ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. It happened in the second game of the football season one year ago this weekend. Devon Walker, a team captain for Tulane University, went in for a tackle and broke his neck, paralyzing him from the shoulders down. After months of recovery in two different hospitals, Walker is back in Louisiana. He has re-enrolled at Tulane and is preparing for life after the tackle. From New Orleans, Keith O'Brien has the story.
KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: They applauded him when he returned to campus last week and greeted him with kisses in the hallways.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wait, wait, I've been waiting to see you forever. How are you?
DEVON WALKER: I'm fine. I'm fine. Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good.
O'BRIEN: Devon Walker doesn't usually go into the details: using a ventilator to talk, about how he can't sleep at night, just can't get comfortable, or about the searing nerve pain he suffers all too often, his whole body burning like it's on fire. There was no need to rush back to school, but Devon did.
WALKER: I guess I'm pretty stubborn when it comes to a lot of things. You can ask a lot of my friends and stuff. They can attest to that. But when I get something on my mind, you know, I just do it. And if it doesn't happen when I think it's going to happen, I'm going to keep fighting to make it happen sooner or later.
O'BRIEN: Of course, that's why Devon made the football team in the first place.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
CURTIS JOHNSON: On the ball. On the ball. On the ball. Let's go.
O'BRIEN: Curtis Johnson knew Devon long before he got the job as Tulane's head coach a season ago. The two lived in the same suburb when Johnson was an assistant coach for the New Orleans Saints. And he was sure the kid was too small for college football when he saw him play in high school.
JOHNSON: When he came in, he was - I looked at him. He was just a skinny little kid. And I said that skinny little kid, he can't play.
O'BRIEN: But Devon proved Johnson and everyone else wrong. He made the football team as a walk-on safety with no athletic scholarship four years ago. He played when he had no chance of playing. And when Johnson got hired before last season, Devon's senior year, the coach realized something about the undersized player in the number 18 jersey.
JOHNSON: This guy, he is a starter.
O'BRIEN: Then came the play against Tulsa last September.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This will be the last play of the half. Ball at the Tulane 33.
O'BRIEN: Coach Johnson calls a blitz.
JOHNSON: A corner blitz.
O'BRIEN: The Tulsa running back reels in a short pass.
WALKER: He's running straight up the middle.
O'BRIEN: And Devon is coming for him, all 173 pounds of him. But then the running back stumbles, falling.
WALKER: And I'm going in to ensure that he goes to the ground. So I'm going head first. And I completely don't see my defensive lineman behind him, running straight towards me.
O'BRIEN: No one saw him until the players collided and Devon's body went limp.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
TODD: Boy, there's a Tulane player down.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, dear.
TODD: And that's Devon Walker.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Dwayne was showing the...
TODD: Oh, goodness.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And his teammates immediately calling for help. But, Todd, that doesn't look good.
O'BRIEN: Devon struggled to breathe. Team doctors actually performed chest compressions on the field, concerned he had no pulse. They finally got him stabilized, but there was no reversing the damage caused by Devon's fractured vertebrae.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We thank you for our brother Devon, for his healing. We see the works that you're doing in his life. And we thank you for the spirit of peace, of joy, of happiness in his life. And we pray...
O'BRIEN: A year later, the football team still prays for Devon's recovery while Devon himself is working for it. He's bound to a wheelchair. Just getting out of the house in the morning takes 90 minutes and the help of a nurse. And still, three days a week, he's at a rehabilitation center at Touro Infirmary, pushing his therapists to push him.
HOLLY PELLERITO: I'll put it this way. Sometimes, I need a break before Devon needs a break.
O'BRIEN: Holly Pellerito is Devon's occupational therapist, and she worries that Devon might be trying to do too much too soon. But Devon has goals. He wants to graduate in the spring. His degree: cell and molecular biology. And physically, there's at least some reason for hope. In Devon's arm muscles, Pellerito says, there's twitching.
PELLERITO: So there's something there. There's some connection being made. So we're not going to stop until we can try to make something functional.
O'BRIEN: And the football team isn't giving up on Devon either. Just before the season opener last week against Jackson State University, coach Johnson addressed his team. Then he introduced the player in the fresh, new number 18 jersey, given to him just that night.
JOHNSON: Got a special guest for you, a special guest.
O'BRIEN: And with that, Devon began to speak.
WALKER: There's not much I can say that hasn't been said already, and there's not much more that I can do that I haven't done already. The fact of the matter is my days are up on playing football. You all's days are still in front of you all.
O'BRIEN: He talked to them about where he had come from and where they still might go. He asked them to play tonight as if they might never play again, to play hard always. And then they took the field.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND MUSIC)
O'BRIEN: Jackson State never had a chance. Tulane jumped out to a 27-to-nothing lead and went on to win 34-7, with Devon on the sidelines.
WALKER: You know, it's a different feeling, but it is a good feeling. You know, it's good to be back, you know, close to my friends, close to my teammates, as close as I can get to the game right now.
O'BRIEN: The next morning, away from the spotlight, he'd awake again with nerve trouble. For two days, his body would burn, itching with pain. Rehab and other plans would be canceled. But that night at the game, Devon Walker felt like a player again, and he looked like one too. He went home still wearing his jersey. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien in New Orleans.