The Dark Side of Life After the NFL

Wesley Walker has been overcoming obstacles his entire life—from being blind in his left eye to undergoing knee surgery in college, which caused him to slip from a sure first-round pick in 1977 to a second rounder. Originally from San Bernardino, CA, Walker enjoyed a 12-year career with the Jets and earned two Pro Bowl selections (1978 and 1982). In 2012, Walker was inducted into the Jets’ Ring of Honor.

And as you would expect from a former star NFL receiver, Walker also has a lot of followers on Facebook. While a great deal of his posts focus on family and friends, quite a few include the rallying cry “Tell the truth!” (made famous by the Will Smith Concussion movie playing in theaters). The posts often link to articles about sports injuries and their aftereffects. It’s an attempt at spreading the message about the NFL’s poor job of looking after former players and their ongoing health concerns. Walker, who has called Long Island his home since 1978, recently spoke with Pulse about the dark side of life after pro football.

Long  Island Pulse: Are you still in touch with your former Jets teammates?
Wesley Walker:
I worry about my teammates—like Bruce Harper, Freeman McNeil, Kenny Schroy—we’re all having issues. I know a lot of the guys have depression and I still have this shaking going on. And you can’t remember certain things. I was talking to Kenny, where his memory is really bad. Bruce can’t remember a thing after you talk to him. We laugh about it, because I don’t know if it’s part of just getting older, but there are certain things that scare you. I’ve been driving when I’m going home, and I’d wind up going to another part of the parkway and losing my place and going, “How did I do this?” I call it “sleep driving.” Years ago, I remember I was going to Bellmore, and I ended up almost to the city at 108th Street in Forest Hills. So you look at things like that—there’s something not quite right.

Pulse: What has been your most severe physical problem from playing football?
Walker: I just had last April a major back fusion. I had two rods and ten screws put in. I’ve had problems with my back since ’86. There was a point where I couldn’t even bend over to touch my toes. I don’t know how I got through training camp my last year in ’89. I was taking Vicodin—it’s a big mistake taking any kind of painkillers or getting shot up for a game, which I did with my shoulder, just to play. And I continued to play. I remember I had [radiating pain] down my leg and my doctor thought it was a hamstring problem. And I didn’t know I had all this spinal stenosis in my back. The major thing that led to my retirement was I had a stenosis growing in my [spinal] canal and I would go paralyzed after getting hit sometimes.

Pulse: What are some other aftereffects you experience?
Walker: I’ve had residual tingling and numbness that has never gone away. I can predict when it’s going to rain—it’s going to rain tomorrow. I feel it two days prior. I get this thing that runs up my arm, up my chest, and I always relate it to—I don’t know what it’s like to have a heart attack, but I’m always paranoid because my dad had a heart attack when he was 40 and passed away. So I get checked out by a cardiologist and they relate it to this nerve damage. But there are days, especially when it gets colder, if I have to take stuff out of the car and I’m unpacking or unloading, I get this thing in my chest, and it’s not a very comfortable feeling. And I get worried that it’s my heart, but it’s all from just nerve damage. I have atrophy throughout my whole body. And I have this atrophy that I will never recover from in my hands, my arms and now my left leg.

Pulse: After football, you were a physical education teacher in a Kings Park elementary school.
Walker: Thank God I taught. And I at least have a health care program that I can pay monthly. But you would think the NFL would have something set up. When you talk to the fans out there, everybody thinks you’ve been provided for. It’s not [true]. I just wish they would create something for these guys, at least that the guys can buy into. I’m not looking for anything for free, but that there’s some type of health care program. Because most players any company you go to, they’re not going to insure you or cover you for any kind of life insurance or any policy or any long-term care. And that’s the shame of it all.

Pulse: Have you had any disappointments about the league?
Walker: I don’t like when the NFL says they do all these things, which they do not. That’s what I’ve been most disappointed with. I do get disappointed watching 60 Minutes, I’ve watched that League of Denial documentary, and then when you hear the commissioner [Roger Goodell] or some of these people with the NFL, they try and sugarcoat everything. They’re not asking questions and they’re not really telling the truth, and they hurt the integrity of the game. But you just want the truth to be told. That’s all.

Pulse: What should the NFL be doing differently to help?
Walker: If there is any one thing I would like to see is some type of program for the former players or current players that no matter how long you played, you could buy into some type of health care program for any injury. And also some type of program for life insurance for long-term care for the future.

Pulse: Now that you’re on the other end of it, would you recommend playing football as a career?
Walker: As a parent, I don’t know if I would let my kids play the game…I would let them play, because it’s their decision. But I’d try to steer them in another direction. Because you don’t even know, you can just land the wrong way and hit your head and that could change your whole life.

greg prato

greg prato

Greg Prato has lived almost his entire life on Long Island. He has written for Rolling Stone, and has penned many a book on either rock n’ roll or sports. See what he’s up to on Twitter @gregpratowriter.