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Ghost chasing

Russell Doak Walker's home sits just a few doors down from Southern Methodist University, where his father's high school fame blossomed into magazine-cover myth 50 years ago. Russ bought this place just a year ago and didn't give much thought to its location at the time. But now, as he stands in the back yard, he can hear the football coach's whistle echo through the cool evening air.

When it's pointed out to him, Russ smiles and mentions that the last two numbers of his address are 37. "That was my father's number," he says, as though even the most casual football fan, especially one born and raised in Dallas, could ever forget.

This home Russ shares with his wife, Lisa, is a quiet shrine to his father, the man for whom he is named--Ewell Doak Walker II. Downstairs are myriad pictures of the older Doak, the man who moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in the late 1960s to live in quiet anonymity. There are photos of Walker with his two sons, Russ and Scott, and pictures taken in Doak's back yard in Colorado.

There is also a photograph taken of Doak Walker a few months after the January 30, 1998, skiing accident in Steamboat Springs that left one of the greatest football players ever paralyzed from the neck down. In the photo, he sits in his wheelchair and wears a thin, tired smile.

"These pictures are the Doak I know--the guy who lives in the mountains, a neat man that's my father-in-law," says Lisa. "But upstairs, these are more back when he was..." She pauses. "Famous."

At the top of the staircase hang old black-and-white photos of SMU Mustang Doak Walker striking classic poses--his left arm cradling a football, his right arm outstretched, his legs twisting forward, his eyes glancing behind him. In an adjoining room is a more recent photo taken in 1986, when Walker was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Also hanging in the hallway are framed, autographed magazine covers featuring Doak as the beautiful, All-American gridiron boy. One is the October 3, 1955, issue of Sports Illustrated, which proclaimed the Detroit Lions star a "pro's pro." (Hanging next to it is the November 21, 1955, issue of SI, featuring on its cover Olympic skier Skeeter Werner--who would become Doak's second wife 14 years later.)

Next to them is the September 27, 1948, issue of Life magazine, featuring a photo of Walker dressed in SMU crimson red, posed against a penetrating blue sky. Doak died exactly 50 years to the day after that issue of Life hit the stands; his body could no longer withstand the strain of his injuries. "Isn't that bizarre?" Lisa says.

There are a few more mementos scattered throughout the house: a copy of the 1950 book Doak Walker: 3-Time All-American written by Dorothy Kendall Bracken, a professor of Doak's at SMU; a small reproduction of the Doak Walker Award, which is handed out each year to the best college running back; a leather-bound copy of 1997's biography More Than a Hero; and a statue of a giant eagle honoring Walker as an initial inductee into the Southwest Conference Hall of Honor in 1993.

But Russ has little time to visit such grandiose memories. He has never even read Bracken's biography of his father, a book that turns a young man into myth before page four. He doesn't often revisit his old man's past; he leaves it in its proper place.

Russ, his younger brother Scott, and his two older sisters Kris and Laurie--Doak's four children with his first wife, Norma, from whom he was divorced in 1965 after 15 years of marriage--are children of a myth, but they have not been swallowed whole by his shadow. To Doak's kids, he wasn't at all a legend. He was "humble...shy...emotional," Russ says, even "a role model." And he was simply "Dad." No more or less.

In fact, as children, Doak and Norma's children knew little of their father's football stardom. What they heard was most often passed down from their father's old friends or fans who approached Walker whenever he ventured out in Dallas.

"We just knew him as our dad," Russ says. "We didn't know him as the football player, because we never got to see him play except on old film reels. He won all these awards, but it didn't ever seem like a big deal to him."

Or to the children. Russ is asked when he can recall first learning of his father's football accomplishments--among them, winning the HeismanTrophy in 1948 and twoNFL titles with the Detroit Lions. He thinks about it a long time, and even then, he cannot recall. "I never thought about it," Russ says, shrugging.  

Russ, like his old man, played football at Highland Park High School in the 1970s. Unlike his old man, who scored at will, Russ played defense. He also played some ball at the University of Colorado in Boulder, not far from his father's home. (The children lived with Norma after their parents divorced.) Russ had talked to SMU, Ole Miss, Texas, but his father convinced him to play at Colorado. There, Russ could ski three times a week.

Russ even has his own scrapbook, which was made up by a friend of his (Russ wouldn't have dared keep such a monument to himself). It overflows with clippings from his days playing at Highland Park. One of the headlines, from the Dallas Times Herald, reads: "There's another Doak Walker at Highland Park." There's also a picture of Russ and Doak standing on the sidelines, conferring like men sharing trade secrets.

But unlike his father, Russ was not an All-American. He did not win a Heisman. He did not play in the NFL.

Russ Walker, in fact, lives a happy, normal life; so do Scott (who looks almost like a flesh-and-blood wax figure of his father during his glory days) and Kris and Laurie. Russ has worked in real estate and construction, sold kitchen equipment, and will begin selling in February something called pipeless whirlpool tubs. He is 38 years old and does not advertise that he is Doak Walker's son; neither do his siblings.

"I had my own life," Russ says. "He never forced me one way or the other. He never pressured us into any sports. He just wanted us to have fun and do the best we could. There was definitely no pressure whatsoever. If we didn't play sports, he didn't care. There were no expectations. He just wanted us to live our lives."

Last Thursday, Doak Walker's family, his old friends and teammates, and so many fans gathered at Highland Park Presbyterian Church to bid their farewells. At the top of the stairs leading to the pulpit sat the two symbols that best defined his life for outsiders: The 1948 Heisman Trophy, and a beat-to-hell black cowboy hat (with a faded red bandanna around it) symbolizing his final days spent as a Colorado cowboy. Almost every person who entered the church stopped and stared at the Heisman. "Look," uttered one young man, respectfully clad in a dark suit. "There it is." He hesitated at the base of the stairs and seemingly lowered his head, almost as though paying his respects to the statue.

Before the service started, old men could be heard whispering their fading recollections; they echoed throughout the church, so many stories of his kindness and his patience and his humility. Someone recalled the time Walker agreed to show up for the grand opening of a local service station and signed autographs for 12 hours. "Can you imagine an athlete doing that today?" he asked his friend. "Never" was the response. "But that was Doak." Another mentions that had Walker stayed in Dallas the remainder of his life, "He would have gone crazy. How could a man have survived it, being so famous?"

Russ doesn't mourn the loss of his father as much as he speaks fondly of the several months he was able to spend with Doak before his death on September 27. After all, Russ says, immediately after Doak's skiing accident, he was believed to be dead--he wasn't breathing. "It's been a big bonus," Russ says of the eight months he and his brother and sisters spent with Doak in Colorado. "We had enough time to say goodbye. If he had died on the hill, it would have been a major...it would have been a big shock. We kinda knew this was coming, that someday this was going to happen, and it happened sooner than we thought."

The children took turns going to Colorado to visit with Walker. They would normally go on Thursday and return on Monday--he was rarely without one of his kids. Russ spent three weeks with him in June and July, and was with Doak when he was moved from Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, outside Denver, to an extended-care facility in Steamboat Springs. Russ was with his father so often, he was forced to conduct business from a phone near his father's bed. Doak would often eavesdrop on conversations, offering Russ advice as his son spoke into the receiver.

"He was so aware of what was going on," Russ says. "He could tell you when a half hour had passed; it was like he was counting in his head. I think he was frustrated, because you can imagine how many hours and minutes and seconds he counted over eight months."  

"But he never said anything" about those frustrations, Lisa says. "To the nurses or anybody else."

At first, the family did not want to believe Doak's paralysis was permanent. Doctors hinted that perhaps he would recover in time, and Skeeter and the children clung to the belief that one of the greatest men ever to run on a football field would indeed be able to simply stand on his own once more. But as time wore on, they became "more realistic"--to use Russ' words--about his chances for recovery, and accepted his situation the best they could.

"It was a tough thing to see him like that, because he was such a powerful individual," Russ says. "Everything he did was outdoors. He could do everything well. And to see him bottled up in a room, sittin' in a chair or in a bed and not be able to live his life like he wanted...I just couldn't see him that way. And I don't think he saw himself that way, but he did have the determination to get better. He said, 'I'm gonna fight this thing.' He never gave up hope. There was all odds against him, and if somebody could have overcome them, it was him."

Doak Walker spent his final days in a bed in that extended-care facility, looking out the two windows in his room. One looked out over the top of a mountain; the other revealed the valley below. "I said, 'Look at that,'" Russ recalls telling his father. "And he said, 'Yeah, isn't it great, just to be home?'" Russ pauses and smiles just a little bit. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything.


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