Former Jet Wesley Walker wishes he would have retired early
(NY Daily News) NEW YORK – Wesley Walker has trouble lifting himself out of a chair, he doesn’t sleep except for a couple of naps during the day, and there are times driving to his home in Dix Hills he has lived in since 1978 when he winds up on the wrong highway or takes the wrong exit.
He was just a blur running go routes as the most electrifying receiver in Jets history. If he played today — his blazing speed combined with rules that have opened up the passing game — Walker would be impossible to cover. In 13 seasons — four of which were cut short by injuries — Walker’s numbers were outstanding: 438 catches for 8,306 yards with 71 touchdowns. He averaged an incredible 19 yards per catch.
But his one stat since retiring is more stunning: six, as in football-related surgeries.
“I am in pain every day,” Walker, who will be 60 years old on May 26, said Tuesday.
He said he ran a 4.2 in the 40 in high school. These days, “I can’t even run.”
Walker is talking the day after Chris Borland announced he was retiring from the 49ers at 24 for fear of what his life will become if he continues to play football.
When Walker is asked if all the fame and money that came with his NFL career were worth it, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Not at all,” he said. “I would have taken another path. Maybe become a commentator. Just from a physical standpoint, there is no way I would put my body through what I do now. I don’t wish this on anybody.”
Walker does not have Alzheimer’s or dementia and he is not crippled or in a wheelchair — although he has been wheeled to his gate in airports — but the sad state of Walker’s body and that of too many other former players is why Borland announced his retirement after his rookie year. He is the fourth player 30 or under to announce his retirement in the last week, joining 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds and Titans quarterback Jake Locker.
Following Willis’ announcement — he had suffered a debilitating toe injury and sore feet — the 49ers planned to move Borland into his starting inside linebacker spot. Now they have to replace both of them. Locker, a disappointing 2011 first-round pick, said he lost his love for the game. Worilds, a sought-after free agent ready to cash in, retired to devote more time to his religion.
Borland is the first player to take a preemptive strike against potential brain injury. He said he is retiring to try to ensure a normal life.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland said. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Knowing what he knows now, Walker wishes he made the same decision when he was Borland’s age. “You have to self-evaluate and know what your priorities are and what the situation is,” he said. “I admire a guy who is going to look long-term and figure he’s going to do something else and create another path. I would like to think people are getting smarter with that.”
Walker has had surgery on both shoulders. One shoulder required reconstruction, the other rotator-cuff fixing. He had major back surgery last April with 10 screws and a plate inserted. He had surgery for a torn Achilles in December. He’s had surgery on his right knee and spinal fusion surgery in his neck with 14 screws, a plate and cage used to stabilize him.
“I am in pain head to toe,” he said.
Last September, before the start of the 2014 season, I met Walker for lunch at Glen Head Country Club on Long Island. He has stayed involved with the Jets and makes many public appearances on their behalf. He was in good spirits that day, had no issue talking about his physical ailments. He was the Jets’ second-round pick in 1977 and was once the sleekest and fastest receiver in the NFL, running under deep passes from Ken O’Brien, teaming with Al Toon to give the Jets the most dangerous set of receivers they’ve ever had.
He put on a show in the Jets’ wild 51-45 victory over the Dolphins in 1986, catching four touchdown passes as O’Brien out dueled Dan Marino. Now he has numbness in his feet, a tingling feeling, and he says it’s been like that since ’86.
Air conditioning triggers pain in his arms and legs. It hurts when he makes a fist. If there is nobody home to help him when he needs to button a shirt or put on a tie, he goes across the street to a neighbor’s house for help.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “You want to cry sometimes.”
He believes those particular issues are related to needing spinal fusion on his neck in 2007. Problems with his neck led to the Jets placing him on injured reserve in 1989, and despite interest from the Cleveland Browns after the season, he decided to retire.
“I have so many symptoms of a lot of different issues, I’m just trying to figure out what’s wrong with me and how to treat it,” he said. “That’s been very difficult. I just don’t have one thing going on.”
Walker says if he could change one thing in his football career it would be making better decisions about taking care of himself when he was banged up. Like all players, he felt the pressure to play from teammates, whom he didn’t want to let down, and coaches, who were counting on him to perform. He said trainers told him that 50% of him was better than 100% of his backup, which he thought was a joke. He worries now about former teammates who he’s heard are not doing well.
Walker was never diagnosed with a concussion but is certain he had a few. Seeing stars was the tipoff. The NFL didn’t have the game-day concussion protocol that is in place today. It was more a case of being able to say whether it was two or three fingers being held up.
“You’re fine,” Walker said he was told. “Go back in.”
He has gotten out of his car and gone in the house and left the engine running. A couple of years ago he thought he was taking a 30-minute drive to Bellmore and nearly wound up in Manhattan. “I call it sleep driving,” he said.
Walker received a master’s degree after his NFL career ended and retired last October after working 25 years as a physical education teacher, the last 16 in the Kings Park district on Long Island. He couldn’t even outrun the other teachers.
Dr. Eric Freeman, the chief of orthopedics at Mercy Medical Center and the director of sports medicine at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, did Walker’s most recent shoulder surgery. He sat at Glen Head listening to Walker list the things wrong with his body. He and Walker have become friends and Freeman is trying to help improve Walker’s quality of life.
I contacted Freeman on Tuesday about Borland’s decision and how it relates to what Walker is going through.
“Given what we are learning now, and we are just scratching the surface on brain issues, I am asked many times a week by young athletes and their parents to lay out the risks of playing after a head injury,” Freeman said. “It becomes very difficult to prognosticate the future.
However, the sports medicine physician must advise the patient that repetitive trauma can lead to permanent and severe long-term issues and is a definite risk. Additionally, the repetitive trauma to the entire body eventually catches up with most of these professional athletes, as Wesley is a prime example, and will force them to live with pain every day of their lives.”
Walker said he is often asked if he misses the game. The answer is easy.
“I don’t miss the negative part,” he said. “We didn’t win enough. I didn’t have the success I wanted. If I had success and we went to Super Bowls and I was healthy every year, yeah, I would say I missed it. I don’t miss being hurt, I don’t miss being in pain and not having the success.”
The problem is he is still in pain. Every single day.