Published August 21, 2013
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker has blamed himself for the death of his aunt and uncle.
He isn't at fault. They died from a preventable mistake made by someone else.
Walker, though, has put himself in the shoes of Nechole Thomas. She is charged with two counts of vehicular homicide and driving while intoxicated after plowing into the stopped car of Alice and Bryan Young last February along a Louisiana highway.
Walker believes he easily could have made the same kind of fatal mistake through his own negligence.
"When I speak to people, I tell them I've done it. I drank and drove," Walker told FOX Sports during a recent interview. "Now that I look back at it, I feel that I was the person who killed my auntie and uncle. I always tell people that.
"I looked at myself and said, 'How can I say I'm mad at this lady when I do the same thing?' I had to change myself."
Walker not only refuses to get behind the wheel now after imbibing. He also hopes to help change the culture of drinking and driving that still exists among some of his peers.
According to U-T San Diego's documentation of NFL arrests, 10 players have been charged with alcohol-related driving offenses in 2013 (one charge was later dismissed). This comes on the heels of 17 alcohol-related player arrests last year, including the crash involving now-retired Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent that killed a teammate who was his passenger.
The percentage of NFL players charged with alcohol-related offenses is significantly less than the average populace for the same age and demographic. The league's outreach to players is also far greater than what almost any other company offers its employees.
There are ride services provided by the NFL Players Association and most teams that would drive an intoxicated player and his car home safely with promised anonymity. Representatives from Mothers Against Drunk Driving made presentations to 16 NFL franchises this offseason to further reinforce the message frequently espoused by the league, players union and teams themselves in various forms.
And yet the problem persists - as does the bad press that comes every time a player runs afoul of the law - as alcohol-related offenses remain the biggest offense committed by players in the offseason.
The league and NFLPA are in the process of taking steps they hope will serve as an even greater deterrent than the ramifications that currently follow a DUI conviction from the NFL. Counseling and a fine is the standard penalty under the league's current personal-conduct policy.
As first reported by FOX Sports, both sides are expected to reach agreement on stricter player punishment for alcohol-related driving convictions once a drug policy is finalized for human growth hormone testing. A mandatory suspension of at least one game will likely be instituted for first-time DWI offenders.
"We're trying to prevent every single (arrest)," said Adolpho Birch, who heads the NFL's drug-testing programs as its Senior Vice President of Law and Labor Policy. "We understand each one that happens does damage to the (NFL) shield and what we're trying to accomplish."
But not even the threat of missing games may scare players from getting behind the wheel when legally drunk, especially if their judgment is negatively affected by excessive alcohol consumption. Birch believes the biggest reason players get arrested is the failure to have a plan for returning home safely before heading out.
"When you don't make the right choices on the front end, it makes it much simpler to make the wrong choice on the back end," Birch said.
Debbie Weir, who is the chief executive officer for M.A.D.D., said that more that 50 percent of alcohol-related accidents overall are committed by male drivers between the ages of 21 and 34 years old. That is the age spectrum for every offseason NFL player arrest this year.
"I think part of it is the mindset of the young man thinking, 'I'm invincible. It happens to others. It doesn't happen to me,'" Weir said.
Weir provided another explanation that Walker can relate to from personal experience.
"Cats want to drive their own cars," Walker said. "They want to look fancy. We all want to look like we're doing big things. If that takes us to drive our cars, get drunk and show off at the club, that's what they do. I've done it before. That's one thing we've got to stop. If you've got a driver, it looks better if you're jumping out of the passenger side with a chauffeur opening the door for you saying, 'Yes sir.'"
"It's going to be a while. It's not going to change overnight. But hopefully everybody will start to understand we've got to be role models around here."
Walker's enlightenment began the day after he played in Super Bowl XLVII when he learned his aunt and uncle were killed.
Hours before kickoff while playing for San Francisco, Walker posed for a picture with Alice and Bryan on the Louisiana Superdome field. Alice was his mother's sister; Bryan was the police officer who swept Alice off her feet. They formed a family with seven kids from previous relationships when they got married.
Alice and Bryan loved to travel. She went to all of Delanie's away games with the 49ers. Alice's nickname was "Peaches" because of her easy-going nature.
"She was like the nicest person in the family really," said Walker, breaking into a laugh while sitting in front of his locker following a Titans practice. "We could always get away with things. I remember one time I was ditching school when I was 15 or 16 and she was living with us at the time, her and her kids. She came back home from work and I tried to hide. She said, 'I know you're in here. I'm not going to tell on you.'
"When we were younger, she had all the video games. Me and my brother, she'd always come pick us up to play with her kids."
Bryan Young wasn't Walker's uncle by lineage. But to Walker, he was blood nonetheless.
"He was one of the coolest cats ever to be around," Walker said. "I don't say the two were married when people ask because he was family. He took care of my auntie."
Walker and the 49ers lost a hard-fought game to Baltimore. The tragedy that followed made a crushing defeat seem inconsequential by comparison.
Walker was devastated by the news that Alice and Bryan were killed, but his family members took their passing even harder. Walker spent the first week afterward sleeping on the floor at the Young's house in Victorville, Calif. as older family members had taken the bedrooms.
"Every morning we got up, my mom, my (other) auntie, my grandma were crying," Walker said. "It took me a minute to get over it because they're all looking at me for comfort. I'm the rock in the family."
Even a rock can crack. Walker's dark eyes never filled with tears when recalling the story but did soften when asked how his nine-year-old son reacted to the loss of loved ones.
"I was surprised when he called me crying because I didn't think he understood it," Walker said. "He's nine years old but I guess nine-year-olds understand everything nowadays. He was telling me he missed Peaches. She was always good to him and me. It was sad. That made me cry."
When he returned to the Bay Area, Walker turned to the 49ers' team chaplain for help dealing with his grief. He was referred to counseling. Walker attended the sessions and, combined with the encouragement of his girlfriend, gradually came to grips with what had happened.
Walker then decided he wanted to try and prevent more alcohol-related accidents. He spoke with M.A.D.D. about becoming involved in their program and met others who had experienced even greater tragedies in their lives.
"When I heard their stories, my story wasn't as bad," he said. "I think that kind of took the pressure off of me."
A nervous Walker delivered his first public speech talking about his aunt and uncle last spring at a M.A.D.D. fundraiser in San Jose, Calif. Walker chuckles at the memory because "I would never see myself in that role. When people come and watch me speak, they say, 'You're always the funny guy joking around. And now you're so serious.'"
"Telling people not to drink and drive was hard because I don't want to tell people what to do," Walker continued. "But I also want people to be safe. Now I'm confident in what I'm talking about. I don't care if people don't like it. Learning the statistics and what's going on in this world, a lot of people are dying from this. If you don't like it, there's something wrong with you."
After signing with the Titans as a free agent, Walker joined M.A.D.D.'s fight in Tennessee to have devices placed in cars that would force DUI offenders to blow into an ignition interlocking device to determine their sobriety before being able to drive. Walker was in attendance when the law was officially signed by state governor Bill Haslam. Walker also told his story as part of a M.A.D.D. presentation given to all 2013 draft picks in June at the NFL Rookie Symposium.
"I got a lot of feedback," Walker said. "I just kept it real with them and let it all out. Drunk driving happens every day. You get a little bit of money and you think you're untouchable. You're not.
"I was once sitting in their chair at the rookie symposium thinking, 'This will never happen to me.' It happened. We're still human. I think that's what got to them. Most of us think we can't be touched but we can."
Weir got to meet Walker for the first time in Tennessee and came away impressed with his devotion toward M.A.D.D. causes. Walker's Twitter account (@DelanieWalker82) often features messages warning against drinking and driving.
"Drinking and driving is a crime that is 100-percent preventable," Weir said. "Delanie's aunt and uncle didn't do anything wrong. I always think that when a victim tells their story, it's not just their story they're telling. It's the voice of all victims. That's definitely what Delanie is doing."
A continuance in the Thomas case was issued Wednesday in St. Charles Parish District Court outside New Orleans. Another hearing will be held September 16 after the judge weighs input from family members, including Walker, about what they believe would be fair punishment for Thomas if she is found guilty or struck a plea bargain.
Assistant district attorney Bill Starr told FOX Sports that he expects a plea bargain will be reached with the 26-year-old Thomas that includes prison time. The two charges of vehicular homicide that Thomas faces each carry a minimum five-year sentence.
Even after sentencing takes place, the 28-year-old Walker has no plans to stop telling his story. Walker believes that his new Titans teammates who have asked him about what happened will avoid drinking and driving. Coincidentally, he is set to speak September 16 in Nashville at a M.A.D.D. event being held in the days before the Titans play their home opener against San Diego.
"My goal is to prevent drinking and driving, to make people realize that it's senseless," Walker said. "It's no one's fault but yours. If I can stop 30 people from drinking and driving, I feel like I've accomplished my goal. But I'm not going to stop.
"When I'm done playing football, I'll still be doing this. You never know - I might make a career out of this going places and talking about drinking and driving."
By doing so now, Walker has helped heal himself and honor his aunt and uncle's legacy.
"It doesn't hurt as much as it used to," he said with a slight grin. "I know they're looking down on me and smiling because I'm doing a good thing."