published Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

McCallie football player withstands father's abuse, finds strength in family, faith

McCallie's Cam Walker, center, is getting ready to sign a football scholarship with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Wednesday. Picture with him are his mother, Debi Walker, right, and his brother Dallas.
McCallie's Cam Walker, center, is getting ready to sign a football scholarship with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Wednesday. Picture with him are his mother, Debi Walker, right, and his brother Dallas.
Photo by Tim Barber.

COUNTDOWN TO SIGNING DAY

National Signing Day for high school athletes is coming up Wednesday, and the Times Free Press will be tracking how Tennessee, UTC, Alabama and Georgia fare.

• See Wednesday’s paper for a look on how signing day is shaping up for local high school athletes, as well as for UTC, Tennessee and schools throughout the SEC.

• Check online throughout the day Wednesday for the latest updates on the latest signings and any last-minute surprises.

• Thursday’s paper will have comprehensive coverage of which schools came up big on signing day and where local players will be competing this fall.

It is a day as much about family as it is about football. In three days — national signing day — countless high school players will surround themselves with relatives, friends and coaches to celebrate an important accomplishment in their young lives.

Cam Walker will have his own group of excited supporters, including his mother and three brothers, with him as he signs scholarship papers with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Wednesday morning.

And while it's not uncommon for high school kids to overcome obstacles just to reach such a significant day, the road that led Walker's family to Chattanooga, and ultimately the McCallie offensive lineman to earn a scholarship with the Mocs, has been a particularly winding and even heartbreaking one.

"There was a time that I really couldn't see myself where I am now," said Walker, the third eldest of the brothers. "The only way me, my mom or brothers could have gotten where we are now is through our faith. There's no other way to explain it."

For 19 years, including the first 13 of Cam's life when the family lived in Memphis and later Madison, Miss., Debi Walker and her sons endured the constant anxiety of an abusive relationship with the boys' father, who often used his hulking 6-foot-5, 300-pound body to keep them under his control.

"My dad was abusive toward all of us -- especially my mom and my oldest brother," Cam said. "He had everyone outside the family snowed because he would act like a normal guy in public, but when we got home it was awful.

"He was so good at hiding who he really was. He could say 'I love you,' but actions speak louder than words."

"Walking on eggshells"

The physical abuse began before Debi had even opened all of her wedding gifts. Physical and emotional abuse continued not only with her but also stair-stepped its way down to the boys, first with the eldest, Dallas, during his teenage years to Trace, the second oldest. Near the end of the marriage, Cam's father turned his soul-crushing emotional abuse onto Cam, not yet a teen.

There were good days, brief rays of inspiration that would make Debi and the boys believe there was hope that their family had weathered the worst. But even then they dealt with what Dallas described as "walking on eggshells."

The family, he said, "never knew when something would set him off and things would turn bad again."

Debi acknowledged there were times when her ex-husband would verbally or physically abuse her, but she would leave the room and act as if nothing were wrong to protect the boys from knowing what happened.

"I never argued or fought back," she said. "I didn't want the kids to see me being disrespectful in any way, so I just became a very good actress.

"Image was so important to my ex-husband. He would never let anyone see him lose his temper," Debi said. "But our lives were very different when it was just the family. We all lived in fear. It didn't just feel like we were going it alone. We were alone."

Adversity doesn't knock. All too often it simply barges in and tries to drain each moment of its contentment. And so the uneasy feeling of not knowing what might happen next and outright abuse remained part of the family's routine until one September night six years ago, which became both the final frightening episode of abuse and the point when Debi and her children were able to free themselves.

An outburst in front of other family members resulted in her ex-husband's arrest on three counts of domestic violence for assaulting his brother as well as Debi and Trace.

Later that evening, with the family's tormentor in custody, a simple act gave Debi a feeling of peace and hope. Because her ex-husband had taken away her car keys and wallet several times to prevent her from leaving, Debi kept a spare set of keys hidden under her mattress. But that night, after her ex-husband had finally been taken from their home for good, Debi removed those keys from their hiding spot and placed them on top of her dresser.

"It may sound silly, but I felt like a bird that was finally let out of its cage," Debi said, pausing to wipe tears from her cheeks. "Throughout those 19 years, oftentimes in front of Dallas, my ex-husband had threatened to kill me if I left and took the kids. That night, I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from me.

"It's hard to explain the relief I felt, mostly for my children."

Shortly after the couple separated, the boys' father was allowed supervised visitation every other weekend with his two youngest sons, Cam and Wesley.

"I didn't want to go, and I was terrified the whole time we were there," Cam said. "I was too young to understand that he wouldn't do anything that would make other people know what kind of person he was. But I knew what he was capable of."

Eventually their father refused to continue adhering to supervised visitation and has had no contact with the boys since 2008. In October of 2011, the man who had infused so much pain into the lives of Debi and her sons pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax evasion. He is serving a four-year prison sentence.

New beginnings

With her oldest son, Dallas, away playing football at Western Michigan, and looking for a fresh start, Debi drove to East Tennessee to begin scouting new homes. She had heard about McCallie School and after visiting the campus and driving around town, decided that Chattanooga was where the family would start over.

Loading up a 26-foot Penske hauler, she and her three younger sons made six 12-hour round trips from Mississippi to Chattanooga to set out on a new life.

"There was the fear of the unknown, but we had a lot of hope and faith that things were finally going to be good for us as a family," Debi recalled.

The Walkers adapted to the stability of their new home. Days drifted to months, months melted into years; and the emotional distance from their past allowed the family to enjoy the everyday peaks and valleys of ordinary life.

Dallas, all too often the target of his father's emotional and physical abuse, has rejoined the family in Chattanooga and now works with Brainerd Baptist Church's sports ministry program. A gifted former all-state quarterback, Dallas signed a free agent contract with the San Diego Chargers to play tight end last April and saw action in the first three preseason games before being released in late August.

He continues to work out in hopes of getting another shot at the NFL, but admits his biggest inspiration is the daughter he and his wife are expecting and the chance to be the type of father he never knew.

Unknowingly, though, Dallas already has fulfilled a father role. He had become the most influential male role model in Cam's life, even as he endured his father's torment.

"Dallas and I have that athletic bond where we could always talk about sports and then that would lead to talking about other things," Cam said. "I look up to him more than he probably knows, and with everything he's had to go through, seeing how he handled it all and is still such a good person, it lets me know there's no excuse for me not to follow that kind of lead."

Trace, the second-oldest, graduated from McCallie, where he also played football, and is now enrolled at a local college. Wesley, the youngest, is a freshman in high school.

Taking the next step

McCallie football coach Ralph Potter singled out Cam for his toughness on the field and his leadership qualities off it.

"Cam was the guy that everybody else on the team would listen to. Even when the coaches couldn't get their attention, I knew Cam could because he's so respected by everyone else," Potter said.

A rare three-year starter at McCallie, Cam had offers from bigger programs, including Middle Tennessee State University and Alabama-Birmingham, but chose UTC to stay close to home, close to the family that has served as shelter and inspiration.

He will surround himself with those closest to him Wednesday morning as he takes the next step in a promising future.

"Football became a huge escape for me," Cam said. "It was how I dealt with stuff, and it helped me cope and gave me a goal. There were times I waited until I got home and I'd break down and cry because I wasn't sure I could do it. But I never let my friends or coaches or anybody see that.

"I stuck with it because football is one of the abilities that God gave me that's helped get me where I am now," he added.

And just down the street from where the Walker family will celebrate signing day, past McCallie's sprawling campus, posted on a weather-beaten sign outside a small church, is the Bible verse from I Corinthians 13:13, which reads, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

"I became a Christian when I was 10," Cam said. "I believe being tested is part of being a Christian. Our family has been tested, but we've always had each other."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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