In November 2013 the Regional Emmy Awards honored WWL-TV for a story produced on Devon Walker, an injured Tulane Football player. The story was produced by Reporter Juan Kincaid and photographer Brian Lukas. Drawing an assignment for a news photographer is mostly a game of chance, who is available and unassigned to another story. Most photographers at WWL were assigned to Super Bowl stories in February 2013. Brian Lukas was assigned to accompany Juan Kincaid on a non-Super Bowl story of Devon Walker. The story was a moving experience for Juan and Brian, but especially for Brian, who had fought some of the same battles Walker is going through now.
Brian Lukas / Eyewitness News
What is real courage?
It was a week when the eyes of the world focused on New Orleans. It was Super Bowl week, February 2013, and on the set of a national sports show near Decatur Street, a professional football analyst is searching for words to describe a win in the Super Bowl
“You endure so much to get here. You endure so much pain that no one really understands the amount of courage it takes.”
Skill, training, endurance, luck – these are all worked on and developed on the football field to get to the Super Bowl. But some would take issue with the term courage.
Courage is summoned when the human condition faces seemingly undefined odds with near terminal consequences, when you consciously deny the inevitable. Mortality may be foreseeable, but it is not feared. It will not be succumbed to without a fight. Courage is found in the individual who fights, with all their might, to achieve when they may not achieve.
Courage is summoned not for the adoration of others, but acknowledging to one’s self that you tried the best you could do under unknown and maybe impossible odds in life – especially when fate, in an instant, changes your life.
There's another sports story on Super Bowl week?
In January 2013 the Super Bowl festivities were just beginning in the French Quarter and the national press focused on the pre-celebrations - it was Super-hype time. New Orleans welcomed its guests. The city shined with hospitality. So when Juan Kincaid told me were covering a football story, I clipped on my Super Bowl credentials and prepared to cover an hour-long press conference with prepared talking points that really never answer the questions posed by the approved media and are usually forgotten just after spoken.
But, that was not going to happen that day. Juan set our direction for the small town of Destrehan just to the west of New Orleans. We were to film a story about a young man and his family whose priorities in life had changed through adverse circumstances. Their courage will be tested. Devon Walker played football for Tulane University. On September 8, 2012, a routine play left him paralyzed on the Tulsa University football field. Unable to breath because of a collapsed diaphragm and near death after a glancing blow from his teammate, he was quickly attended to by medical staff on the field. Transported to a Tulsa Hospital his life was spared - but living, as he knew it, had changed. Seconds after the play, fate transformed Devon from the fastest of the fast, the strongest of the strong, to one requiring round-the-clock care and the aid of a mechanical device just to breathe. Muscular movement became impossible. Change became inevitable. Pain became a constant -- medication tolerated.
On this week of February 2013, one week before the Super Bowl was to be played in New Orleans, Devon was four months out from his accident. Strength was coming back slowly and he was able to spend more than an hour in an interview, but Devon was still very weak. The mechanical apparatus he used to help his breathing created an audible impulse sound as he strained for the words to describe his condition.
Devon Walker sat in an inclined wheelchair recalling the event that changed his life.
“I remember everything. I couldn’t breathe on the field. I tried to move everything. I tried to get up. Everything below my neck was frozen.”
As Devon described the accident, his eyes focused on the ceiling trying to visualize that day. He said his mind replays that event every day.
“I didn’t lose consciousness at all, but my level of injury, I lost use of my diaphragm. At first I thought it was a stinger because my whole body was just, like, numb, so I was just trying to, you know -- you try to shake it off, say OK next play, let’s go. But I couldn’t move.”
Walker's parents saw injury on TV, rushed to his side
Back in the suburbs of New Orleans, Walker’s parents missed the away game because of a relative’s wedding. They now found themselves rushing to be by their son’s side.
Devon’s mom recalled that day.
“I was watching the game - I could hear a player is down, someone's injured. I said, please don't let it be Devon. I'm looking at TV and everyone is surrounding the player on the field and I could only see legs. I didn't know who the player was. So eventually they put his picture on the screen and said - 'Devon Walker.'
"And I just lost it. I saw him being carted off into the ambulance. It was very difficult. I couldn’t get there fast enough. I didn’t know what happened to him, where he was or anything, so it was really difficult.”
Devon’s father said it was as if one of his worst fears was coming true.
“The worst things parents can feel is that of their kid being hurt, injured, or even in death. I had that fear that he was not alive.”
There was the uncertainty of the unknown made ever more fearful by the distance between parents and son.
“They had the cold blanket on him, he was in a coma," his mother said. "They had him stretched out with weights too, I guess to hold his neck still. He had tubes, breathing tubes, feeding tubes, and it was just a sight to see. It was awful.”
After weeks in the hospital in Tulsa, he was airlifted to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a facility specializing in spinal cord injuries.
He’d spend the next three months there, getting around-the-clock treatments on his body and non-stop reminders from others just like him that a brighter day was on the way. The thousands of get well cards, letters and visits from teammates and professional football players gave Devon and his family the hope and feeling that he will not be forgotten as life and time moves on.
Friends and family are important in recovery, but despite the many wishes for recovery – in recovery, you are really alone. Your mind ponders the question: "Why me?" Why did this happen to me, not how did this happen to me.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I think all people who go through this type of injury ask themselves that,” Devon said. “You come to the reality that you can’t really control what goes on in life, you only can live it.”
Devon's father feels it's a question with few answers.
"He would ask me and I told him I can't answer that. All I can say is basically you have to keep your faith. You have to believe that you are going to walk and use your arms again. You can't give up.”
Devon’s mom said all the negativity must be kept away.
"There are those who will say you'll never be the same, you'll never do anything," she said. "But just keep that away.”
And four months from his accident, Walker’s movements were coming back, though slowly. He went from not being able to move at all in Tulsa to moving his arms in rehab. He was doing rehab work at least three times per week in his home. It was designed to get his body functioning again.
“A month into the rehabilitation hospital at Shepherd, I started to regain light touch,” Devon said. “And after a while, all over my whole body, I have light touch, so I’m blessed to be able to feel if somebody puts their arm on me.”
In a rare moment of levity, Devon cracked a broad smile, laughed and said, “You could take a bat and hit me and I wouldn’t feel it.”
Juan Kincaid would write in his report, “As his long road to recovery continues, so too does the support the Walkers are receiving from all across the country - from a visit from New Orleans Saints players in Atlanta to the countless number of ‘get-well’ letters that have arrived on their doorstep.”
Devon’s mother showed Juan and I one of the many cards, this one from former Tulane coach Bob Toledo. Devon slowly read it aloud.
“Devon, I was sorry to hear about your serious injury. I want you to know that me and my family are praying for you."
Devon strained to read on.
“Just like you have done your whole life, you have to win the battle despite the odds. Never give up, never quit."
I know what he's going through
During our interview with his parents, Devon’s father related a recent conservation he had with his son when they were alone. In a moment of depression Devon told his dad that he doesn’t know what "he’s going through.”
Mr. Walker says, “I don’t know what Devon is going through. Nobody knows what he’s going through.”
After hearing these comments while filming the interview, I took my eye away from the camera’s viewfinder and from the other side of the lens. I knew exactly what Devon was going through.
Three years before Hurricane Katrina I had a medical condition that left me paralyzed. After weeks in intensive care in the hospital, I was confined to a wheel chair. I was very weak; I lost muscle and was unable to walk. Tubes of antibiotics were continuously injected through the veins in my arm.
So many needles penetrated my skin to the point where large, dark bruises formed and veins collapsed because of frequent required blood and lab work. Just like Devon it was a devastating situation for me, someone so active in life. In my career I had walked through the burning ambers of the Amazon Jungle, I documented shark wrangling in Key West for the New Orleans Aquarium, I followed the Colombian Army through the streets of Medellin searching for the leaders of the deadly drug cartels, and even evaded headhunters in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. I have covered natural disasters in South America and witnessed the quest to save endangered wildlife in Southern Africa. I have seen the horrors of war in Beirut, Lebanon.
But, because of my paralysis, I could not move. Months later, in the wheelchair, I struggled though painful therapy. It was tough. It was exhausting. It was ever so painful to move my arm, even more painful to try to move my leg. But the pain was not just physical. It was even more painful mentally to see the distress to my family as they watched me go through therapy. It was the little things in life that I wanted to do and couldn’t -- I missed putting out the weekly garbage. There is the helplessness of watching your family members trying to assist you when you need simple things like socks to cover your feet or pillows to elevate your legs.
But after more than two years of intense therapy and with the help of my family and friends, I got through it. I can readily recall the pain in the palms of my hands as I moved my lumbering body on crutches. The sharp throbbing in the heel of my feet because I was unable to move my legs and the loss of upper body muscle brought upon by non-movement. The rewards won through the agony of daily therapy was eventually to move my legs again, then to walk again, then to work again – to be productive. And unfortunately years later, as a photojournalist, leading me to film some of the first images transmitted around the world as Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans and wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast.
Devon's parents looked at my situation for hope
It is never my intention to dwell on the physical pain of my past medical condition, but during our interview with Devon’s parents, Juan Kincaid mentioned my situation to the Walkers. With a quick visual examination from Devon’s parents, I realized that I was a physical example of hope to their family. I hesitated to tell my story of living through paralysis. However, I soon realized the Walkers, through repeated questioning of my past condition, were seeking a some small hope for their son. Today, by chance and fate, I was that hope for Devon.
I became something positive they could mentally grab on to because of my present physical movements and attitude toward therapy. I mentioned to the parents of Devon that therapy was tough. It was difficult, humbling, many times humiliating. But, I endured. Somehow you have to turn all the negativity thrown at you into a positive. In a moment of conversation an acquaintance of mine told me that I might never walk. Although it was not said in malice I wanted to prove him wrong. I never gave up. And in the quiet moments, when no one was around, I pushed myself. I eventually made it out of the wheelchair, then on to crutches to eventually regain the ability to move my legs - to walk and swim. And now, I was covering the Super Bowl festivities in New Orleans and telling the story of Tulane football player Devon Walker.
Football was never going to be something that defined Devon
“Football was something Devon enjoyed," his mother said. "But it was never something he was going to do for career.”
This fall Walker said he would try return to Tulane to finish his degree work in cell and molecular biology. As a walk-on player he received a scholarship from Tulane. Devon said that even though the injury has taken football away from him, he would not let it stop him from fulfilling a mission he began nearly four years ago.
“As a senior I had only a few more credits to get my degree and it would seem like a waste of time for me to have gone through all the struggles I have and just act like I don’t need it any more or act like it wouldn’t help me in the future.”
Mrs. Walker said, “Our prayers are said every night for him to heal and to restore health to his body. I say the rosary all day. You have to keep the faith and be hopeful.”
Devon’s father watched his son going through therapy.
“Like I always tell him as long as you have life, there’s a chance. I know his life has been turned around because this is an active young adult and he's always been active and he has always tried to do the right thing. So I know that this is a change for him, but in keeping in perspective what he's done thus far, I think he has that will to continue and realize that his life has changed but he can get back that same life he had before. There is a possibility.”
Change is inevitable. Devon’s mom and dad understand that their life has also changed along with Devon’s. In my conservation with Devon and his parents, I mentioned several stories I covered regarding changes in life, and in my life and in other lives. But one recent story stood out. It was the last Space Shuttle mission for the United States of America -- Atlantis. As the heat from the final launch flared acrossed the gathered crowed, and the Shuttle hurtled away from Cape Kennedy’s pad, astronauts from former shuttle missions fanned across the media commenting on the changes in the Space Shuttle program at NASA.
Looking skyward at the large exhaust trail from Atlantis, one astronaut remarked, “Life is full of changes. Life will change for me and it will change for you. There are always new adventures out there. There is always another star just out there for us to grab. Something will come up if we don’t give up.”
Don't give up, don't ever give up - Jim Valvano
Devon Walker is not giving up and he has big plans for his future. They begin with building an even stronger relationship with his family, like holding his young niece again and doing the simplest of things that make a person feel whole.
“It’s one of my main goals to be able to do that. I just feel like I’m missing out on that part of my life.”
Juan Kincaid wrote in his report, “Devon’s life, once hanging in the balance, is now filled with hope, belief and positive expectations.”
During that day’s therapeutic session, elastic bands held Devon’s arms above his wheelchair. He struggled to move them in a horizontal pattern, but he did. It was a dramatic step in therapy. It had taken four months to get to that point. The next four were expected to bring many more feelings of satisfaction of a job well done and many more good ones to come.
Our time with Devon Walker was over that day. After a long interview and two hours of physical and occupation therapy, Devon was tired. He rested in his inclined wheelchair. The word “Live” is prominently positioned just above the rear door of his family’s living room. It is the passage through which Devon would have walked to enter the garage holding his college graduation present, a new car his father bought him. It now just sits parked.
Almost nine months after our interview I would have the chance to film Devon Walker in the middle of the football field at the homecoming game of Destrehan High School. He was officiating the coin toss that woud begin the game. On a field where he could almost fly against the opposing teams he now moved ever slowly in an electric wheelchair, regaining some of his independence. Devon Walker is also a regular on the sidelines at Tulane Football in the Dome. He continues to endure painful therapy hoping one day the paralysis of his “light touch” will evolve into “full touch.”
Today Devon Walker seeks out the smaller pleasures. Driving a new car his father bought him is not a priority. What is important is the chance to hold his niece, to watch her grow, to laugh and play with her, to hug her. And in my case, I wanted to dance with my daughter on her wedding day.
Now, years later after my paralysis, in the quiet of the late evening when no one else is around, I turn the radio on and I dance with my granddaughter. And finally, the host at the regional Emmy Award ceremony may have bestowed an Emmy to both Juan Kincaid and myself for the telling the story of Devon Walker, but we only conveyed the story in words and pictures. The real story is not wrapped within the limited time constraints of a television report or the accolades and awards presented to it. The real story is found in the courage revealed by Devon Walker, his parents and his family as they continuing to endure and forge ahead, no mater how difficult. And it will be difficult, in a life-changing event that has touched all of them.
And when Tulane’s football team makes their first appearance, in 11 years, in a postseason bowl game, there will be one person on the sidelines in a wheelchair whose heart will be on the field.
"Never Give Up!"