Get all of Melissa Jacobs’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
On March 17, around 7 p.m. ET 23-year-old Tray Walker called his agent Ron Butler from Miami with a request. “I want to do something really nice for my family before I go back to Baltimore. Do you think you can put together some hotel rooms and help get them down to the beach?” he asked.
It would be their last phone call.
Walker intended to spend the weekend with his inner circle—his mother, his sister and the close friends he considered brothers—enjoying Miami’s unique blend of serenity and pulsating fun before heading to Baltimore on Monday and immersing himself earlier than normal into the grind of preparing for an NFL season.
After a disappointing 2015 in which he saw action in just eight games as a rookie out of Texas Southern, Walker was determined to make a sophomore splash. And that was the focus of his relationship with Butler, whom Walker hired last December after being unsatisfied with his previous agent.
“Tray was so dominant in his conference through sheer physicality, but when he got to the NFL he couldn’t rely on sheer athleticism,” Butler said. “It was more about studying, learning the small things. Tray was ready to be one of those guys you could count on to make plays defensively.”
Despite their short time working together, Butler’s relationship with Walker went much deeper than plotting out a plan for on-field success. It was Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, another client of Butler’s, who first recommended Walker last fall. Like Freeman and several other Butler clients, Walker endured an upbringing in the notoriously rough Liberty City section of Miami. Freeman vouched for Walker’s persona, making it clear that he was one of the rare few who avoided all the pitfalls.
“The first time Tray and I sat down we instantly clicked,” Butler said. “Tray was the type of guy that if you believed in him and you did right by him, he put all his trust in you.”
Butler says Walker was very quiet and low-key but a tremendous human being. The foundation of trust had been built, and the makings of a successful relationship—one in which Butler’s reach as a mentor to Walker extended well beyond the playing field—were in progress.
Butler was still learning all the things that made Walker tick—how much he cared about his appearance. How he had a robust sneaker collection, with a particular fondness for Jordans. How he loved cars yet, despite the temptation to start a collection, owned just two: a Dodge Challenger and a Range Rover he purchased a month ago to better navigate snowy Baltimore this season.
Just about three hours after Walker called Butler to plan his family weekend, around 10 p.m. ET, Butler got the fateful call from another client, Colts wideout Phillip Dorsett. “I think Tray’s been in an accident.” Butler then saw the news all over social media. Walker had been riding a dirt bike in Miami and collided with an SUV. His condition was critical. Butler immediately took off for the hospital, eschewing the on-site media, and just tried to comfort Walker’s mother as her son’s condition worsened. He was pronounced dead at 5 p.m. the next day.
In the aftermath, Butler recalls an eerily similar call he received in November, when another client, Rams wide receiver Stedman Bailey, was shot in the head and sustained life-threatening injuries. Walker chats regularly with Bailey about his family, his improving health and the slim possibility of an NFL comeback. If only he could do the same with Tray Walker.