Forty-eight years ago, life and an armored money truck dealt a cruel blow to Walter Chadwick. He was damaged beyond repair. All concerned gave him up for dead.
“They gave me the last rites,” Walter was fond of saying, “but I fooled ’em!”
The former Tennessee tailback did far more. He never gave up. He defied the odds and went right on living and laughing despite severe limitations. Along the way, he turned his misfortune into an inspirational blessing for others.
Chadwick, 73, died in his sleep late Wednesday or early Thursday at an assisted living facility in his hometown of Decatur, Ga. Congenital heart failure was listed as the cause. The Chadwick family will receive friends on Sunday, 3-5, at A. S. Turner and Sons Funeral Home in Decatur. A celebration of life is scheduled for Monday at 11.
In fact, it has already started.
The day before his death, Chadwick was the star (as usual) at a weekly luncheon with the Friends of Walter, the volunteer support group led by UT grad Ellen Morrison. She is an honorary Vol letter winner for 14 years of caring.
“He had been struggling for several weeks,” said Ellen. “He was having trouble breathing. But he wasn’t about to miss Walter Wednesday.”
As almost always, former all-American linebacker Steve Kiner was in the group of 14.
“I guess you know you are a pain,” said Kiner to Chadwick.
“Walter loved it,” said Morrison. “You should have heard him laugh.”
Today Kiner said, “Walter Chadwick was an amazing person, a great man. He never gave up even for a second. He never complained. He never seemed to feel sorry for himself.
“I had a lot of respect for Walter when we played. He had great courage. After the crash, after all he endured, after he picked up the pieces of his life, I had even more respect.
In the beginning, there were good times. Tennessee fans from the Doug Dickey era refuse to forget the wobbly, shot-put passes Chadwick threw for touchdowns against Alabama and Ole Miss in 1967. He ran for 11 that season and led the Southeastern Conference in scoring. Those Vols won the league championship and made it to the Orange Bowl.
Chadwick was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. He spent a few minutes trying to earn a job with the Atlanta Falcons. He played one year for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League.
“Lost every game,” he would say with a chuckle in summing up his pro career.
After that, he became the high school coach in Smyrna, Ga.
Two weeks later, a Wells Fargo heavy-duty truck crossed the center line and ran over Walter and his VW Beetle. His body was broken and he was severely, irreparably brain damaged.
Many, including some of his players, who got snippets of the news thought he was dead. He was in intensive care for 15 days. He was in a coma for three and half months. He spent two years in rehabilitation. His marriage evaporated. He lost contact with his two young sons. His brothers were busy with their lives.
Stumbling blocks were everywhere.
Former Vol Elliott Gammage was first among old teammates to provide assistance. He became a mainstay – for years.
Chadwick had a job cleaning presses for a printing company. It closed. Walter did custodial work. He bagged groceries at a Publix. With speech handicaps, short concentration and limited mobility, there wasn’t much available.
Kiner got involved after he came back from the NFL, after he earned two more degrees and was managing emergency psychiatric services for Emory Healthcare.
It took a while but Emory hired Chadwick. He became motivation coach. He visited patients who thought they were worse off and persuaded some to sit up and talk and even take a walk.
It was Kiner who found Ellen Morrison. Their UT connections were the link. Ellen led group growth.
Many others helped. Walter never ran short of power T caps and orange shirts. Bill Battle once wrote a check for $10,000 to put an elevator in Chadwick’s little condo. The former coach never mentioned it.
Dick Williams, former Tennessee tackle and captain, said everybody liked Walter and Walter liked everybody. Williams said they all have a story or two. Chadwick’s laugh was a favorite memory.
Mike Price tells about the day as a freshman when he met Walter at the stadium.
“I’m Mike Price. I’m a tailback,” said Price.
“Ha, ha, ha,” said Walter Chadwick. “I’m THE tailback.”
Ellen Morrison has hundreds of stories. Death was understandably the focus yesterday.
“I can only image the outstretched arms as his Heavenly Father received him into his eternal home. Walter was looking forward to the day.”
Through the years, when Ellen drove Walter to various appointments, he got to choose the music and they sang along.
Ellen said the Wednesday theme song was “One day at a time, sweet Jesus.”
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.