Published May 20, 2017
I had always heard that there was a real life Detroit Lion who lived in my Livonia neighborhood. Kids talk.
But it wasn’t until that summer day in 1973 when it was proven.
I was playing catch with my friend Rob Polster when this hulking man in a sweatsuit jogged toward us.
As he chugged past, the man’s eyes bore into us. I’ll never forget the look.
“Is that Wayne Walker?” Rob asked me.
“Yep,” I said.
There it was. Confirmation of the whispers.
Walker, right outside linebacker for the Lions from 1958-72, had retired in January of ’73, just a few months before Rob and I sighted him. They had no. 55’s retirement announcement and subsequent party at the old, marvelous Lindell AC at Cass and Michigan Avenue, downtown. That’s when Wayne donated one of his jerseys and, ahem, his jock strap to the establishment. Both items adorned the Lindell’s walls until the joint closed in 2002. The jock strap was bronzed.
Walker was also recognizable in those days from working as a channel 2 sportscaster in the off-season.
Walker lived in Livonia until moving out to San Francisco in the mid-1970s, after being hired to be sports director for KPIX-TV, which launched a longtime career in the Bay Area.
I always thought that Walker got the short shrift from the Hall of Fame voters. Until kicker Jason Hanson came along, nobody had played more games as a Lion than Walker, with his even 200 contests.
“Wayne Walker was a great football player,” defensive teammate Dick LeBeau said several years ago. LeBeau ought to know; he and Walker played together in Detroit for 14 of Walker’s 15 years.
Walker is gone now. He passed away yesterday at age 80. Another of my childhood heroes, no more.
It’s been a bad week for old school Lions fans like yours truly. We lost safety/punter Yale Lary on May 12.
Walker and Lary were two symbols of a time when the Lions had rough and tumble defenses that were stingy in the 1960s.
The Lions’ version of the Fearsome Foursome has just one surviving member: Roger Brown, who combined with Alex Karras, Darris McCord and Sam Williams to terrorize opposing quarterbacks in the early-’60s.
There was the L-group in the backfield: Lary, LeBeau and Gary Lowe.
The Lions had very good defenses in that decade; the trouble was with their plodding offenses. Quarterback, naturally, was a troublesome position.
Walker was All-Pro three times and made three Pro Bowls. He was excellent in pass coverage. His durability was unmatched. In his career, Wayno played in 200 out of a possible 204 games.
Since Walker’s time was that before kicking specialists arrived on the scene, a couple players on every team doubled as kickers and punters. Walker was one of those, functioning as the Lions’ placekicker for several years. He wasn’t very good at it, but kickers of the day weren’t known for their accuracy. Besides, you try playing 50-plus snaps as linebacker then having to kick field goals as well.
They called Walker “The King.” He was from Idaho, which isn’t a state known for producing a myriad of professional football players.
Shortly after arriving at Lions training camp as a rookie in 1958, Walker would drive fellow rookie Karras batty.
“He would always ask me, ‘Do you think they’re gonna keep us? Do you think they’re gonna keep us?’,” Karras recalled at Walker’s retirement bash at the Lindell in 1973.
The Lions kept them, and Walker and Karras became two of the team’s icons on defense for over a decade.
Thank goodness we still have Joe Schmidt, pro football’s original middle linebacker and Walker’s teammate and eventual coach.
“It was a real shock to hear that Wayne passed away because I just spoke with him on the phone two days ago,” Schmidt told the Detroit Free Press on Friday. “We had a great time reminiscing about our playing days stories, and stories from the old Lindell AC bar downtown. We had some good laughs. Wayne was a good football player, intelligent, well read, and he had a great sense of humor. It really grabs you when you lose your teammate and friend. Just like it did when we lost Yale Lary.”
Long before the Lions’ championship drought became the butt of jokes, before the team’s sordid history had time to take shape, the Lions were as close as any team in the NFL. They played hard, they partied hard. Led by quarterback Bobby Layne, the Lions were legendary in the league for their footloose and fancy-free ways.
Walker was a big part of that band of brothers that wore the Honolulu Blue and Silver.
“There’s no phoniness,” Walker said in 2008 about his old friends and teammates that gathered as part of the Lions’ 75th anniversary team. “There’s no edge to anybody. Everybody’s loose and relaxed. It’s wonderful to be together again. It’s like a fraternity. You don’t pull that jersey over your head as much as we did and not have a special feeling for the Lions. These guys are the Lions.”
Wayne Walker’s place in Lions history isn’t one to crack jokes about. He played on some very good teams that simply didn’t have the benefit of a wild card in order to make the playoffs. There was always the Green Bay Packers winning the Western Division—kind of like today.
And when the team finally did make the playoffs in 1970, only a heartbreaking 5-0 loss to Dallas kept the Lions from bigger and better things. Again, the defense held up its end of the bargain.
Walker returned to Idaho after his long broadcasting career was over. You never could take the Boise out of him.
He never did make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he was one of the Lions’ best linebackers at a time when they had several good ones.
“The ’60s were a sensational, exciting time to be here,” Walker said in 2008. “Those are all clear, fond memories you don’t leave behind.”