(with NFL training camps in full swing, and the Lions celebrating their 75th anniversary, OOB will profile various Lions coaches and players throughout history every Friday between now and the regular season opener)
I had heard the rumors, but never were they confirmed to my satisfaction. If it WAS true, then I thought it was pretty awesome: imagine, a real-life Detroit Lions player living in YOUR neighborhood!
It was circa 1973. And the rumor was that Lions LB Wayne Walker, who retired after the ’72 season, lived in my Livonia subdivision. One afternoon, it was confirmed.
I was playing catch at my friend’s house, which was located right next to our grade school. And here comes this man jogging, in a sweatsuit, toward us. It was obvious, as he approached, that it was Walker. I can still see his piercing eyes looking at me as he jogged past.
“Was that Wayne Walker?,” my friend asked. I said yes, it sure was.
So it WAS true.
Perhaps no one on the Lions — not even Michael Cofer — wore no. 55 better than Wayne Walker
I don’t know when Walker and his family moved out, but when he did, it was surely to the Bay Area in California, where Walker started a new career as a San Francisco sports reporter and a play-by-man for NFL games on CBS. He cut his TV teeth in Detroit, working for channel 2 as a weekend sports anchor during the off-season.
But it was on the field that Walker will be discussed here. Drafted in 1958, Wayne Walker played right linebacker for 15 seasons in Detroit, having retired with the career lead in games played for the Lions with an even 200 (since broken by Jason Hanson). He was a placekicker, too — players did double duty like that back in the day. He was never the most accurate FG kicker, but he was serviceable on extra points and could boot the occasional 30-to-40 yarder. It wasn’t until the late-1960s when Walker stopped kicking, once the Lions began keeping full-time kickers on their roster. (It should be noted that the great Lem Barney doubled as a punter in his first couple of seasons with the Lions).
Walker — who I feel should be in the Hall of Fame — was a steady, if not spectacular, linebacker who was very durable. He hardly ever missed a game. And he was a key part of a defense that was better than average, during a decade (the 1960s) when the offense didn’t always reciprocate.
But Walker wasn’t a pass-rushing beast, like the top outside LBs of today, nor was he considered an initimidating hitter. Rather, he was just — THERE — always, reliably, plugging his gaps and ably covering running backs on short patterns. He was a Pro Bowler, three years in a row from 1963-65. He combined with Mike Lucci (MLB) and Paul Naumoff (LLB) to form a very good trio in the late-1960s to early-1970s.
The Lions, for all their warts, have actually provided us with some solid, lunch bucket defenders — guys who might not have been household names, but who football people knew were above-average players in their prime. I’d put Walker near the top of this list, which includes others throughout the years like George Jamison, Mike Weger, Dave Pureifory, Naumoff, and William White — just to name a few.
Walker was just one year into retirement when he jogged passed me that one afternoon when I was around 10 years old. So he was still in good physical shape — and wearing the mustache that he sported late in his career and during most of his broadcasting years. And those eyes — I’m sure more than one QB or running back looked into those eyes and wondered.
Walker is 72 now and Wikipedia.org says he’s retired and living in the Boise, Idaho area. He played college ball at Idaho.
Wayne Walker — one of those “tweeners” that will probably never make it into the Hall of Fame. Another victim of the Lions’ mostly mediocre records during his time here.