes his body hurt even more. His life is a blur of revolving medicines and exhausting doctors appointments. Some days he can barely tie his shoelaces. Some nights he’ll get out of bed and go to McDonald’s to escape the searing , stinging stillness.
“Or I’ll just sit up and stare out the window,” Walker said the other day, “wishing it will stop. If I knew then what I know now, I don’t think I would’ve even played football.”
Man, did he play football. He was an All-American at the University of California, a second-round pick of the Jets who would’ve been a first-rounder if not for the surgery performed on his right knee. In 1977, Walker arrived in New York, he said, “as a black hippie from Berkeley. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix.”
He became a Pro Bowl receiver instead, accounting for 1,169 yards and a 24.4-yard average in his second year. Legally blind in one eye, the six-foot, 180-pound Walker grew into one of the Jets’ most popular figures.
But his wasn’t a charmed career. Walker said the Jets’ locker room was often polluted by petty jealousies and divided along racial lines. The receiver had bitter confrontations with management that led to contract holdouts. “I had to fight for every penny they gave me,” Walker said.
He made $30,000 to start, $770,000 to finish. In between, Walker’s unmitigated love for the game and his unbridled fear for his job inspired him to do things he now regrets.
Walker took cortisone shots in his injured knee and shoulder so he could suit up on gamedays. “You didn’t want to be a sissy,” he said.
Football left him with a torn rotator cuff, a knee that required draining, and a bulging disc in his back. In 1986, the season he managed 12 touchdown catches, including his famous four against the Dolphins in the Jets’ 51-45 victory, Walker said he woke up one morning to find the left side of his chest as flat as a tire.
“In one training camp I hit a guy and I felt like I was paralyzed,” Walker said. “I tried to run and I couldn’t move. Guys were trying to high-five me and I couldn’t lift my arms.”
The injuries finally drove him out of the league and into a new line of work. Walker became a phys ed teacher at a high school in Queens. One day, a 14-year-old student bumped into Walker in a pickup basketball game, and the electric jolt that flashed through the teacher’s limbs sent him crashing to the court.
Walker has suffered a slow but sure physical erosion ever since. Surgeries on his shoulder, neck and spine have done little to improve his quality of life.
“The pain isn’t just physical, it’s emotional,” said his daughter, Taylor, captain of the NBA’s Nets dance team. “People don’t understand how it takes a toll on a family. My father would dance with me when I was little, and now there are mornings he can’t even get out of bed.”
Walker’s older son, John, understands the cost of chasing athletic success better than most. John was an all-everything lacrosse player at West Point who played his senior season after undergoing surgery on his lower spine.
John took the same cortisone shots his father did to stay on the field. “If you’re an athlete,” John said, “playing is the most important thing in your life.”
As an assistant lacrosse coach at Fort Monmouth’s West Point Prep, John worries about his former classmates who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; his injuries prevented him from joining them on the battlefield. Like his sister and brother, Austin, a lacrosse player at Johns Hopkins, John also worries about his father and the disability claim recently rejected by the NFL and its Players Association.
Walker is teaching phys ed at Park View Elementary in Kings Park, N.Y., and the league and union he once served as a player rep denied his application on the grounds that Walker’s employment prevents him from being classified as totally and permanently disabled.
Walker was a friend and admirer of Gene Upshaw, the late union chief, but he can’t understand how 13 seasons of blood, sweat and tears doesn’t qualify him for help. Barbara Comerford, a disabilities expert and Walker’s Wyckoff-based attorney, is appealing the NFL’s decision. “Wesley has very serious injuries,” Comerford said.
Those injuries won’t stop Walker from teaching his grade schoolers, even if that means the NFL won’t grant him disability benefits. “It’s the only thing that keeps me going,” Walker said. “I love making kids happy. I’m a big kid myself. It’s physically draining, but I can’t let my students down.”
Walker gets by on his teacher’s salary, on his early retirement pension, and on the six hundred bucks a month he gets in workman’s comp. He isn’t concerned about the money nearly as much as he’s concerned about his health.
Walker knows he’s hardly alone in the struggle. He knows dozens upon dozens of former NFL players are ; Dennis Byrd, Al Toon and Wayne Chrebet are among the many former Jets teammates dealing with the cruel consequences of a violent game.
Though major league baseball, the NBA and the NHL offer fully-guaranteed contracts, the NFL prefers a play-for-pay model that encourages players to get out of the tub. The end result is pain.
“I have no control over mine,” Walker said, “and I just want it to go away.”
His old team opens at home Sunday against an opponent missing the league’s best player. Three hours of head-on collisions between the Jets and Patriots will be met with the approval of a delirious Giants Stadium crowd.
Wesley Walker isn’t sure which team will prevail. He’s only sure that the final tally won’t be clear until long after the final whistle is blown.
In the past 8 years John Schmitt has had both knees and both hips replaced.. He is for the first time in what he says is 30 years plus pain free except for stiffness. And it is true if you are not completely disabled you get nothing from the players union..
It's times like this when I hate football. Those guys destroy themselves, and we're entertained by the process.
And, the average fan couldn't pick their own players out of a line-up except for for a few high profile positions.... the players must choke on the irony of this as they are getting boo'd during a bad game.
I know they get paid a l lot of dough, but its a short, physically exhausting career.
Though I love the game, I have steered my 11 year ( a big kid) old away from it....if he comes to me later on in HS about playing, well.....so be it.
I'll say my piece, warn him against coaches who offer "medicine" and let the dice fall where they may.....
If the fact that Walker is working pushes him out of the "fully disabled" category, I dont know what he can legally do....the term is what it is, and he is working.
[QUOTE=murphklecko73;2745843]In the past 8 years John Schmitt has had both knees and both hips replaced.. He is for the first time in what he says is 30 years plus pain free except for stiffness. And it is true if you are not completely disabled you get nothing from the players union..[/QUOTE
That's a shame. You expect the military to take care of those who served and got wounded, same should be true of the NFL
As a player he was awsome...now look at him. Wish Wesely the best.
It's great that the current players will pay $350 for a Mitchell & Ness throwback jersey of these guys that paved the way for them to make millions, yet do nothing to give back by contributing to some type of fund for them. I understand they give money to the union, but they're obviously not getting the job done. I would personally be embarrassed if I were making millions and reading stories about Mike Webster, Bennie Blades, et al...
This is so sad. Wesley Walker was a true JET. I love that he made his life after football as a teacher. Met him a few times after his playing days and he was always positive and fan friendly. Love Wesley Walker!!! One of my all time favorites!!! I hope he gets better..........
****ing brutal. Being an old Oilers fan it depresses the hell out of me to see Earl Campbell going through pretty much the same thing.
There was a piece on Inside the NFL a few years ago when they were interviewing current RB's about running out-of-bounds at the end of a play, or forcing the defense to tackle you. Some guys were saying that it's not in their nature to willingly go out-of-bounds and would fight for every inch of yardage.
Then they showed what Earl Campbell looked like today, barely able to walk and his fingers all mangled from getting caught in defenders' face masks when throwing stiff arms. Not surprisingly, they changed their tone after seeing Campbell's condition.
it's sad that all these prima donnas like Moss, coles, and others can't set up some kind of fund. These guys between thier endorsments and thier regular pay should be able to afford to help another old-time NFLer out.....