Barry Sanders wasn’t the first great Lion running back to shock the football world by retiring at a young age.
Fellow Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Doak Walker surprised everyone in 1955 when at age 28 he called it quits after just six spectacular seasons.
With his high school classmate, quarterback Bobby Layne, Walker helped lead the Lions to three division titles, and two world championships (1952, 1953) while winning two NFL scoring titles as a receiver, runner, and kicker. When the Hollywood handsome cover boy retired, the five time All-Pro was the third leading scorer in NFL history.
Every kid who played football wanted to wear his number 37. His image graced the Wheaties box, countless magazine covers, and he appeared in national television and print ads.
The blond haired blue eyed Texan who had starred at SMU was adored by teammates, and admired by opponents and sportswriters alike. Grantland Rice called Doak Walker “the most authentic all-around player in football history.”
So why did he quit?
Although it was speculated that his wife wanted him to leave the gridiron, the official explanation was that Walker wanted to pursue business interests in Dallas. However in his 1997 biography, More Than a Hero, Walker told writer Whit Canning:
“I didn’t retire in 1955 because I lost the desire. I had achieved just about everything that I felt I could. I always knew it was something you couldn’t do forever, and I didn’t want to be one of those guys who stayed a year too long. I didn’t want to leave burned out or crippled.”
Unlike Barry Sanders, Detroit fans were given the opportunity to say goodbye.
In halftime ceremonies held at Briggs Stadium held on the final home game of the 1955 season. After receiving accolades from dignitaries like Michigan Governor G. Mennan Williams, Walker thanked Detroit Lion officials, coaches and teammates. He then turned and with a sweep of his hand he pointed to the center field section and said:
“But most of all I’d like to thank the people out there, the people in the bleachers. They have been wonderful.”
Walker was remembered as much for his kindness and modesty as for his uncanny ability to avoid tacklers.
In my Detroit Free Press profile of Walker on the 50th anniversary of his retirement, Lion legend Joe Schmidt shared his thoughts:
“When I look back I think of Doak’s honesty and sincerity. He was the All-American boy who was handsome, not big or the fastest guy, but a clutch player who could just do everything very, very well. Everyone was disappointed when he quit because he was so important to our team. He was so young and vibrant and could have played several more years.”
Although Walker never publicly expressed regret over his decision to quit, his actions two years later told a different story.
In the summer of 1957 Walker arrived at the Lions training camp at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills and worked out with the team as he eyed a possible comeback.
Joe Schmidt said that Walker “looked pretty good but then he “disappeared as fast as he came.” Walkers’ first wife Norma told me that, “he had a hard time getting away from football so he went back to Detroit but he felt Hopalong Cassady had come along and taken his position.”
Walker continued to pursue his business interests and later became an avid snow skier when he married former Olympic skier Skeeter Werner who had given him lessons. The two later operated a ski shop in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Sadly, four weeks after turning 71 in 1998, Walker was paralyzed from the neck down in a skiing accident. Nine months later he succumbed to complications from the paralysis.
Today his name lives on through the Doak Walker Award given annually to college football’s top running back.