When Ole Miss plays Tulane in New Orleans Saturday, more than football will be on the minds of both teams.
It’s the first game for the Green Wave since the injury to senior safety Devon Walker, who fractured his spine during a game against Tulsa on Sept. 8. A New Orleans native, Walker is a cell and molecular biology major who earned a football scholarship after walking on to the team in 2009 and started the first two games this season for Tulane.
Walker spent 10 days at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa and has been moved to an undisclosed rehab facility to continue his recovery, according to a statement Tuesday night from Walker’s parents, Booker and Inez Walker. He is alert and actively participating in respiratory and other therapies that are part of his recovery, according to Tulane spokesman Roger Dunaway.
His parents expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the doctors and staff at St. Francis, who provided immediate care for Walker, and asked that “all the prayers, well-wishes and support continue with him through his journey.”
When Ole Miss learned of Walker’s injury, it began promoting ways to support him through Tulane and ran a billboard shot during this past Saturday’s game against Texas. The Ole Miss football team will recognize Walker by wearing “DW” decals on their helmets.
On Wednesday, athletics director Ross Bjork tweeted, “Proud that our football team will wear DW decals vs Tulane in honor of Devon Walker. We wish him well,” with a picture of the helmet stickers. He also tweeted, “Please help support Devon Walker’s recovery by going to http://www.tulane.edu/devonwalker. Thanks from the Ole Miss family….”
Bjork said he and Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze talked about the decal last week.
“We said it would be great to do something in his honor when we play them this coming week, and we put the decal together,” Bjork said. “Once we got them in (Wednesday), we wanted to make sure that people knew we were showing our support and get it out there.”
The Ole Miss football program faced similar adversity when Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins shattered four vertebrae during a game against Vanderbilt on Oct. 28, 1989. His injury ended his football career and left him paralyzed, and he died on May 6, 1991, from complications resulting from a blood clot.
“We have a great ambassador of this, too, in Chucky Mullins,” Freeze said. “Having gone through (a similar situation at Lambuth University), I know of the pain that it causes and anything you can do to bring recognition to it and this young man, we’re glad to do it.”
Freeze said he will discuss the injury with his team when he gives them the stickers.
“We’re going to talk about the fragile state of life for all of us,” Freeze said. “You’re not promised another day, and we need to be thankful for the health and the days we have while we have them.”
Ole Miss offensive lineman Ethan Hutson knows Walker from Destrehan (La.) High School, where they were both honors students. Hutson remembers Walker as a member of back-to-back undefeated high school championship teams. When Hutson’s dad, Mark Hutson, was an assistant and later interim head coach at Tulane, Hutson hung around Walker and his Tulane teammates.
“I know Devon personally, and I hope he gets well,” Hutson said.
Tulane University established a webpage, www.tulane.edu/devonwalker, to show support for Walker, whether it’s through a post on his Facebook fan page, a private message or a donation to the Devon Walker Fund. The Tulane undergraduate student government held a rally on campus this past Friday for Walker. Tulane students are also selling T-shirts designed with Walker’s name and number to benefit him.
The Tulane players will wear “#18” stickers on the left backside of their helmets, and the entire coaching staff and support staffs will wear the white official Devon Walker recovery T-shirt. Tulane has also begun a “White Out the Dome for Devon” campaign to raise awareness and to help sell the recovery T-shirts.
Dunaway said the team will be doing other things to recognize Walker, but those won’t be made public until game time.
“They have requested about 30,000 things to do,” Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson said of his team in Tuesday’s press conference. “We are in the process right now of deciding what we’re doing. I just want input from everybody. I want input from everybody on the football team. We’re gathering the information, and I’ve got my ideas, but they supersede me.”
Bjork said these kinds of things transcend competition, and Ole Miss’ role in Saturday’s game will be to be supportive of Tulane’s efforts and be respectful of what happened.
“We have a game to play, and we’re trying to get our confidence with our players, but the respect level that we will have for Devon and his family will be tremendous,” he said.
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