Whether it's after a game in the bowels of Candlestick Park or during media availability at team headquarters, it's usually the same scene. Camera crews and reporters surround his closest friend on the team with no regard for his personal space. That's the life of an NFL player when your locker is next to someone having a career year. But to anyone other than 49ers tight end Delanie Walker, the invasion of privacy would ruffle feathers. Not with Walker. He's happy for Vernon Davis and the success that his fellow tight end is having this season.
The almost daily locker room cluster says more about the character of one of the 49ers most important players – not named Davis.
"He deserves it," Walker said point blank after a recent practice at team headquarters. "A lot of people have tried to downplay him, but now they're riding with him. I'm glad he's doing his thing and I hope he makes it to the Pro Bowl."
That selfless attitude has made Walker a locker room favorite among teammates. He's also becoming more popular in the 49ers offensive attack these days.
Walker's inclusion in the 49ers spread offense with Davis and two wide receivers has been invaluable as he influences what other teams do to combat his presence.
"He's another playmaker and I think that he can be a challenge sometimes personnel-wise on how to treat him," quarterback Alex Smith said. "We can do a lot of blocking stuff with him as well. I think that he's kind of a personnel matchup problem for a lot of teams as to how they view him."
Last week against Jacksonville, Walker had a season-high four catch, 52-yard game and also took a reverse for 11 yards. Prior to his breakout performance, Walker took pride in his involvement in the 49ers offense.
"I've always been in the offense, I just didn't touch the ball in the last couple of weeks," Walker said. "But this spread offense that we're running has singled out that I can make plays. It's going to leave a lot of one-on-one matchups."
A reliable teammate off the field, Walker's most endearing quality on it is his ability to make something happen after the catch.
"When Alex throws me the ball he knows I can catch it and break tackles," Walker said confidently. "I'm a YAC [yards after catch] player – that's what I do. After I catch the ball I'm doing everything in my power to get more yards."
But to understand Walker's contribution to the 49ers success this season, you have to examine his past. He isn't bashful about telling his story. He wants you to know it. He needs you to know it. Without it, he's not the player that he is today.
Where It All BeganJust like any 8-year-old growing up, Walker kept himself entertained by engaging in all kinds of physical activities. Riding bikes and jumping them off whatever he could in his Pomona, Calif., neighborhood was preferred over playing football. It wasn't until a trip to his uncle's high school football game that Walker became passionate about the sport.
Sure – he played football as a kid, but back then he had no desire to test his own strength. Believe it or not, the 6-foot-0, 242-pound bruiser wanted no part of the physical side of football when he was younger. At least not until he saw his uncle Anthony Hood play high school ball.
"I saw what he was doing and thought to myself, 'I want to be like that,'" Walker recalled. "I wanted to have coaches come in my house like they did for him and tell my family how they wanted me to play for their team."
Walker took inspiration from Hood's play and applied it on the field where he became a standout wide receiver at Pomona High School and was named All-Region by The Los Angeles Times in his senior year. The next step was picking out which Division I college would get his services. But Walker got into trouble with the peers he surrounded himself with. The transgressions cost him all of his scholarship opportunities. With no other option, Walker enrolled at nearby Mt. San Antonio Community College in Los Angeles and played there for two seasons.
His play garnered attention again from Division I schools, but Walker's off-field behavior took those opportunities away once more. Luckily, a coach from Central Missouri State believed in Walker and offered him a scholarship. At the time, Walker wanted no part of being away from his family and soon-to-be born son, Delanie Dashon. But as time went on, Walker had to re-evaluate his priorities and called the coach back.
"Coach, can I come to your school?" Walker said in recalling his change of heart.
The coach agreed to have Walker on the team, but two weeks later he was relieved of his duties and Walker was left wondering what he had gotten himself into. There was only one motivation pushing him to go through the experience by himself – the opportunity to better the lives of those around him.
"I was thinking of getting my family out of the situation they were in and making sure that my son didn't have to grow up the way I grew up," Walker revealed. "That always stayed on the back of my mind."
Despite being alone for the holidays and a considerable distance from his family, Walker used the time to improve his own life. He broke all the receiving records at CMSU and most important, Walker spent extra time in the classroom during the offseason to make sure his eligibility wasn't ever an issue.
It was that focus and determination that eventually led him to see his name being called on TV as a sixth-round draft pick of the 49ers in the 2006 NFL Draft.
Glad to be a 49erJoined by friends and family to watch the Draft, Walker had expected go in the fourth round – but was optimistic that a team would call him before it ended. When the call finally came two rounds later, it took three tries for Delanie to find out he had been drafted. The 49ers alerted him of the news by calling his mother's house line instead of his cell phone. But the Walker's did not recognize the 408 area code that was repeatedly calling them. Finally, Delanie suggested that they answer the phone. It was a good decision. General Manager Scot McCloughan was on the other line and he informed Delanie of the news by telling him to check out the bottom of the TV screen."I couldn't even talk, because my mom passed out. She saw my name on TV and she fainted," Walker remembered. "I was trying not to cry because I was talking on the phone, but then I cried because everyone was crying in the room."
Walker's emotions got the best of him until he was in the middle of a conference call with Bay Area reporters. All it took was one question for all of his emotions to get a serious jolt.
"They were telling me I was going to play tight end, and I went, 'Huh?'" said Walker with a good chuckle. "That whole excitement stopped and went out the door.
"Things got real right there. But I told them I would play anywhere they wanted me to play – I was just happy to be playing for the 49ers."Before that phone call, Walker went to a training facility in Houston to make sure he was prepared for the NFL Scouting Combine. It worked. At the facility, he lifted weights while other skill-players ran. Plus, he ate four meals a day largely consisting of meat and potatoes. And for his trouble, Walker had to outweigh the contrasting opinions being told to him and his agent on a frequent basis. Some said he was a wide receiver and some said he could add weight and become a tight end.
Walker put on the weight to show coaches he could if needed, and had an excellent showing at the Combine even with the added weight. The 49ers saw something in two tight ends that day, as they ultimately drafted Davis and Walker five rounds and 169 picks from each other.
Instant BondThe two tight ends came to the 49ers from opposite ends of the country – Walker a Southern California product and Davis hailing from our nation's capital – but inevitably bonded from the amount of time spent together. For the past four seasons, they've strengthened their relationship almost as tight as their first handshake.
"When I first met Vernon, he shook my hand so hard I thought he was trying to break my hand," Walker joked. "He squeezed it really tight, and I said, 'Don't squeeze my hand so tight!' and I guess he thought I was funny for saying that.
"Ever since I said that to him we were cool from that day. We started joking around and got real tight after that."
The tight ends also became closer through their dealings with 49ers tight end coach Pete Hoener, who they both credit for helping them with their current successes.
"He's helped us tremendously," Davis said. "He's one of those hard-nosed coaches who's always on you. We've been together all the time in the same meeting room and we just bonded through it all."
Now that the two have mastered Hoener's teachings in the passing game and as blockers in the run game, they're truly enjoying their time out on the field together.
"I love it when he makes plays. Not just because he's in my unit but because he's a really good friend of mine," Davis said. "I like to see him getting after it, you know? When Delanie's out there, I know he's going to make plays because that's what he does. I'm just excited for him to join me and make plays right along with me."
Sharing His ExperienceWhat makes Walker so unique is not just his abilities on the football field, but how he spends his time off of it. Sure, he's caught 42 passes for 492 yards and two touchdowns in his career. He's returned 21 kickoffs for 426 yards for an average of 20.3 yards per return. And he's also totaled 35 special teams tackles, 18 of which he's recorded this season.
But beyond those contributions, Walker makes it a priority to share his experiences with those who are in a similar position he once experienced. He does so by visiting delinquent youths across the Bay Area. He's made it a point to visit juvenile hall correctional centers to share his story and give positive reinforcement to those who can relate to him.
"It's very important that people know about what I've been through," Walker explained. "People assume we're spoiled athletes because we play pro sports, but it's not like that. You can grow up in the worst neighborhood and still make it to the NFL. That's why I want kids, especially in the Bay Area to understand that you can overcome those situations, because I did."
Walker spends his visits by detailing his childhood, how his uncle impacted his life and what pushed him while he was in college.
"I told them I grew up in the same situation that a lot of them grew up in, in an area surrounded by gangs and violence. I was telling them it's a hard situation, but if you want to get out of it, it's all on you.
"Nobody else help you get out of your situation that you put yourself in. That's the message I tried to tell them. I grew up with a single parent and look where I'm at. I wanted to let tell them to not use that as an excuse. Just because you didn't have a father-figure in your life, you can overcome anything."
With Walker as a mentor, there's no better person to articulate what it takes to overcome obstacles that occur early on in life.
And with each game and every snap, his story seems to only keep getting better.