Nov. 19, 2009
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Andre Walker would like to forget about the 2008-09 season. However, for as much as he'd like to erase the year from his memory like chalk from a blackboard, he can't.
The 2008-09 season was supposed to be a breakout year for Walker, the 6'7" guard/forward from Flossmoor, Ill., but what began as a year of promise quickly turned from bad to worse.
With three starters graduating after the 2008 season, Walker was in a position to snag a starting spot and develop into one of Vanderbilt's top players entering his sophomore season. The season began just as he had hoped as he posted his best all-around game as a Commodore on Nov. 20 against Illinois. Although the team lost, Walker kept Vanderbilt in the game to the end by matching his career high with 10 points while adding two rebounds and two steals. The performance helped vault him into the starting lineup the next game when he made his first-career start against Middle Tennessee State on Nov. 24.
Walker took full advantage of the opportunity by filling the box score with eight rebounds, four points, three assists and two blocks in 29 minutes. Everything seemed to be falling into place for Walker. But just as things were looking up, they started heading south.
With 2:48 to play in the game and the Commodores leading by 13, Walker went down with an injury that didn't look severe at the time. However, it wasn't just any injuryÃƒÆ'Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬ÂWalker had torn his right ACL and he would have to miss the rest of the season. As soon as his season had begun, it had come to an end.
"It was real frustrating," Walker said. "I only played three games, but I was playing a lot and finally got the start. I was learning the offense well and was learning how I could help my team the best, and it was hard not being able to help them."
The injury was Walker's second significant one in two years after he missed the first half of his season in prep school at Brewster Academy (N.H.) with a left foot injury.
"I just felt like I let the team down not being out there last year," Walker said. "I thought I could have helped us out a lot."
Walker's injury was hard for him to take, but it was not nearly as difficult to deal with as what would happen next.
Since Walker was in high school, his mother, Jane, had battled health issues. She had emphysema and had a successful lung transplant the summer before his junior year.
Walker has never forgotten the emotions his family felt when they found out the transplant was a success, and he never will. Each time Walker stands by his locker in Memorial Gym, his mind flashes back to his mom and the joy his family felt after the transplant.
"The family of the person who gave her her first lung sent us a shirt," Walker said. "The family sent us a shirt, and I always have that in my locker. After that for a year or so she was doing really well, and it reminds me of that."
The new lung allowed her to watch Andre play basketball again and gave her a new lease on life. Jane realized how fortunate she was and made it a point to speak to young people about the importance of organ and tissue donation.
"She was just an amazing lady," said Jim McLaughlin, who coached Walker at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. "I'm a driver's education teacher, and in our curriculum we do a program about organ and tissue donation. Andre's mother came up twice a year to talk to our driver's education kids about organ and tissue donation. She spent the whole day here donating her time."
Jane spoke from experience when she spread the word about the importance of organ donation, but little did she know that she would be in need of another donation herself. Last winter, her lung began to fail her and she required a second transplant, which she had the day after Andre had knee surgery.
"The transplant worked initially," Walker said, "but there was too much oxygen going to her heart, and she couldn't breathe well because she wasn't used to getting so much oxygen."
Walker said the doctors even tried to get the lung working properly by using "a new, groundbreaking procedure that had never been done before." The procedure has since been used to save thousands of lives, but unfortunately for Walker, the procedure was unsuccessful when attempted on his mother. Jane Walker passed away on Jan. 7 from cardiac arrest.
Just when things didn't seem like they couldn't get any worse for Walker, they had.
"The doctors told us all about the risk of the procedure, but we didn't think she wasn't going to make it," Walker said. "The day before the procedure, I stayed with her in the hospital the whole night. We thought it was going to work, and it seemed to be working when she was done with it, but she suffered cardiac arrest."
With his mother gone, Walker was devastated. He had just suffered a season-ending injury and now he had lost his mother. It made him question a lot of things in life, including the importance of returning to Vanderbilt.
"I didn't really see the point," Walker said. "I was pretty sad, and it was pretty tough to come back."
As someone who knew Andre and Jane well, McLaughlin understood how close Andre was to his mother and the type of impact her death had.
"I could just see it in his face and eyes that he was just devastated," McLaughlin said. "It is extremely hard when anyone dies, but when your mom dies and you are in college and she is the one you look to for guidance and support ÃƒÆ'Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Â¬Â¦ I don't think you can describe it in words."
After a period of mourning and words of encouragement from friends, family, teammates and coaches, Walker came back to Vanderbilt. He was back in Nashville, but the outlet he had turned to time after time when his mother had been ill was basketball, and now he couldn't turn to it. The combination of losing his mother and not being able to play the sport he loved made the grieving period much longer for Walker.
"I didn't really have anything to take my mind off of it," Walker said.
His teammates tried to help, but even they had never dealt with anything close to what Walker was dealing with.
"We just gave him his space and accepted him to come back whenever he was ready," said junior forward Darshawn McClellan, who rooms with Walker. "We've just been there for him and been a helping hand whenever he needed us."
Walker has found most of his support inside his family, where his father and half brother have helped each other get through the difficult time.
"They have never been through anything like this either, but we have helped each other out a lot," Walker said.
Losing someone so close at such a young age would be difficult for anyone, but McLaughlin knows the entire process has made Walker stronger and forced him to grow up sooner than most college kids.
"It changed his whole life," McLaughlin said. "The whole process he went through and his emotions he went through were hard at the time, but I know it is going to make him stronger. She is looking over him and keeping an eye out for him, I think he knows that in his heart."
The grieving process has been tough for Walker, and it is something he continues to struggle with. However, as basketball season begins, it will give him a chance to get him back to doing what he enjoys mostÃƒÆ'Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Â playing basketball.
"It has been the most difficult year, and I'm still going through it," Walker said.
McClellan knows the past year has been tough on Walker, which is why he is impressed by how he has been able to bounce back.
"It has been pretty tough and at times he's seemed really down, but I think he's handled it well," McClellan said. "That is a really tough situation to go through, and for him to bounce back the way he has has been great."
After redshirting last year, Walker is back to try his sophomore season again. He knows he has a long road to get back to where he was last year before his injury ended his season, but for as devastated as he was after the injury, he'd go through it again if it meant his mother would be able to watch him play one more game in person.
Although she won't be watching him play again in person, she will never be far from Walker's heart. This summer, Walker got his first tattooÃƒÆ'Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Âan angel across his chest that symbolizes his mother.
"She was such a giving person and caring," Walker said. "She was my angel. She is always watching down on me, but now she's always with me, protecting me."