Ewell Doak Walker, son of Ewell and Emma Walker, football player for Highland Park High School, Southern Methodist University and the Detroit Lions was born on January 1, 1927, in Dallas, Texas. Walker won the Heisman trophy in 1948 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
Walker's passion for football came at an early age. His father was a teacher and coach at North Dallas High School, and by the time Walker was three, Ewell Sr. was pitching underhand passes to him in the backyard. In his early teenage years, he would sneak in to the closet in his father's classroom where the football equipment was kept, and he would imagine himself scoring touchdowns without anyone being able to catch him. The Walkers lived in the shadow of Ownby Stadium at SMU. Walker attended Friday night high school games with his mother and Saturday SMU games with his father. Once he was old enough, he sold popcorn and peanuts at SMU games.
On his first organized team in grade school, Walker wore number 37 because it was the number worn by his favorite player at SMU, Harry Shuford. Walker would retain this number at SMU, but not by choice. Players in those days did not get to pick their numbers. Number 37 happened to be the only one of the three jerseys left that fit him.
Walker lettered in five sports at Highland Park High School, basketball, swimming, track, baseball, and football, but his favorite was always football. Walker played on the same team at Highland Park with Bobby Layne. The two athletes parted ways after high school as Layne attended the University of Texas and Walker attended SMU, but they would reunite after college when both played for the Detroit Lions.
In early 1945 Walker joined the Merchant Marine and became a radio operator but was discharged in October 1945 as the postwar need for manpower dwindled. After that time Walker very nearly attended the University of Texas instead of SMU. Layne and Walker attended an SMU game in New Orleans, and after the game the Mustang backfield coach, Rusty Russell, who had also been Walker's coach at Highland Park, talked Walker into going to SMU instead. Walker enrolled the next Monday, and played in a football game against UT (and Bobby Layne) the next Saturday.
Walker's college career was interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1946, but he resumed his studies and sports when he returned to SMU in 1947. While at SMU, Walker was a four-time All-Southwest Conference player, he won the Maxwell Award given to the collegiate player of the year in 1947, and he won the Heisman trophy, the first junior to receive it, in 1948. Winning the Heisman was a thrill for the young man. Making reference to winning the prestigious award, he said later, "I was in the tall cotton." That year he made the cover of Life. After being hurt most of his senior season in 1949, Collier's magazine was ready to name Walker to their All-American team for the second consecutive year. He asked the magazine to award it to a more deserving player since his season had been riddled with injuries. Collier's instead named Walker the 1949 Player of the Year for Sportsmanship. The Associated Press named him to its All American team in 1947, 1948, and 1949. His stellar college football career included 3,862 yards total offense and 303 points.
The crowds that came to see Doak Walker play at SMU eventually outgrew Ownby Stadium so the Mustangs began playing at the Cotton Bowl at Fair Park in Dallas. Even the Cotton Bowl was too small to accommodate the large crowds that Walker drew. While Doak Walker was at SMU and the Mustangs were playing in the Cotton Bowl, 30,000 seats were added to the stadium. A plaque in the stadium refers to the Cotton Bowl as "The Cotton Bowl: The House That Doak Built." Walker used to humbly quip that he was usually sore after playing in the Cotton Bowl, but "…I never got any blisters working on that stadium."
Doak Walker played six seasons for the Detroit Lions of the National Football League. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1950, and he was an All-Pro selection four of the six years he played. Reunited with old Highland Park Teammate Bobby Layne, the duo led the Lions to championships in 1952 and 1953. At 5' 11" and 173 pounds, Walker was not big by today"s standards, but he was a great all-around athlete who ran, punted, kicked, played defensive back, passed, and caught. He played both offense and defense in the 1954 season. He led the NFL in scoring three of the six years he played. Walker's statistics do not compare to current players, but for his time, he was phenomenal. Dan Jenkins in 1997 edited Whit Canning's biography of Doak Walker called Doak Walker: More Than a Hero. In it, Jenkins referred to Walker as "Poetry in motion" along the lines of "Byron, Shelley and Keats."
Walker retired in 1955, accepting a job offer from an electrical construction company that paid the same salary he was earning in the NFL. The business soon transferred him to Colorado where he lived the rest of his life. Walker stated that he wanted to "get out while I still have all my teeth and both my knees." Walker thought about coaching football, but after going on a recruiting trip for SMU, he became disenchanted with the direction collegiate sports was going. Eventually he went into business for himself and operated Walker Chemicals.
In 1950 Walker married his college sweetheart, Norma Peterson. They had four children, Laurie, Kris, Russell Doak, and Scott Alexander. His marriage to Norma ended in divorce in 1965. In 1969 Doak married ski instructor and former Olympian Skeeter Werner. They lived together in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for the rest of their lives. Doak Walker was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1959 and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1973, but the Professional Football Hall of Fame eluded him until 1986. Many on the selection committee did not think Walker had played long enough to warrant his induction. The Old Timers Committee finally pushed the selection committee to induct Doak based not on his statistics, but on his impact on the game while he played. After Walker was introduced by former teammate Bobby Layne at the Hall of Fame ceremony, he said, "Now, I can finally retire."
In 1989, SMU and the Dr Pepper Company teamed up to form the Doak Walker Award, given annually to college football's best running back. The award is the only major college football award that requires the candidates to be in good academic standing and to be on schedule to graduate within a year of other students within their classification. Past winners include Trevor Cobb (1991, Rice), "Bam" Morris (1993, Texas Tech), Byron Hanspard (1996, Texas Tech), Ricky Williams (1997 & 1998, University of Texas), LaDainian Tomlinson (2000, Texas Christian University), and Cedric Benson (2004, University of Texas). On January 30, 1998, Doak Walker was seriously injured in a skiing accident in Colorado. His injuries kept him incapacitated until his eventual death in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on September 27, 1998, from complications from his paralysis. His friends noted that even with the severity of his health, Doak Walker maintained a positive demeanor until the day he died.