Before there was Dateline, Nightline, Outside the Lines, Inside Edition, 60 Minutes and 48 Hours, there were heroes.
They were handsome and swift, and we knew just enough about them to keep them as gods. They played offense and defense and kicked and punted and dated the homecoming queen, and that was enough. They didn't go on Leno or Oprah, and they never cried on Roy Firestone. You only saw them on magazine covers and in newsreels, and on the back of your eyelids when you slept because all you wanted to be was them.
That man, lying so still there, learning how to talk again, he was one. He's Doak Walker, and he was as golden as golden gets. He had perfectly even, white teeth and a jaw as square as a deck of cards and a mop of brown hair that made girls bite their necklaces. He was so shifty you couldn't have tackled him in a phone booth, yet so humble that he wrote the Associated Press a thank-you note for naming him an All-America. Come to think of it, he was a three-time All-America, twice one of the Outstanding Players in the Cotton Bowl, a four-time All-Pro. He appeared on 47 covers, including Life, Look and Collier's. One time, Kyle Rote, another gridiron golden boy, saw a guy buying a football magazine at a newsstand. "Don't buy that one," Rote said. "It's not official. It doesn't have a picture of Doak Walker on the cover."
Fifty years ago they gave Doak Walker the Heisman Trophy because who the hell else were they going to give it to? That season he was among the nation's finest in rushing, passing, punting, punt returning, kick returning, field goals, extra points and interceptions. The Cotton Bowl added more than 20,000 seats just so more people could see him. He led SMU to two straight Southwest Conference championships. After a game he'd come out of the locker room in a coat and tie, hug his girlfriend, who really was the homecoming queen, and take her for a malted. Thirty million mothers sighed.
That's why Doak Walker, motionless, can't possibly be. Are you saying that the man who won two NFL titles with the Detroit Lions, who was inducted into the college and pro football halls of fame, is a quadriplegic! Are you saying somebody finally stopped Doak Walker?
What gets you is that it was an intermediate ski slope. Doak Walker never did anything intermediate. He was a wonderful skier, one of the best at Steamboat Ski Resort, along with his wife, the former Skeeter Werner, an Olympian. But there he was, on the last day of January this year, on a slope called Rainbow, carving those beautiful giant arcs of his, when he hit a change in the rolling terrain and traveled 20 to 30 feet in the air. He fell forward and tumbled, severely bruising his brain stem. When the first skiers arrived, he had no pulse. Luckily, one of them was a dentist who knew CPR.
Doak Walker is at Craig Hospital in Denver now and, at 71, working harder than ever. He speaks through a tube and he's up to four words now: yes, no and thank you. But the eyes are still bright, and when he disagrees with you he sticks out his tongue. Here's a guy who in college and the pros gained close to 10,000 all-purpose yards—most of them effortlessly—yet you wonder what he'd give now to run just one foot of that.
Doak Walker doesn't want people to make a fuss over him. He never was much for fusses. Still, it's unthinkable. One of the most vital, virile men in American sports history, a guy football barely left a mark on, will have to learn how to sip and puff on a straw to get his wheelchair around. Some Rainbow this turned out to be.
There's a little hope that he might get back some movement. But he's going to have to have his house redone—lower sinks, wider doorways, showers he can wheel into. Long-term care is going to cost a small mutual fund, so proceeds from this year's Walker-Lundquist Steamboat Invitational golf tournament will go to the Doak Walker Rehabilitation Fund.
Anyway, the point of all this is just to let you know that every day isn't Saturday in the open field anymore for number 37. A lot of days are fourth-and-11, actually. So, if you think of it, write Doak Walker. The fax machine is right down the hall, 303-789-8330, and he reads every message.