The Jets had just returned to New York after a 28-26 victory at Buffalo on Sept. 23, and Wesley Walker, their All-Pro wide receiver, couldn't wait to get home to celebrate. He'd caught three of Pat Ryan's passes for touchdowns, the Jets had improved their record to 3-1 and Walker was off to the best start of his eight-year NFL career.
As Walker headed down a corridor in La Guardia Airport, he turned to teammate Bobby Jackson and said, "Hey, buddy, would you please put some drops in my good eye." Walker, who's legally blind in his left eye because of a congenital cataract, had experienced blurriness in his right eye during the game.
Jackson inserted the drops; Walker blinked a few times and walked on. Half an hour later the two were on the Long Island Expressway driving toward Walker's home in Dix Hills, N.Y. Roadside signs were becoming increasingly blurry to Walker. That night, when he was in bed with his wife, Judy, he could barely see 10 inches beyond his nose. By the next morning, "I saw rainbows radiating off the sunlight," he says. Walker began to panic. "All I knew is that I'd tried new eye drops," he says. "And now, I could barely see.
"So many good things have happened to me that I'd always wondered how I'd react to bad things. I thought, 'What if I have glaucoma and am going blind?' And I thought about all the things I'd miss."
Later that morning, Dr. William Fagan, a Long Island ophthalmologist, diagnosed the condition as iritis, an inflammation of the iris. Fagan found that Walker had secondary glaucoma, often associated with iritis. Tests also detected a slight tear in the left retina. "With the right hit," Walker says, "I could get a detached retina."
Fagan put Walker on yet another type of eye drops. The glaucoma symptoms disappeared, and the vision in his right eye cleared up.
In last Sunday's 17-16 victory over Kansas City, he was seeing well enough to catch five passes for 66 yards and now is tied for second in the AFC with five TD receptions (Miami's Mark Duper is first with six) while he's sixth in catches and tied for ninth in yardage.
"Wesley's amazing," Fagan says. "For all practical purposes, he has one eye. He has light perception in his left eye, but no true depth perception. His peripheral vision gives him balance. He can sense motion out of the side of his eye. "I've seen a lot of people have congenital cataracts, iritis or glaucoma, but they aren't receivers in the NFL."
Walker's talent has always amazed people, especially his father, the late John Wesley Walker, who first became aware of his son's defective vision when Wesley was eight.
"My dad noticed my left eye drifting while we were playing catch," Walker says. "A specialist said there was no guarantee that surgery would be successful, that even with a contact lens and big, thick glasses, my vision would at best be blurry. I decided then to get by on my peripheral vision.
"In Little League baseball I got hit twice in my left eye," he says. "My mom freaked. It was tough judging speed."
There were other growing pains. "I was the kid they called One Eye," he says. "One girl called me Cross-eyes, and I got so mad at her I called her Alligator Skin."
At Carson High in Los Angeles, Walker was a brilliant wide receiver as a junior and senior in 1971-72—All-America in '72—and the Colts won every game in which he played. He was also the city's scholastic 100-and 220-yard champion. At the University of California, where he caught balls from Vince Ferragamo, Steve Bartkowski and the late Joe Roth, Walker set an NCAA record for average gain per reception in a career—25.7 yards—that still stands. He ran track (PRs of 10.1 in the 100 meters, 20.5 in the 200) and was Cal's first documented four-year two-sport letterman.
The Jets drafted him in the second round of the 1977 draft. "And I was exposed," says Walker, who had always memorized the eye charts but failed to fool the Jets in a preseason physical. Says Fagan, "The vision in Wesley's right eye was discovered to be better than 20/20—20/15. He's better with one eye than most people are with two." Says Judy, "I kid Wesley that he gets by only because he has good ears."
Walker has learned to adjust. "I lose the ball in the glare of domed-stadium lights," he says, "and I have to concentrate hard during night games, like everybody else. I'm probably better on the left side of the line and looking back over my right shoulder. But I've caught a lot of passes looking over my left shoulder or straight ahead into my hands.
"I'm very self-conscious about my eyes," he continues. "Certain situations scare me. I'm not that good at meeting people. It gets embarrassing when I do TV interviews. The light hits my left eye, and it closes. I can't control it.
"Because my left eye drifts, I keep my eyes moving when I talk, so nobody notices. The guys call me Sammy Davis Jr. So, the other day, I bought nonprescription glasses to hide the drift."
John Wesley Walker, 16 months, likes imitating his papa. After practice the other evening, he was wearing his Superman shades and peeking out from under an oversize red cap when he met him at the door in Dix Hills. "Hi, brute," Wesley said. "You look so cute in your red hat."
"Mama! Mama!" John said, teetering over to Wesley with outstretched arms.
Walker laughed. "He always calls me that," he says. "Sounds like the kid needs to have his eyes checked."