WHEN HIS SHOULDER PADS START TO vibrate, Kenny Walker knows that he’s earning his paycheck. Not that the quivering of the pads is some bizarre physiological tic; it’s just what happens when 76,000 Denver Bronco fans rock Mile High Stadium with a roar of approval. Rookie linebacker Walker particularly appreciates the good vibrations because he hears nothing of the noise of the crowd: He has been deaf since age 2 and is the NFL’s only nonhearing player.
That alone would make him a curiosity, but it is Walker’s performance that is winning over Denver’s coaches and fans. Picked 228th in last year’s football draft, he is now a strong contender for a starling spot on the team. “For a guy to overcome a handicap [like his] and possibly start is unbelievable,” Broncos head coach Dan Reeves has said. “Heck, for a rookie to start is unbelievable.”
Robbed of his hearing by a bout with spinal meningitis, Walker has often been underestimated. When other children learned that Kenny was deaf, they always chose him last for their pickup games. “Until they saw him play,” recalls his brother Gus, 25. “Then the next day they would pick him first.” All his life, Walker’s skill has been the great leveler. “In athletics they would know I was good,” he says, “and that made them realize something about me.”
Walker was the last of six children born to Julia Walker, a cafeteria worker in Crane, Texas. Kenny was the town’s only deaf child, and after researching specialized schools for the deaf, Julia (who had separated from her husband, an oil-field worker, when Kenny was 4) moved the family to Denver. There, Walker learned to sign and read lips and began overcoming his handicap. Julia remembers a family picture he had painted in the first grade back in Colorado. “My face and his sisters’ and brothers’ have big smiles. His face doesn’t have a mouth at all,” she says. “It’s so touching.”
With the help of a hearing aid, Walker has about 11 percent hearing in his left ear—just enough to hear himself talk and register extremely loud sounds. Mostly he communicates through signing and lip-reading, skills he uses even in the organized chaos of a football game. “We’ve got guys that don’t hear as well,” laughs Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. “They don’t listen. Kenny’s attentive; he’s real smart.”
Walker didn’t pick up football until his sophomore year in high school, after his mother returned the family to Crane. (“I thought the boys would be safer in a small town.”) The delay didn’t hurt: He made all-state in football and basketball. College coaches came to call, and Walker eventually chose Nebraska, where he majored in art history and achieved a 3.10 GPA. He was equally productive in pads, winning all-American honors.
Despite his collegiate success, Walker languished through most of the draft. Main teams, he believes, were wary of his handicap. Walker has been out to get even for that perceived snub ever since. He has added 15 lbs. of muscle onto his 6’3″, 260-lb. frame and impressed the Broncos with his progress. “He follows and reacts to the ball rather than the sound [of the snap],” says Phillips. The team hired a full-time interpreter who helps relay instructions to Walker on the sidelines. In the huddle, Walker reads defensive captain Karl Mecklenburg’s lips; if the alignment is changed, a teammate alerts Walker by tapping certain spots on his back.
Off the field, Walker has been making other major adjustments. He has set up housekeeping with girlfriend Martina Offenburger, 23, and her 4-year-old son, Tommy, who is also deaf. The couple met in 1988, when Offenburger, then a student at Creighton University in Omaha and looking for a role model (or Tommy, sought out Walker after she learned of his deafness. Just friends for the first two years, Kenny and Martina started dating in April 1990 and are now engaged.
Whatever happens to the Broncos and Walker this season, his family and friends are belling he will deal with it well. “We had a knack for survival,” says Gus. “And that’s what we did. Kenny makes a lot of money now, but he’s still the same person that he always has been—very honest. What you see is what you get with Kenny.”
VICKIE BANE in Denver