By BRETT MARTEL
NEW ORLEANS — Devon Walker's Tulane teammates believe he'll continue to be an inspiration to them in the way he deals with a devastating spinal injury because that's the kind of person he is — driven and relentless.
Walker played his first two years without a scholarship while pursuing a degree in cell and molecular biology. He played part of last season with a cast on a broken left arm. And friends say he'll attack this challenge with the same tenacity.
"Without a doubt I know Devon is going to continue to fight on because he's a competitor," said Tulane senior cornerback Ryan Travis, who shares an apartment with Walker and has been his friend since they were freshmen. "He has a lot of courage and will power to overcome adversity."
The Green Wave returned to practice on Tuesday for the first time since Walker, a senior safety, fractured his spine while making a tackle at the end of the first half of a game at Tulsa on Saturday.
Walker remains hospitalized in Tulsa, where he had surgery on Sunday. Doctors say it is too early to know what the long-term effects of his injury will be, though paralysis is always a concern with spinal injuries.
His teammates say Walker has been in their thoughts constantly.
Travis recalled getting to the visitor's locker room moments after seeing Walker being treated on the field, dropping down to his knees and praying. He's been praying ever since.
"I asked God why this happened. I know if it was allowed to happen, there was a reason," Travis said. "I was asking God to protect him and watch over him.
"On the plane going to Tulsa, he had sat right across from me," Travis continued. "And on the plane ride back, it was kind of tough looking over, seeing him not there, knowing what happened, knowing he's my roommate."
Tulane players are in the process of recording get-well messages for a video that will be delivered to Walker soon. In the atrium of Tulane's Wilson Athletic Center, a table is filled with card-making materials of wide-ranging colors and designs, along with scissors and markers, which members of the Tulane community have been using to fashion get-well messages being collected by the athletic department.
The university's official athletic website, tulanegreenwave.com, now includes a link to web page dedicated to helping Walker and his family.
The injury has been upsetting to those who know Walker on many levels, not the least of which is because to them, he embodied the type of person who deserved to have only the best things happen to him.
Teammates were thrilled when he finally received a scholarship — worth about $58,000 a year at Tulane — for his junior season.
"He was paying for everything, and for him to get up every day and work out like he was on scholarship says a lot about his character," said cornerback Kendrick Washington, who has been a suitemate of Walker for three years. "I know I probably couldn't do it. I'd be like, 'Forget it. I'm going to be a regular student if I'm paying for my school anyway.' But he stuck around and he finally got a scholarship because he worked hard and he deserved it. ... You couldn't keep him off the field."
Before coming to Tulane, Walker played for Destrehan High School in suburban New Orleans. He was coached by current head coach Stephen Robicheaux, who said several college programs in the region recruited him and "probably would have paid for his schooling, but he was a guy that wanted to get his degree from Tulane and he was willing to do whatever it took to do that."
Robicheaux described Walker as an "overachiever," and "a guy you can always count on, always doing the right things."
"He's one of those guys you love to coach," Robicheaux said, adding that he and Destrehan High School administrators were discussing some way to honor Walker at this Friday night's home game.
At Tulane, Walker played mostly on special teams as a true freshman and quickly became a regular in the defensive backfield by his sophomore season.
Teammates described his style as full-speed in everything he did, such as when he wound up with a concussion and broken right cheek bone after colliding hard with a tight end during voluntary workouts two summers ago. He bounced back from that only to break his left arm — also against Tulsa — on kick coverage early last season and had to play with a cast afterward.
He returned for his senior season as a starter, feeling fully healthy and hoping to close out his college football career with his best season yet before graduating in May and heading to pharmacy school.
Now Walker's teammates and coaches are heartbroken for him, but determined to carry on in his honor.
"The best thing to do is just keep moving," first-year coach Curtis Johnson said after practice. "He would want us to keep moving, to keep him in our prayers, but he would want us to play hard and win the next game."
The next game is not until Sept. 22 in the Superdome against Mississippi. Players said the bye week "came at a good time" as they try to grapple with their popular teammate's misfortune.
While doctors have said Walker never lost consciousness, could breathe on his own and speak, his teammates have not yet been able to talk to him. Travis and Washington have been getting daily updates by text or phone conversation from Walker's mother, Inez, who has traveled from the New Orleans area to Tulsa.
Travis and Washington miss Walker not just at team functions, but at home and when they go out. They crack smiles as they describe how proud Walker is of his skills as a deejay, something he does with the help of his computer at parties around campus.
They also take solace in their knowledge that his dynamic personality, creativity, intelligence and work ethic has set him up well for a life that should transcend any physical limitations that may befall him.
"I'm definitely comforted by that. He's going to have a wonderful future," Washington said. "I just hope he's keeping his morale up and staying positive because we all miss him and everybody in the whole world is just worried about him."