It was early in the morning of February 4, 2013 when the San Francisco 49ers returned home from New Orleans after their 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
As they landed tight end Delanie Walker checked his phone and discovered he had dozens of messages. But, these weren’t just messages from friends calling with words of support; more than 50 of the messages were from family members and most of those were from his mother. Walker knew something had to be wrong, but he couldn’t have imagined what the news would turn out to be.
Among the many family members in attendance at the game were his aunt and uncle, Alice “Peaches” and Bryan Young who had flown in from Southern California. Walker had seen them at the 49ers post-game party before departing with the team. Alice, who was his mother’s sister, and Bryan headed out for their drive back to their hotel in Baton Rouge, about an hour from New Orleans.
But, they never made it. A speeding drunk driver (police estimated her speed at in excess of 100mph) rear-ended the Youngs’ car, which was pulled over on the shoulder of the road. The Youngs’ car burst into flames, killing the couple. In fact, because fire destroyed so much of the car, they were not immediately able to be identified. The driver of the other car survived.
When family members hadn’t heard from the couple, they started searching. Another one of Walker’s aunts saw a report online about the accident, a call was made, and everyone’s worst fears were confirmed.
Walker was devastated. His Auntie Peaches, as he called her, helped raise him and he carried enormous guilt; his aunt and uncle were only in Louisiana because they had come to see him play in the Super Bowl.
Ultimately, the driver pled guilty to two counts of vehicular negligent homicide and is currently serving a six-year prison sentence. She was also ordered to pay family members $160,000 in restitution.
“I was aware of [the problem of drunk driving] because I was in the NFL and it was a big problem,” Walker, who is currently with the Tennessee Titans, said. “But it wasn’t something that hit home. It wasn’t something I focused on or was trying to stop.”
That all changed.
Walker now works with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) telling his story and trying to impress upon people just how deadly, devastating—and preventable—drunk driving can be. M.A.D.D. helped his own family with some of their counseling programs and he knew immediately that it was a cause he wanted to lend his time and effort to.
“M.A.D.D always makes a great point,” Walker said, “They say, that person chose to [drink]. They chose to drink and drive. There’s no one forcing them to do it. That’s my message when I’m with my friends; you’ll go to jail and we got a game the next day.”
While he knows that making a complete culture change is going to be virtually impossible, he also believes that the more people speak out and get involved, the more impact and change can be enacted.
“I want to enlighten people,” Walker said. “I want them to understand and open their eyes to the dangers of drunk driving. If I can stop one person or teach one person I think it’s like a domino effect. It’s not going to change overnight, but we have a lot of time on our side.”
Those around him, especially his friends and teammates, are aware of Walker’s story and his mission. While he can’t control their behavior he has noticed a slight shift.
“All my teammates know my story and they won’t drink and drive when they’re around me,” he said. “But, the truth is, I can’t change the culture over night. This is going to take a lot of work.”
One of the specific campaigns that Walker has been involved with is advocating to pass a law in Tennessee that requires ignition interlock systems in the cars of first-time drunk driving offenders. When the proposition was signed into law, Walker attended the official signing along with other M.AD.D. representatives and was one of the speakers at the event.
In fact, Walker travels around the country speaking to children and adults, including members of law enforcement. Wherever M.A.D.D. needs him to be, if it’s feasible for his schedule, he goes because he knows how important it is to spread the message and create something good out of his family’s tragedy.
“I didn’t understand how deep it went and how many families suffered,” he said of his awareness of drunk driving prior to the accident. “My family’s lost someone forever.”
For more information about Mothers Against Drunk Driving: www.madd.org