LOUD AND CLEAR
Now hear this, all you people who think a deaf player can't make it in big-time college football: Nebraska defensive tackle Kenny Walker, who can barely hear the Cornhusker marching band when he's standing next to it, is bidding to become the first deaf player in Division I-A to make All-America. He could also become the first athlete with his disability to be selected in a high round of the NFL draft (Bonnie Sloan, a defensive tackle at Austin Peay, was taken in the 10th by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973). A 6'4", 240-pound senior, Walker had a big game for the Huskers in last season's Fiesta Bowl, rushing the passer so fiercely that Florida State was flagged for holding him on three straight plays.
In spring practice Nebraska decided to alter its defensive alignment, partly to get Walker onto the field more often. Under the Huskers' old system, Walker often had problems picking up signals. Before each play he would learn the defensive scheme by reading the weakside linebacker's lips in the huddle. However, when an adjustment was made at the line of scrimmage, a teammate had to tap Walker on the hip to move him, or the middle guard had to give him a hand signal. The new 4-3 " Miami stack" doesn't require pass rushers to make so many adjustments, and that could help Walker become a star. "He's got the tools," says defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.
Those tools include a 4.58 40, and only 5.4% body fat.
Walker lost his hearing at the age of two after contracting spinal meningitis and running a high fever. Yet by the time he graduated from high school in Crane, Texas, he was All-State and was heavily recruited. He considered attending a college for the deaf, but finally decided on Nebraska not only because of its football program, but also because of its willingness to provide him with an interpreter. While Walker can read lips, when giving interviews he usually is accompanied by Mimi Mann, a sign-language interpreter, who works for the school's Handicapped Services Office.
NFL scouts have told Nebraska's coaches that they will be carefully watching Walker's progress this season, and Walker is just as curious about the pros. "I'd like to try it," he says, and McBride thinks he has a shot. "He's probably got as much ability as any defensive lineman we've had," McBride says. "People who know the situation here know I couldn't just stop everything because of his deafness. But even if I did have to do that, the kids would understand because Kenny is one of our main guys."
THE BIG QUESTION
After Penn State accepted the Big Ten's invitation to join the conference on June 4, commissioner Jim Delany said that the league would have a new name within 60 days. However, he backed off on that statement almost immediately. "We're just not ready to change our name now," he said. "We're going to study it. We're probably going to get an outside firm."
That seems an unneccessary expense, now that the Minneapolis Star Tribune, after asking its readers for suggestions, has received a bunch of good names for free. Among them: the Big Ten + One, the Big Ten + Northwestern and the Northern Lights Conference. Don't like any of those, Jim? Well, how about the Big Choke in the Rose Bowl Conference? The Five of One, Half a Dozen of the Other Conference? The Geographically Close to Notre Dame Conference?
One of the difficulties with surrendering the league's traditional name, says Delany, is that Big Ten "stands for a set of traditions and values. It's more than a reflection of the number of schools." He's also concerned that, in light of the conference restructuring that will almost certainly take place in the next year, some other league might snap up the Big Ten name and the cachet that attaches to it.