Monday, July 20, 2009
By Nick Schenck
July 18, 2009
After a decorated 11-year NFL career with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, defensive end Gary Walker now enjoys spending his days far away from the spotlight of pro sports.
The two-time Pro Bowler and former Auburn University standout finished playing in 2005, and he now splits his time between expansive ranches that he owns in Texas, Alabama and Georgia, where he grew up. Walker's laid-back lifestyle with his family suits him well, though he feels like he still can play in the NFL.
"When I say I feel like I still can play," Walker said, "that's one of those things where you talk to someone that's been retired from football for 20 years and in their mind they can still do it, but their bodies might say something else. I have plenty of aches and pains."
Known during his playing days as one of the best quotes in the locker room, Walker continues to speak his mind freely. Of retirement, he says that he "was just ready for a change," but admits that the transition isn't easy. Finding things to fill his days can be challenging, but he enjoys checking on his livestock, fishing with his children and doing other recreational activities on his properties.
"One thing you miss when you retire is you miss the locker room, you miss the guys, you miss playing," he said. "In football, every month you have got something going on. In the offseason, you have this month that you have to do workouts.
"That's why before I retired, I pretty much had my (life) set up to what I wanted to do… You can go through stages of retirement where you get out and try to buy happiness and try to fill that void of being in the locker room. Have something to do (when you retire)."
As for what he doesn't miss about playing in the NFL, Walker avoided the obvious choice. Many players despise the dog days of training camp and two-a-days in sweltering heat, but Walker said that losing is what he misses the least. In his four-year career with the Texans, the team's record was 18-46. In his final season, Houston went 2-14.
"It was hard being an expansion team when people expect you to win right then," Walker said. "You lose a game and go to a restaurant and you have everyone that wants to tell you how much you suck.
"That's why I'm glad to see these guys finally getting big contracts, because you get paid to put up with a lot of that. People wanted to basically provoke you. They say stuff to try to provoke you into hitting them or whatever."
The disappointment of the 2005 season led to a new era in Texans history with the arrival of coach Gary Kubiak and the No. 1 draft pick, defensive end Mario Williams.
Walker, who would like to be an NFL scout, has a lot to say about Williams.
"I think Mario Williams is doing way, way, way better than anybody ever expected, and I'm glad to see that more so than anybody because of the heat he took being the No. 1 pick overall in the draft," Walker said. "If you look at the guys (in that draft) who were picked second (Reggie Bush) and third (Vince Young), a lot of times you have to go with what's there and what you see and not necessarily what everybody wants, and I think it's panning out for (the Texans).
"They have a guy who's three years in the league and has been to the Pro Bowl and he'll go to the Pro Bowl from now on as long as they keep good stuff around him."
As for the Texans, Walker believes the team is in position to reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history this season. He finally sees the Texans having enough depth, which he says is difficult for expansion teams to develop.
The key, according to Walker, is continuity on the coaching staff.
"When (Houston) changed coaches from Dom Capers to Kubiak, you go from a 3-4 to a 4-3 (defense), you have to give a guy like (Kubiak) 5-6 years to get his philosophy and his depth on the team," Walker said. "Then, that's when he'll start winning."
Walker saved his boldest assessment of the Texans for the quarterback position. Maybe it's because he spent a career chasing passers in the backfield, but Walker continues to keep a close eye on signal-callers around the NFL. He liked what he saw from Dan Orlovsky last year, despite the Detroit Lions' winless record.
"I think the biggest offseason move (the Texans) made was getting the guy from Detroit, because I think he's the type of quarterback they need in that scheme," Walker said. "He's a big guy that can take a lot of hits. I think he's going to be the future quarterback for the Texans. That's my opinion."
When Walker reflects on his time with the Texans, he does so fondly. Perhaps his only regret is that he wasn't able to play more. He struggled through a myriad of injuries that forced him to miss 18 games in his final three seasons after playing all 16 games and going to the Pro Bowl after the 2002 campaign.
"That 3-4 defense took a lot out of me," Walker said. "That defense, you got hit from angles where you couldn't see people coming. I never did really start having injuries until I got in that defense. It took its toll.
"That defense there is just, I don't know, they can throw that stuff away. It's proven to win, but I tell you, people pay a price for it."
In the Texans' inaugural season, Walker finished with 37 tackles, 6.5 sacks, four pass deflections and a forced fumble, becoming one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the NFL. He counts his most memorable game as the team's 24-6 win at Pittsburgh on Dec. 8, 2002, when the Texans totaled only 47 net yards of offense. Houston scored on two interception returns by cornerback Aaron Glenn, a fumble return and a field goal.
Walker had 1.5 sacks in the game, where the Texans attempted only 10 passes compared to the Steelers' 58.
"One-hundred-and-two plays, that's what I remember about the game," Walker said. "One-hundred-and-two defensive plays."
As the Texans begin to turn the corner as a franchise, Walker says he doesn't take any personal satisfaction in the team's success. Instead, he believes that owner Bob McNair and the team's scouts should be the most gratified.
"When they start winning, I think those guys are the ones who are going to benefit from it the most," Walker said. "I think the owner is the one who deserves most of the credit, because he's the one having to go through most of the heat.
"You take an owner like Bob McNair who is committed to winning, he's going to spend money to get players in there to win."