Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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The late Skeeter Werner Walker wanted her husband to be remembered here not as a youthful gridiron God, but as the gregarious bear of a man who lived out his years in Steamboat. Skeeter wanted Doak Walker's enduring image in the Yampa Valley to be crowned with a battered cowboy hat.
On Friday, six years to the day after her own death, Skeeter got her wish thanks to the persistence of local sculptor Jack Finney.
If you moved to Steamboat in the past eight years, are not a college football fan older than 55 and didn't relocate to the Yampa Valley from either Dallas or Detroit, you may not know the name Ewell "Doak" Walker. You may, however, already have guessed that I'm about to make the introductions.
First, a few words about Skeeter and several about Jack.
Finney is a modest man who has left an indelible mark on Ski Town USA through his bronze sculptures. If you've ever disembarked from the Storm Peak Express chairlift and gone out of your way to ski by the little bust of Buddy Werner, you should know Finney. Steamboat Skiers often swing by that shrine of American ski racing to reverentially pat "Buddy" on the hand for luck, safe skiing and more powder.
At the base of the Steamboat gondola, many thousands of Steamboat skiers have kept a powder date by faithfully meeting next to Finney's sculpture of another legendary ski racer, Billy Kidd.
Thanks to Finney, people wishing to reconnect with the "old Steamboat" can swing by Bud Werner Memorial Library and share a park bench with a life-size bronze of Skeeter and Buddy's mother, Hazie Werner. For many of us honorary locals, Hazie embodied the endearing humility and hospitality of this mountain town.
Skeeter skied very well in the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy, and had a long, happy marriage to Doak. A person could probably write a book about their courtship and life together, but I won't attempt it today.
Doak died Sept. 27, 1998, about eight months after suffering paralysis in a skiing accident on Mount Werner. He was 71. He spent his last days at the old Extended Care Center at Routt Memorial Hospital. It was a place he embraced and one where he felt exceptionally well cared for. When a new care facility was incorporated into Yampa Valley Medical Center, it was named after Doak. However, Skeeter wasn't fond of the perfectly handsome bronze bust of Doak as a young football player - he won the Heisman Trophy while a star halfback at Southern Methodist University, and he later starred with the Detroit Lions. He was a gifted running back who ultimately found a place in both the collegiate and pro football halls of fame. But that wasn't Doak's persona in Steamboat.
Skeeter implored Finney to do just one more family bronze, and he agreed - but only if she could line up a benefactor to bear the substantial cost of having the new bust cast in bronze.
Skeeter lined up the funds and handed Finney a battered cowboy hat for Doak to wear through eternity. The sculptor progressed as far as a clay model, but when Skeeter died, the funding evaporated. The project languished until Don Silva, a good friend of both Finney and Walker, motivated the sculptor by intruding on his studio and tinkering with the bust himself.
Finney was so horrified he took up once again the project he knew he was destined to complete. Steamboat residents Randy and Gail White supplied the financial wherewithal to complete the sculpture.
It was fitting that Hall of Fame sportscaster Verne Lundquist was on hand last week to help unveil the new bronze before a small group of family and friends at the Doak Walker Care Center. Lundquist was a close friend of the Walkers, and no one appreciates better than Lundquist the impact Doak had on the football world. In an era when the off-field behavior of athletes too often fails to inspire, Lundquist said Walker is an enduring figure.
"He personified the All-American hero," Lundquist said during a brief talk in which his voice betrayed his emotions. "It's mind boggling to realize we are two months away from the ninth anniversary of Doak's death."
At a memorial services here nine years ago, former SMU teammate Raleigh Blakely said Walker was a leader on the football field, but his influence was felt off it as well. The experience of playing with Walker never left him.
"It's one of the proudest things of my life, that people often introduce me by saying, 'He played with Doak Walker,'" Blakely said. "You'd grow 6 inches. He had his legacy, and he spread it out to other people."
Nearly an entire roster of past football greats came to Steamboat for Walker's memorial service Sept. 30, 1998.
Detroit Lions Hall of Fame defensive back Yale Lary won two NFL titles (in the years before the Super Bowl) with Walker. He had a beautiful way of describing Doak's running style and the way he moved across the gridiron.
"I've never seen a guy glide like that," Lary said. "It was like he was on ice skates."
That's not a bad way to be recalled, and now, thanks to Finney and the Whites, we have a handsome bronze that helps to secure the memories of Walker's years in the Yampa Valley.