Ed Conroy was bouncing around the Tulane basketball office last Saturday afternoon, getting ready for the NCAA contact period that was scheduled to begin as soon as the clock struck midnight. He was busy. He was distracted. So he was not watching the Green Wave's football game when Devon Walker's life changed forever.
But Conroy heard about it immediately.
He quickly moved in front of a nearby television.
|More on Tulane's Devon Walker|
|More college hoops coverage|
"And then I saw the highlight," Conroy said. "From then on our thoughts have been with Devon."
Devon Walker is, at this moment, still hospitalized in Tulsa after suffering a spinal cord injury while making a tackle last weekend. He had surgery within 24 hours of the incident and is said to be stable, alert and responsive. But he's also scared, I'm certain. Why? Because I spent some time this week on the phone with a man who also once suffered a spinal cord injury playing football. And that man told me he remembers lying in the hospital, in a brace, unsure of everything. And that man told me he remembers being scared.
That man's name? Ed Conroy.
"I fractured the fourth vertebrae and had a separation of the fifth and sixth playing football in high school," Conroy said. "I was terrified. But I was incredibly lucky."
Roughly 25 years before Conroy was the head basketball coach at Tulane, he was a two-sport star at Assumption High in Davenport, Iowa. He played basketball and football. "And I probably preferred football," Conroy said. "I loved every minute of it. I loved practice. I loved Friday nights."
Conroy started as a sophomore.
He was preparing to be a junior.
This was in August 1983. He was a strong safety running up to make a tackle in what became the final play of a scrimmage before the season-opener. It was just a normal play that he'd made hundreds of times. Conroy still remembers exactly what happened next.
"A guy kinda clipped my legs from behind while running past me," he recalled. "It probably wasn't going to be a helmet-to-helmet collision, but it turned out to be one because he kinda hit my legs and I went down as I was going to make the tackle and started losing my balance a little bit. That's what caused the helmet-to-helmet collision."
Conroy said he felt "some tingling" and "saw some stars" and "knew something was wrong," but he never completely lost feeling in any extremities even though his fourth vertebra turned out to be fractured. (Also, his fifth and sixth vertebrae were separated.) He was rushed to the hospital, stayed there "for a while" and had to wear a brace for four months. At one point, Conroy said, doctors thought they would have to go in and fuse the vertebrae, but it never came to that.
Conroy eventually healed without surgery, which is why he considers himself lucky. But he never played football again, and he'll forever remember lying in that hospital bed, just a kid, unsure about how the rest of his life might unfold.
"I can remember just ... the unknown," Conroy said. "You're strapped down. You're immobilized. The unknown is scary. You try to block out any negative thoughts, stay positive and not jump to conclusions. You try to just trust the doctors. But I can remember when my dad came to the hospital and I saw the look on his face. I knew then that this was pretty serious. But, again, I was very, very fortunate."
Whether Devon Walker will emerge fortunate remains unclear.
He survived the incident thanks to some incredible doctors on the scene in Tulsa, and, again, he's now stable and responsive. That's the good news. And Conroy said he is, like most others in the Tulane community (and college football world in general), now praying that more good news comes Walker's way over the next few days, weeks, months and years. But nobody knows for sure. That's the scary part. That's the unknown that's terrifying. And it's a feeling Conroy can relate to on some level even though he's gone on to live a normal life.
"Again, I was really lucky," Conroy said. "That incident actually made me realize how blessed I am. But it also taught me how fast everything can all be taken away."