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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky