HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. (CBS4) – Adversity is common in sports – a team loses a game or a player gets hurt and they have to bounce back. One Denver native was dealing with adversity long before he hit the football field, but it never slowed him up or stopped him from playing at the game’s highest level.
Kenny Walker, now an assistant coach with the Highlands Ranch track team, was a two-year starter for the University of Nebraska football team in the late 1980s. Even though he’s a Denver native, he picked the Cornhuskers because they had what most schools didn’t — a program for the deaf.
“They have very good deaf access there, and it was back in the 1980s, and it wasn’t an easy step for me,” Walker said. “You know most (schools) don’t have interpreters and they were willing to provide me with one.”
Walker has been profoundly deaf since age 2. He lost his hearing when he contracted spinal meningitis. Since then he’s only been able to hear noises over 110 decibels. When he played his final home game at Nebraska in 1990 against Colorado, Cornhusker fans made sure Walker knew he was appreciated — not by trying to cheer loudly — but rather by using the sing language gesture for cheering.
“I didn’t realize how supportive Nebraska was. I didn’t know how big the people were supporting me,” he said. “It was very special. To have that, deaf and hard of hearing, knowing we could succeed, it’s not easy for me, but I did succeed.”
In 1991 the Denver Broncos drafted Walker in the eighth round and he would end up playing two seasons for Denver before being released prior to the 1993 season. He bounced around the country for the next 18 years, and then two years ago he moved home to Denver looking for a job.
“We had a coach that left last year and I posted the position and he jumped right on it,” Highlands Ranch head track coach John Padjen said.
“I wanted to experience it because I’ve experienced track before and I’ve done that at the public schools,” Walker said. “I would like to do something to help the team at Highlands Ranch High School.”
The school district provides Walker with an interpreter to help him communicate with the students. Even with the help, it took the athletes a while to get used to Walker’s speech pattern.
“The first day we kind of have had some difficulty understanding him, but he was easy about it,” junior Brent Blanton said. “If we didn’t, he made sure he thought we got it.”
“Our kids have spent a lot of time, they appreciate that he’s out here working with them,” Padjen said. “It really works out. We meet before practice for about five minutes to go through what we need to do and what we need to concentrate (on). And he’s a natural. He identifies flaws in running form and he’s a really good motivator.”
Walker has thought about returning to coaching football if the right job came along — he wants to coach defensive lineman. But in the meantime he’s enjoying his time at Highlands Ranch helping kids reach their full potential.
“It’s a great addition to our staff. He brings a wealth of knowledge, he’s really well-respected by our kids, he’s got a great sense of humor,” Padjen said. “So it’s really a win-win situation us, and for Coach Walker.”
Walker continues to be an advocate for the deaf community. He’d like to see greater improvements in the communication resources available to those who are hearing impaired.