By MIKE HUTCHENS
Messenger Sports Editor
It was hard to tell who had the bigger smiles — the Tennessee Titans’ Delanie Walker and George Wilson or the students at Lake Road Elementary.
“To see these kids, to see their smiles, hear how loud they cheer when they see us and for them to be so excited about us being here, it’s like nothing I’ve ever been a part of,” beamed Walker, who signed with the Titans as a free agent this offseason after helping the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship and a spot in the Super Bowl last year.
“Most of them have never seen a professional football player or a game in person before. It’s so beautiful to see their enthusiasm. We’ve had kids wait in line in the rain to get autographs or just to touch us or get a high-five, and that support is just so amazing. They sure didn’t have anything like this in San Francisco.”
Both players and young fans sported ear-to-ear grins throughout the team’s stop at the school as part of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Titans Caravan Friday afternoon.
The hour-long program — one of 22 stops by the Caravan that is to reach about 12,000 students over a two-week period — was a high-energy presentation that stressed educational and good-choice messages from players and other team personnel, including wildly-popular mascot T-Rac.
The NFL’s Play 60 initiative that encourages youth to get at least 60 minutes of active play each day was also a focal point of the presentation in which LRES students also got an up-close look at area wildlife in care of the Tennessee State Parks.
The Titans first initiated the Caravan in 1998 and it has visited more than 300 schools across the Mid-South on more than 750 stops, allowing an estimated 120,000 fans to interact with the players and team officials.
Walker, a tight-end who’ll enter his eighth season in the NFL this fall, is admittedly “feeling his way around, still,” after joining the Titans in March after spending his entire career as a 49er and playing on the pro game’s biggest stage in February’s Super Bowl XLVII, during which he caught three passes for 48 yards and made three tackles on special teams.
He said he’s been well-received by both the Nashville community and the Titans’ organization, which targeted him early in the free agency period and has a history of incorporating the position in its offense.
“I believe the Tennessee Titans are going to give me the opportunity to be a star,” continued Walker, who caught 21 passes for a career-high 344 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season last year.
“I feel like my role will be bigger here in Tennessee than it was with the 49ers. They have a young, talented quarterback (Jake Locker), a new offensive coordinator and I think it will give me a great chance to shine and be the type of playmaker that I’ve always wanted to be.”
Walker has also been a kick coverage standout in his career and says he’s open to doing anything the team asks of him.
“I know they signed me to be a tight-end, but I expect my role to expand as I get more comfortable and get up to speed on the playbook. I think you’ll see me line up in the slot, in some single receiver sets and even in the backfield some,” he claimed.
“I know they brought me here, too, along with George (Wilson) and a couple of other guys that they’ve signed because of my experience — both with the 49ers and overall. I’m going to show them how to work every day. I’m going to play my heart out and have a great attitude. I broke my jaw once and was back on the field in three weeks. The rest of the guys will see that type of commitment and toughness from me to the team and the organization and I hope they follow suit and buy into that.”
The Titans Caravan is not Walker’s lone involvement with civic or community organizations. He’s teamed with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) to help raise awareness about their campaign after an aunt and uncle were killed in a horrific accident by an alleged drunk driver the morning after he played in the Super Bowl last February.
He had hugged them both at the team’s postseason party after the game and said he hopes to start a foundation to keep their memory alive and also help support their eight children — his cousins — left behind.
“Me being an NFL player, and in situations like this where we get to meet fans, it puts me out front where I can talk to people and they can tell me their stories and experiences too,” Walker said in a somber tone. “I’m just going to keep pumping MADD, keep promoting it any way I can. It’s such a great group and a serious issue that’s touched so many people.”
His smile quickly reappeared when the topic of conversation changed back to his reason for being in rural West Tennessee and LRS in particular.
“Those kids… they’re awesome. I’ve gotten a chance to be with some new teammates, to eat some great food, and to travel and see some areas and places that I’d never been,” concluded Walker, who — along with Wilson — sat among and interacted with the students during Friday’s presentation.
“It’s going to be really nice to play and win for these people.”
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 5.6.13