The 2009 Hall of Fame class (in no particular order) kicks off with an inspirational talent…
Let me take you back to a simpler time…
No zone blocking systems, no X’s and O’s
No “can Mark Sanchez make all of the throws?”
No worrying about wedge blocking affecting kickoff returns
No incentive clauses, not likely to be earned
No blogging, no websites, no ESPN
No downing of punts inside the ten
No draft busts, no Kiper, no Million Dollar fines
Football was different, when I used to be nine.
I love football. I enjoy the details, the strategic intricacies and statistical analysis as much as I enjoy the brutal, emotive and spectacular competition. Back when I was nine, though, I had a much more innocent and childlike viewpoint of the game I had just discovered. The razzle-dazzle of the game had me hooked, with the futuristically-dressed players so much more glamorous than the mud-covered soccer players or sweatshirt-wearing cricket players my Father introduced to me as the epitome of competitive sport as a child. My Dad explained the rules to me, but obviously many of the finer points of NFL football escaped me. However, on this day, one player moved faster and did more exciting things than anyone else, so he instantly became my favorite…which brings us to Wesley Walker.
Football (and particularly the Jets) was a big obsession for me throughout my childhood and into adolescence and Wesley Walker remained my favorite player until his retirement after an injury-plagued 1989 season. That first game (the heroic 4 touchdown performance in a 51-45 overtime win over Miami, if you didn’t click the link above) led to greater things that season, as Walker caught a career high 12 touchdown passes (also including another three against the Colts in week 11) and caught 49 passes for over 1,000 yards. The Jets went 10-6 (having been 10-1 before injuries set in), eventually being eliminated from the playoffs in the divisional round, as despite Walker catching a long touchdown pass on a flea-flicker, the Browns came back from a 20-10 deficit late in the fourth quarter and won in overtime.
The 1987 season got off to a promising start, when Walker went deep – his forte – for a 55 yard TD in an opening day win over the Bills, but the strike and injuries meant that he would only catch another 8 passes that year as the Jets went 6-9.
In 1988, he got off to a slow start, but then busted out with a three touchdown game in a blowout win over the Oilers in week three. He later added game winning scores against the Lions and Dolphins, as the Jets posted a winning record but missed out on the playoffs. He only caught 26 passes on the season, but continued to be a threat, averaging 21 yards per catch and scoring 7 touchdowns. However, by now he was a shadow of his former self, as evidenced by his dropped catch in the end-zone in a key one point loss to the Patriots in week 11. Fittingly, the game winner against Miami would be his last NFL touchdown.
After the 1989 season, where Walker started just three games and caught just 8 passes, I remember being upset when Walker, a free agent, was apparently being pursued by some other teams (including the Rams, if memory serves), but he never played for another NFL team and retired having played all 154 career games for the Jets and with 438 catches for 8,306 yards and 71 TDs and a healthy 19 yards per catch average (19th best all time – he is 6th best in terms of yards per touch).
It was only once his career had ended that I got into researching Jets history and realized that, although he was my favorite player, I had actually missed the best years of his career.
As a rookie in 1977, the speedy Walker led the NFL in average yards per reception, then in 1978, he led the NFL in receiving yards and was named as a first team all-pro. His 24.4 yards per catch average that year is still good enough for 18th best in NFL history. In 1979, he actually averaged 24.7 yards per catch, although he didn’t catch enough passes to qualify for the all-time records. He missed several games in 1980, but still averaged over 20 yards per catch for the fourth straight year.
Over the next four years, the tail end of the Richard Todd era, Walker became more of a possession receiver. His reception numbers went up (including a career high 61 catches in 1983), but his average per catch droppped to the 14-16 yards per catch range. He was just as much of a red zone threat, though, catching 29 touchdown passes over that four year span, including 9 in 13 games in 1981. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, he had 620 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns in just 9 games and went to the Pro Bowl for the second time. In the postseason, he had the go ahead touchdown as the Jets defeated the Bengals and a crucial score when they held off the Raiders to reach the AFC title game.
In 1985, the introduction of draft pick Al Toon to the roster and announcement of strong-armed Ken O’Brien as full-time starting quarterback enabled Walker to return to his deep threat role. He again averaged over 20 yards per catch in each of the next four seasons. The 1985 season featured some great moments, such as when with the Jets up 17-13 against the Bengals, Ken O’Brien threw an interception to Louis Breeden at the six yard line, but he reversed his field and Walker took him down for a key safety. He also had a late game-winner against the Seahawks and a franchise-record 96 yard TD against the Bills as the Jets battled to a wild card position despite having both the team with the AFC’s best record and the Superbowl runners-up in their division. Walker would miss four games though and ultimately played 16 games only three times in his 13 year career.
The 1986 season was when I first discovered Wesley and the Jets and saw Walker named as a UPI all-AFC selection even though he wasn’t invited to the Pro Bowl. Clearly, his achievements speak for themselves and he is a worthy inclusion in our hall of fame.
However, although he was a fantastic player, this is not the only reason for his inclusion. Walker was inspirational, for the fact that he incredibly managed to achieve such a high level of greatness despite the fact he was legally blind in one eye. He also laid it on the line for the team, as evidenced by disturbing recent reports that he is still in constant pain due to the after effects of a nerve injury to his neck. He is still involved in the community, currently working as a teacher and doing great work for charitable causes. And, over and above all of that, he’s still a Jets lifer, as evidenced by him representing the team on Jets night at Shea and apparently knocking back drinks impressively with fans at Dave and Busters 2008 draft party.
To close, however, I want to end on a personal note and take you back to that simpler time. This young newly-minted Jets fan, still only ten, wrote a letter to his new favorite player in 1987. It must have been the worst fan letter ever, just saying how exciting I found American Football to be, recounting a load of his stats and telling him he was the best. I can’t imagine it made for very interesting reading and I don’t think I ever expected a reply beyond my wildest dreams. A month or so later, a signed photograph came through the door addressed to me. I still have it to this day. It was clear that he had also addressed the envelope himself too. He didn’t have to do that, so I am honored to get the chance to pay tribute to Wesley Walker, as a way of thanking him for what was one of the biggest thrills of my childhood.
So, thanks Wesley, welcome to the hall and we wish you good health in the future. Ladies and Gentleman, Wesley Walker…