METAIRIE, Louisiana (AP) — As Sean Payton spoke to a crowd of reporters after a rookie camp practice Saturday, he looked to his left and motioned for someone to join him.
In rolled paralyzed former Tulane safety Devon Walker, operating a motorized wheelchair with his mouth and smiling with his eyes.
“We have some roster spots here,” Payton began as Walker joined him alongside the Saints’ practice fields. “We’re signing Devon Walker to a contract today with the New Orleans Saints.”
Walker was paralyzed from the neck down while making a tackle at Tulsa in September 2012. While undergoing rehabilitation and learning to live without the use of his limbs, Walker nonetheless managed to complete work on his degree in cell and molecular biology.
In between graduation festivities Saturday, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson brought Walker, along with family and friends, to Saints headquarters to receive the honorary contract.
“Obviously, he’s been an inspiration to our region and community, the Tulane family and it’s carried over to us at the Saints,” Payton said. “I’m proud to be up there with him. I’m super-proud of his recovery and the way he’s handled and approached this.”
Walker attended two graduation ceremonies on Saturday, starting in the morning at the Superdome, along with students from other schools throughout the university. There, he was congratulated by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was there to be honored with Tulane’s President’s Medal.
Before heading to an afternoon ceremony at Tulane’s School of Public Health, Walker was told by Johnson and family members that lunch was planned at the popular restaurant Drago’s, where the specialty is charbroiled oysters.
“I thought I was on the way to eat some oysters,” Walker said. “They tricked me and brought me over here.”
Not that he was complaining.
Walker said getting a contract from the Saints was “like one of my dreams come true.”
“I’ve been a Saints fan almost since I was walking” as a child, said Walker, who grew up in the New Orleans suburb of Destrehan. “Just to be a part of the team and be around the players is more than I could hope for.”
Walker arrived at Tulane in 2009 and walked on to the football team. By his senior season in 2012, he was on scholarship, starting at safety and a defensive captain. But on Sept. 8, during Tulane’s second game that season, he injured his spine while making a tackle on the final play of the first half.
Back on campus to finish course work in 2013, Walker remained part of Tulane’s football team, attending meetings, practices and home games. Johnson said Walker continued to conduct himself like a true leader on a team that made a stunning one-season turnaround on its way to the program’s first bowl appearance in 11 years.
“I didn’t have to do any pre-game speeches at home because he did them all,” Johnson said. “He policed the locker room. He policed those guys. He was around all the time. … Every time they saw him, they just straightened up because this year was kind of a dedication toward him.”