Sports

A conversation with deaf NFL retiree Kenny Walker

The ex-defensive lineman, one of three deaf players in NFL history, discusses his support of Seahawks' Derrick Coleman

Kenny Walker was the second deaf player in NFL history. Although he's a former Denver Bronco, he's rooting for Derrick Coleman and the Seattle Seahawks to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
AP Photo/NFL Photos

In December 1990, Kenny Walker was playing his final home game as part of the University of Nebraska’s storied college football team. Walker, who legendary Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne once called “the greatest pass rusher in college football today,” was greeted with what was described as “the biggest ovation you never heard.” Some 70,000 Nebraska fans would raise their arms as if they were signaling for a touchdown, with their wrists rotating counterclockwise. They were, in fact, applauding Walker, who is deaf.

Walker, who has been deaf since he suffered a bout of spinal meningitis when he was 2, would overcome his disability to become just the second deaf player in NFL history. In his two NFL seasons, both with the Denver Broncos, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end was something of an inspiration for the deaf community, becoming the first deaf player to complete a full season in the league.

Twenty years later, Derrick Coleman became the third deaf player to play in the NFL. Coleman, the backup fullback for the Seattle Seahawks, and his story came to light in a recent Duracell commercial that went viral. To date, the ad has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube. 

Now, Walker, who still lives in Denver and works as a paraeducator for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, is hoping Coleman can take the next step for deaf football players and become a Super Bowl champion.

“I’m rooting for the best team in the Super Bowl,” Walker said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “And for Derrick to be the first deaf player in the history of the Super Bowl, that’s who I’m rooting for.”

Before Coleman tries to become the first deaf NFL player to win a Super Bowl, “America Tonight” spoke with Walker about Coleman, his own experience as a deaf player and whether NFL coaches are more accepting today of deaf players. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity. Walker’s answers were given through an ASL interpreter.

America Tonight: It had been almost 20 years from when you played until Coleman came into the league. Do you think his early success could influence other deaf athletes to pursue their NFL dreams?

Kenny Walker: I appreciate the need for access and more access, in the future, for deaf and hard-of-hearing players. It’s time. The door is now open. Look at Derrick. There’s nothing wrong with him. He can play on par with hearing players; he has the ability and the talent. For the deaf community, the access to play in the NFL is there now. You can get to the professional level. I think he got into the right program at UCLA, and that helped him to get into the professional ranks. The Seahawks gave him a chance and he has been very successful in his second year. He has done an amazing job.

AT: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said that if a player works hard, he has a spot on the team, and that was the case with Coleman. Do you get a sense that other coaches are taking on this same approach or is there still hesitance in taking on deaf or hard-of-hearing players?

KW: I want to see a whole new school of coaching. It is hard to deal with the old-school coaches. If you have new coaches who are coming into the pros who are open-minded about bringing on deaf players, I think that would be great. The old-school coaches have a certain way and that way wasn’t working. With the right chemistry and right coaches, that’s the key to deaf players succeeding at this level. That was true for me. If you get the right person to coach that program, they don’t consider communication problems as a challenge. It can work.

AT: What’s the most difficult thing for deaf players to overcome in regard to connecting with and getting on the same page with their teammates?

KW: Well, it’s the same for all of us, whether you’re deaf or not. When you get in, you need the knowledge, you need to be a social player and you need to support each other. You need to believe in the game and get the support of the team. I feel like the Seahawks are doing that. Derrick knows the chemistry is there, and he’s able to communicate with the quarterback. You have to work on that. But as long as you know the playbook, it’s the same thing for everyone. It’s not difficult to do.

AT: What’s the biggest difference in being an average NFL player compared to that of an NFL player who is deaf or hard-of-hearing? What are some of the communication barriers that you faced when you were playing?

After his playing days, Walker has taken to coaching and teaching deaf students and athletes at places like Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy: Gallaudet University

KW: What’s the difference? Not a lot. I haven’t been labeled as a person with a hearing loss. Derrick doesn’t use sign language, but he grew up as an oral deaf person who speaks. That’s an advantage for him. He was taught that growing up. For me, I learned signing English, so as my second language I started learning American Sign Language. That changed my communication style and forced me to work harder to change to another language. Derrick hasn’t had those experiences. He didn’t use interpreters all throughout college, because he didn’t need them. I look at videotapes of his games and see what he’s gone through with his hearing loss, and I think, “Wow, that’s a lot of hard work there.”

AT: Have you talked with Coleman? If not, when you do get a chance to speak with him, what would you, one of three deaf players in NFL history, tell him?

KW: No, I haven’t had a chance to reach out or talk to him. I would say to him that, from my experience in the pros, it’s about the business and that you have to keep to the plan. You have to stay professional as you are and after your time in the league is over. There’s a lot of talk about what you’re going to do after the pros, and you have to have a plan.

AT: I know you’ve been teaching and coaching football at schools for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. What did you learn after you were done playing? How difficult was the lifestyle adjustment after you had accomplished what only one other person had done before?

KW: After football, you, as a deaf person, have to grow up from the experience. In the past, for example, lots of schools would raise deaf children who come out of programs that aren’t that great. My hope is to better the academic programs that we have now, so these kids can graduate and get jobs. For me, I didn’t know what was going to happen after I stopped playing.

AT: Coleman’s story is one of the more inspirational stories this week, but where does the ASL community go from here? What needs to be done in order for more deaf players to be given an opportunity? Will deaf athletes capitalize on the increased level of awareness from Coleman’s Super Bowl experience?

KW: Hearing people need to be open and allow that door to be open for the deaf and hard-of-hearing players; give them the chance to make it work. For the deaf players, I would say never give up on your dreams. Do the best you can, find the right way to communicate and the access you need and the right fit for you.

 

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