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Sudden Impact : Nearly Written Off Because He Is Deaf, Walker Is Making Broncos Look Good

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the April day he was selected in the eighth round of the 1991 NFL draft, Kenny Walker sat alone in a boat on the still waters of Wagon Train Lake in Hickman, Neb. Whenever he desires solitude--the kind not even his deafness can offer--Walker retreats to the country, armed with nothing more than a fishing rod and his thoughts.

He had been ignored a day earlier by the NFL. Four rounds had come and gone and yet, no one was willing to take a chance on Nebraska’s consensus All-American defensive tackle and Big Eight defensive player of the year. Despite a sparkling resume, he was considered a draft-day risk, a heartwarming story that lacked a happy ending.

Never mind the references offered by Colorado Coach Bill McCartney, who watched Walker terrorize his Buffalo offense for years.

“Unrelenting . . . persevering . . . faster than a speeding bullet for a defensive lineman . . . he’s sudden ,” said McCartney, who once selected Walker as the one conference player--other than his own--he would want most on his team.

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Unimpressed with the recommendations or simply frightened by Walker’s hearing disability, NFL teams continued to pass on the former Cornhusker star when the draft reconvened for its second day. By then, Walker had left for the countryside. When he returned at afternoon’s end, his friend and interpreter, Mimi Mann, told him the news: The Denver Broncos had made him the 228th pick. Congratulations.

Walker didn’t know how to react. He was both angry and relieved, frustrated and anxious, embarrassed and grateful.

“That’s great,” he would tell well-wishers. “I have a chance now. I get another opportunity.”

But five months later, he allows a glimpse of his true feelings. Simply put, his pride had been hurt. As always, someone will pay for the slight.

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“It was difficult for me at first, but it’s better than nothing,” he said after a recent Bronco practice. His new interpreter, Guy Smith, sat nearby. “It’s hard for me, but I really don’t want to talk about that. I accept it and move on.”

At last look, Walker had moved on--and up the Bronco depth chart. Expected to be used in only specific pass-rushing situations, Walker has stunned Denver coaches with his size (he added 15 pounds of muscle before reporting to camp, from 245 to 260), his speed and power (hey, McCartney could have told them that) and his ability to communicate even without an interpreter.

By the conclusion of training camp, Bronco Coach Dan Reeves was openly suggesting that Walker might soon be a starter. It won’t happen Sunday when the Broncos play the Raiders at the Coliseum, but it could happen soon enough. If it does, Denver has found itself the eighth-round bargain of the year.

“For a guy to overcome a handicap of his and possibly start is unbelievable,” Reeves said. “Heck, for a rookie to start is unbelievable.”

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Actually, for Walker to be in the NFL at all defies hyperbole. Only one other deaf player--Austin Peay’s Bunnie Sloan--made it this far and he lasted only one full season. Walker is attempting something more significant. Becoming another footnote isn’t what he has in mind.

To prove the point, Walker already has memorized each defensive player’s duties. He did the same thing when he was at Nebraska. Reeves said Walker practically lives in the Bronco weight room, which is evident by his staggering build. Calipers would have a hard time finding an inch to pinch on Walker, the body that fat forgot.

And watch Walker on the practice field. He is intense, forever focused on the play at hand. His tackles are anything but silent. Teammates marvel at his quickness and innate feel for the game. His interpreter marvels at his patience and his work ethic.

“He’s not going to sit out there and say, ‘I’m deaf, feel sorry for me,’ ” Smith said. “With me, I see him more as a football player who’s deaf, as opposed to a deaf person who plays football.”

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Not everyone shares the same vision. Several weeks ago, an out-of-town television crew arrived at the Bronco camp to conduct an interview with Walker. It was a disaster, mainly because the crew treated Walker as if he were helpless. At one point, Smith reminded the interviewer that Walker “is deaf, not retarded.”

Walker isn’t difficult to understand--no more so, Reeves jokes, than his own South Carolina drawl. And when Walker is unable to enunciate a word, Smith is there to ease the translation.

Of course, the process doesn’t always work to perfection. Once, Bronco coaches told Smith to tell Walker about a certain defensive assignment. Smith botched the translation, causing Walker to ask, “What do they mean?” When Smith hesitated with a reply, Walker rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, man.”

Other times, Walker, who reads lips as well as sign language, finds himself faced with two coaches yelling instructions at him. He chooses one set of orders and takes his chances.

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Despite the occasional mix-ups, Walker said there is no comparison between his new job and the time spent at Nebraska.

“I feel more at ease,” he said. “It is easier than college.”

Easier, but not easy. In fact, few things in life have come easily for Walker. But in a strange, satisfying way, that’s exactly how he wants it.

Consider what Walker has overcome:

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--Spinal meningitis deprived him of his hearing when he was 2.

--The breakup of his parents’ marriage left him without a full-time father when he was 5.

A caring but overprotective mother moved him from tiny Crane, Tex., to Denver in hopes that a special school program designed for the deaf would help her son. It did and it didn’t: Walker learned how to function in the hearing world, but no one taught him how to cope in it.

A move back to Crane (pop. 6,000) left him an outcast of sorts by his sophomore year in high school. “I learned about sports, but that’s it,” he said.

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Only when he arrived at Nebraska did Walker begin to enjoy himself. He became an art major. He moved from linebacker to the defensive line. He fully discovered his self-esteem.

Walker could have accepted a scholarship to Gallaudet University, located in Washington, D.C., and the only liberal arts college in the country attended exclusively by the hearing-impaired. But Gallaudet is a Division III school, and Walker wanted something more.

“It would have looked like I was kind of protecting myself at the college level,” Walker said. “I prefer more competition. I prefer to live the hard way, not the easy way.”

He also preferred an environment that didn’t emphasize, as he described it, “the deaf culture.”

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“I prefer to be more open,” he said. “I think I learned more (at Nebraska) than if I went to Gallaudet.”

By his junior season, Walker was a full-time starter. By the end of his senior year, he was an Outland Trophy candidate, an All-American and, without realizing it, an inspiration.

Shortly before the start of his final home game at Nebraska, the Memorial Stadium public address announcer solemnly introduced each of the Cornhusker senior players. Each time a player emerged from the stadium runway, he was greeted with warm applause.

But there was only silence as Walker stepped from the tunnel into the steady drizzle of the day. Under normal circumstances, Walker can actually hear the cheers through his shoulder pads. This time he heard nothing.

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Then he peered upward and saw that more than 76,000 people were on their feet, arms raised over their heads, fingers wiggling. In sign language, it was the equivalent of a standing O.

Walker stared in disbelief. And then in a poignant, gentle gesture, he turned to the crowd and signaled, “I love you.”

“It showed me something, what kind of people were here in America,” Walker said. “It was like a flag. It was brute support. It was like Nebraska thanked me and I thanked them.”

The Cornhuskers lost the game to Colorado, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort on Walker’s part. He recorded two sacks and hounded Colorado linemen, running backs and quarterbacks all afternoon. Even today, former Buffalo quarterback Charles Johnson, who watched from the sideline that day, shakes his head at the memory of Walker.

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“He was everywhere,” Johnson said.

But what would happen to Walker after Nebraska? Would his skills translate to the NFL? What team would be willing to take a chance? Those were the questions that drove Walker to the middle of Wagon Train Lake on April 22.

Meanwhile, back in Denver, Reeves kept noticing Walker’s name on the Bronco master list of available players. Already Jeff Mills, a former Nebraska linebacker acquired by Denver earlier last season, had mentioned Walker’s name to Reeves. And when the Broncos took Nebraska linebacker Mike Croel as their No. 1 selection, Reeves found himself inquiring about Walker once more.

“Hey, you’ll be surprised how much he knows,” Croel told Reeves.

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As the second day of the draft began, Reeves became more intrigued with Walker’s potential. He asked Reed Johnson, the team’s director of player personnel, to call Charlie McBride, Nebraska’s defensive coordinator. McBride, a longtime friend of Johnson’s, assured the Broncos that communicating with Walker was not difficult at all.

The fifth round became the sixth, the sixth round became the seventh. “Finally, it got to the point where you said, ‘This is ridiculous,’ ” Reeves said.

And it was. With the fifth choice in the eighth round, the Broncos took Walker. They have been slapping themselves on the back ever since.

Walker makes no promises on what will happen next. He will do his best, he said. He will ask for no special favors and he will get none from his Bronco teammates and certainly none from his opponents.

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In short, he is one of the guys now. He appeared in the annual rookie show and gets his share of rookie hazing, as does Smith, whom some of the Broncos call “Hands.” In fact, Smith, who wears Bronco-issued coach’s shorts and shirt, will even appear in the Denver team picture. And rightly so.

But no one deserves a place in the photo more than Walker. And while it might have taken eight rounds for someone to pluck his name from the board, Walker at last has what he wanted.

A happy ending.


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