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Walker, Kenny

Kenny Walker

1967-

American football player

When football player Kenny Walker made his professional debut in the early 1990s, he became the first deaf player in the National Football League (NFL) in nearly twenty years. A defensive lineman with the Denver Broncos in 1991 and 1992, Walker became a hero among the hearing-impaired with his against-theodds success story. The 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound player picked up his defensive calls by reading other players' lips, and distinguished himself on the playing field with a strong performance. After two years with the Broncos, Walker joined the Calgary Stampeders, becoming the first deaf player in the history of the Canadian Football League (CFL).

Born on April 6, 1967, in Crane, Texas, Kenny Walker was the youngest of six children born to a cafeteria-worker mother and an oil-field worker father. He was two years old when he contracted spinal meningitis, which left him deprived of his ability to hear. While his family helped him with his disability, his two older brothers, Darren and Gus, made sure their little brother did not fall prey to self-pity. "If I was pouting, or wanting sympathy, they'd deck me," Walker told Tom Keyser of the Calgary Herald.

After young Walker's parents separated, his mother relocated with her children to Denver, Colorado. Here Walker attended a deaf program at the University of Denver. A natural athlete, he played street sports with friends, and made the football team as a starter in the tenth grade. As a defensive end and split end, he was a fast, capable player who excelled on the field. Upon graduation from high school he was offered a football scholarship from the University of Nebraska.

Chronology

1967 Born on April 6 in Crane, Texas
mid-1980s Plays high school football; receives football scholarship from University of Nebraska
late 1980s Named Big Eight Conference Defensive Player of the Year
1991 Selected by Denver Broncos in eighth round of NFL draft
1993 Released by Broncos
1994 Signs with Calgary Stampeders
1995 Plays last season with Stampeders
late 1990s Becomes football coach at Iowa School for the Deaf
1999 Publishes autobiography, Roar of Silence: The Kenny Walker Story

Named Defensive Player of the Year

Playing a defensive end for Nebraska's Cornhuskers, Walker gained a reputation as one of the fastest linesman in the state. "He's pretty much unstoppable," teammate Brian Boerboom told Ken Hambleton of the Sporting News. "He's so quick and so strong, it's hard to get in his way. You can be doing a good job on him and not look very good when the play is over." The press marveled at the way Walker's deafness did not hold him back as a player. However, there were limitations to what positions he could play. Although his speed and relatively small size made suited him to play inside linebacker, his inability to pick up changes in defense made the position inappropriate for him. Instead he played defensive tacklea position usually reserved for the biggest, heaviest players on the team.

Nicknamed "Mumbles" for his reticence during meetings, Walker gained confidence as he adjusted to the world of college football. As a player, he stole the hearts of Cornhuskers fans. When he ran onto the field for his final game at Nebraska, a crowd of some 76,000 raised their hands and wiggled their fingers in the international sign for applause. He responded with "I love you" in sign language. An All-American player, Walker was named Big Eight Conference defensive player of the year in 1990.

As the first deaf student to attend the university, Walker was initially shy about speaking and using sign language in public. But as he adjusted to campus life he became more comfortable in public and more involved in campus activities. Walker, who draws children's cartoons in his spare time, majored in art and held a 3.1 grade point average. When he was not studying or playing football, he indulged in one of his favorite pastimes, catfishing, and often volunteered working with deaf children in the Lincoln, Nebraska, area.

Joined Denver Broncos

Selected by the Denver Broncos in the eighth round of the 1991 NFL draft, Walker became professional American football's first deaf player since Bonnie Sloan, who had played for the St. Louis Cardinals for one season in 1973. While many teams had overlooked Walker because of his handicap, Broncos' coach Dan Reeves was willing to take a chance on Nebraska's star player. As a defensive linebacker for the Broncos, Walker distinguished himself with his superior vision, strength, and speed. For assistance at meetings, practice, and chalkboard talks, Walker hired an interpreter. He read quarterback Karl Mecklenberg's lips in the huddle, and received defensive calls via signals from fellow linebackers.

Within a few months Coach Reeves was touting Walker as one of the best late-round draft choices the team had made in years. Said Reeves to Tom Farley of the Seattle Times :"Whether it's in the near future or next year, I don't think there is any question [Walker] will end up being a starting defensive end for us." However, Reeves did not follow through on this promise. After playing with the Broncos for two seasons, Walkerwho had been named the NFL's Most Inspirational playerwas cut from the team in August 1993.

Although the Broncos had suggested that Walker's deafness was a liability, the Canadian Football League was willing to give the talented player a chance. He joined the Calgary Stampeders as a starting linebacker in July 1994, becoming the CFL's first deaf player in history. As a starting linebacker, Walker proved his mettle and once earned the distinction of "defensive player of the week." "[Walker] really wanted to play football, and mentally he had a sense of relief because [Calgary] didn't want him to carry a lot of weight like the Denver Broncos did," Walker's wife, Marti, told Brian Lahm of the Omaha World Herald. Although he enjoyed playing for the Stampeders, Walker told the press that he would take advantage of any future opportunities to come back to the NFL and play in his home country. Such an opportunity did not present itself, however. Walker played with the Stampeders for two seasons, leaving in 1995.

The same year, the Associated Press reported that Walker had sued the Denver Broncos for misrepresenting his disability to other NFL teams. The suit also claimed that the Broncos had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. "Despite proving beyond question that a deaf person could play professional football in the NFL," stated the lawsuit, "the Broncos falsely represented to other NFL teams that Walker's handicap created an undue hardship." The Broncos' general manager, John Beake, told the Associated Press that the team was prepared to counter the case in court. The press did not follow up on the outcome of the case, however.

Awards and Accomplishments

late 1980s All-American team
1990 Big Eight Conference defensive player of the year
1991 NFL's first deaf player in nearly 20 years
1994 CFL's first deaf player in history

Career Statistics

Yr Team GP Sack Int TD
DEN: Denver Broncos.
1991 DEN 16 3.0 0 0
1992 DEN 15 1.5 0 0
TOTAL 31 4.5 0 0

Retired from football, Walker pursued another dream: teaching and coaching deaf children. Returning to the United States to be with his family, he took a job coaching football at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs, Iowa. In 1999 he published his autobiography, Roar of Silence: The Kenny Walker Story, co-written with Bob Schaller. Valued for his contribution to football history, Walker remains a hero and role model among the hearing-impaired and at large.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Moore, Matthew S., and Robert F. Panara. Great Deaf Americans, 2nd edition. Rochester, NY: MSM Productions, 1996.

Periodicals

Associated Press (June 6, 1995).

Farrey, Tom. "Deafness No Barrier for Denver Lineman." Seattle Times (September 13, 1991): B1.

Hambleton, Ken. "Walker's Hits Do the Talking." Sporting News (May 14, 1990): 41.

Keyser, Tom. "Proud Gridiron Warrior." Calgary Herald (September 30, 1994): C4.

Lahm, Brian. "Kenny Walker Finds Niche in Calgary Stampeders." Omaha World Herald (December 14, 1994): 27SF.

Other

"Atlanta Falcons Coaching Staff." NFL.com. http://www.nfl.com/teams/coaching/ATL (December 12, 2002).

"Kenny Walker." About.com. http://deafness.about.com/library/weekly/aa042401.htm (December 10, 2002).

Sketch by Wendy Kagan

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