Walter Chadwick, who was a star running back at the University of Tennessee in the 1960s, holds a photo of him scoring a touchdown during a game against Tulane University. Chadwick was named head coach of Wills High School in 1971, but after being on the job just two weeks, an accident left Chadwick brain-damaged. Chadwick recently gathered with friends and former students, many of whom thought he was dead. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

Former football star’s life changed with accident

Walter Chadwick became a legend while at Decatur High as an indomitable running back with formidable shoulders and uncommonly thick fingers.

He led the state in rushing in 1963, when Atlanta Journal sportswriter and the future novelist, Terry Kay, wrote that Chadwick causes defenders “to stumble, scatter or bounce [while also employing] brute power.”

Chadwick secured certified folk hero status when he headed to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee. During his senior year in 1967 the Vols went 9-2, won the Southeastern Conference Championship and finished second nationally in both the Associated Press and Coaches Poll. The 5-10, 205-pound Chadwick was the fulcrum of an offense that averaged 25.7 points per game, a whopping sum a half-century ago. He led the SEC in touchdowns with 11, and after every one he tossed the football in the stands, sometimes celebrating so hard with fans he forgot about the game left to be played.

But the most remarkable act in Walter Chadwick’s long narrative is the last one.

In April 1971, days after his 25th birthday, Chadwick was sitting at an Atlanta red light in his Volkswagen Beetle when a Wells Fargo truck smashed into the car. He was in intensive care for 15 days and in a coma for 3½ months, and when he woke up a portion of his brain was irreparably damaged.

In those days before the Shepard Spinal Clinic was built, his post-accident rehab was a long hit-and-miss ordeal. His high school friend Jerry Eickhoff says it took two to three years for him to became ambulatory. He had to re-learn to write, talk and walk. During his peak years after his recovery, he could walk with a cane, ride a bike and, as Eickhoff points out, “He could still crush your hand with a handshake.”

Photo: Legacy.com

He took jobs from cleaning presses for a printing company to bagging groceries at Publix and working as custodian. For about two years in the 1990s he worked as a support coach at Emory Hospital for patients with brain injuries.

Chadwick was mostly able to live independently and was often ubiquitous around Avondale and Decatur peddling his bicycle. He made friends everywhere, but with advancing years fewer and fewer remembered or ever knew he wore #20 for the Decatur Bulldogs and Tennessee Volunteers.

Former All-America Tennessee linebacker Steve Kiner, lost touch but reconnected with Chadwick. After a nine-year NFL career, Kiner returned to college and got two master’s degrees in clinical psychology and counseling. By 1991 he was managing the emergency psychiatric services for Emory Healthcare.

“At that time Walter was lucid,” Kiner said. “He could carry on conversations, but he didn’t always have access to recall and memory on demand. I thought he needed some psychiatric help.”

Kiner helped Chadwick get the help and the job at Emory, with Chadwick riding his bike to MARTA so he could catch a train the campus.

“I also went to the Tennessee alumni association in Atlanta and told them that Walter needs to be more active, he needs broader social interaction.”

A group of mostly Tennessee alumni created the “Friends of Walter,” a collective starting with three or four and ending with 85. They raised money for his clothes, his meals, his living conditions and even a birdhouse — he loved animals all his life. They drove him to Tennessee games, including the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the ’67 team.

Every week without fail for nearly a decade-and-a-half, the FOW took Chadwick to lunch. On Oct. 30, 14 of them met for “Walter Wednesday” at City Barbecue, a new favorite of Walter’s, whose appetite was famously robust.

Chadwick, 73, died from congenital heart failure around 7 a.m. the next morning in the assisted living home where’s he’s stayed the last three years. A funeral was held earlier this week.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Walter Chadwick

Walter Chadwick (center), who was a star running back at the University of Tennessee in the 1960s, walks with his friend and University of Tennessee alum Ellen Morrison (left) and former Wills High School football player Keith Miller in Laurel Park on Aug. 28, 2016, in Marietta. Chadwick was named head coach of Wills High School in 1971, but after he was on the job just two weeks, a Wells Fargo armored van slammed into his car, leaving Chadwick brain-damaged. Chadwick recently gathered with friends and former students, many of whom thought he was dead. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp

For Alan Chadwick, the youngest of Walter’s brothers, it’s no mystery how Walter inspired such devotion

“His personality always drew people to him,” Alan said. “He was outgoing and always positive, even after the accident. He was friendly, zany and, to put it mildly, a little bit of a character.”

Kiner said: “He was never mean or angry. I never ever heard him complain about one thing. He was like that after the accident and he was like that going back to college.”

Walter Earnest Chadwick was born in Decatur March 30, 1946, the second of four boys to Walter and Eleanor Chadwick. All four played football, with three making first-team all state, and each excelled in college.

Walter’s most indelible high school performance came during a 1962 playoff game against bitter rival Avondale High. Late in the game Walter took a pitch from his quarterback and threw a touchdown pass that delivered a 7-6 win for Decatur and gave Avondale its first-ever home loss in a stadium already eight years old.

But this was only a prelude for what followed. In 28 games at Tennessee he rushed for 1,306 yards, and 16 touchdowns while catching 35 passes for 409 yards. He only threw two passes in college, both during his 1967 senior season, both went for touchdowns in critical victories over Alabama and Mississippi.

Though drafted in the sixth round by Green Bay Chadwick never played in the NFL; his pro career consisting of one season in the Canadian Football League. In the spring of 1971 he seemed to have found his calling, getting hired as head football coach by Wills (now Campbell) High in Smyrna.

“No doubt Walter would’ve been a lifelong coach and great one,” said his brother Alan, who’s coached 43 years (34 as head coach) at Marist and ranks second among all Georgia high school coaches with 384 victories.

The accident came two weeks after Walter was hired. He was already married with two sons, ages 2 and 1. His wife eventually divorced him and took the boys March and John back to Knoxville. Both attended Walter’s funeral this week and said, despite the geographical and health complexities, they never lost contact with their dad.

“We only knew him when he was disabled,” said March, who’s now an architect in New York City (John lives in Knoxville). “But he was a great dad. Caring. We saw him every summer.”

When Walter could no longer ride his bike, he liked being driven through the Winnona Park neighborhood where he grew up. He’d point out his old home, the homes of old friends, and the homes no longer there, torn down and replaced by McMansions. One afternoon noticing a for sale sign with an $800,000 price tag he looked at Ellen Morrison, a founder of FOW, and said, “Chump change.”

When anyone donated money, or practically did anything at all, Morrison said Walter liked writing the thank you cards by hand so they had a personal touch. He struggled mightily one night trying to figure what say to his old Tennessee head coach Doug Dickey. He sat for a long time, she said, before he scrawled a single line: “Coach Dickey, thank you. You taught me how to live.”

Chadwick is survived by sons, March Chadwick of New York City, NY and John Chadwick of Knoxville, TN, brothers, Donald (Gaelyn), Dennis (Janet) and Alan (Lisa) Chadwick

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