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Sunday, June 21, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Football Legend Fights Biggest Battle -- Doak Walker Paralyzed From Skiing Accident

AP

DENVER - Little feeling remains in the hands that cradled the football during dozens of breathtaking scoring runs. The legs that dashed past defenders en route to the Heisman Trophy and two NFL titles lie motionless.

Simply swallowing has become a chore for Hall of Famer Doak Walker and talking in sentences is out of the question. He communicates with relatives and friends by moving his eyes and face.

"The day that I got the call that Doak had been hurt, I cried," said Dick Davis, Walker's childhood friend and former Southern Methodist teammate. "I'm 72 years old, and 72-year-old men don't cry."

Many others have shed tears since Walker was paralyzed in a skiing accident on Jan. 30 in the shadow of a 10,000-foot Rocky Mountain peak named for his late brother-in-law, who was an Olympic skier. Walker hit a change in the groomed terrain on Rainbow Run, soared about 25 feet in the air and tumbled another 75 feet after slamming to the ground.

Walker, 72, is in rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in suburban Denver, trying to retrain his throat muscles so he can swallow on his own again and mouthing words until there is enough strength to put together sentences. Doctors say Walker may never fully regain the use of his arms and legs.

Davis and Walker's yellow Labrador Maggie are among the selected few allowed to visit him.

"I was very worried about what I was going to do and say," Davis said. "I walked in the room, and he had a broad smile on his face. He put me at complete ease, and all the pressure that I was worried about had left me. That's his leadership ability."

Walker has received thousands of letters and faxes from well-wishers worldwide. The faxes overwhelmed a second-floor counseling department, so a second fax machine was brought in just for him.

"People are still a little bit in shock and hoping things work out because you never saw anybody that vital down," said James Marek, a longtime family friend. "Nothing ever affected Doak. He's as tough as they come."

On the day Davis visited, faxes arrived from Heisman Trophy winners Mike Rozier (Nebraska 1983), Gary Beban (UCLA 1967) and Paul Hornung (Notre Dame 1956).

"It made a statement regarding the man," Davis said. "Doak goes far beyond talent on the football field. He's just one hell of a man. I don't think he has an enemy in the world."

Walker, who grew up in the Dallas area, ended his football career in 1956 after a legendary four years at SMU and six years with the Detroit Lions, where he won two championships. He was awarded the Heisman in 1948 and is the only SMU player to win it.

"He was a real competitor," said Harold Jeskey, a former SMU chemistry professor. "The boys played with just a leather helmet, no bars or protection, and he never got hurt. The boys told me that trying to tackle him was like trying to tackle a rag."

Walker's elusiveness and versatility - he passed, punted, kicked field goals and played defense - earned him three All-America selections, and he is immortalized by the annual Doak Walker Award, which honors the nation's top college running back.

Modesty should be a requirement for its recipients.

In 1949, Walker tried to turn down an All-America selection by famed sports writer Grantland Rice because injuries prevented him from playing the whole season. And Walker has always been willing to help out friends with public appearances. He once autographed photos for 10 hours to help promote a service station that former SMU wideout Raleigh Blakely had invested in.

"We had the largest two days that the Gulf Corp. had ever had," Blakely said.

After his playing days, Walker took a public relations job with a construction company and later married Skeeter Werner, a former Olympic skier from Steamboat Springs. (Walker's family has refused requests for interviews).

Steamboat's primary peak, Mount Werner, is named after Skeeter's brother, Buddy, who died in an avalanche in Switzerland in 1964.

The humble Walker blended in among the 5,100 residents of the close-knit mountain town in north-central Colorado.

"I didn't know who he was for a long time after I met him," friend John Nichols said. "He was wearing his Hall of Fame polo shirt one day, and he said, `Oh, I played some ball.' He didn't brag about it."

But Walker sure has a lot to brag about - as one of the most respected and decorated football players of all time.

Shortly after the accident, Davis invited his former SMU teammates to a reunion in Walker's honor. About 40 attended the gathering in Dallas.

"He's still our hero," Davis said. "I'm his contemporary and his peer, and he's still my hero."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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