Robert Walls walked later than other kids. He didn’t learn to read when most do. He stopped growing at 5-foot-3. He lived at home until his 40s.
But at Turner Field, Walls is always right on schedule — and has been for more than 1,000 Braves games. For years now, he’s been a fixture in right field, decked out in Indian-style outfit and headdress. He’ll be there this weekend as the Braves wrap up the regular season against the Phillies.
With a learning disability never pinpointed, the 42-year-old Walls has the mental capacity of a middle schooler. Yet he holds a steady part-time job, navigates MARTA everywhere and has a girlfriend.
At the Just People Village in Roswell, where he lives with other high-functioning disabled people, Walls is — in baseball lingo — a stud.
“A lot of people envy the freedom he has, because others are limited by lack of reading ability or financial support,” said Becky Dowling, founder of Just People.
“We all look for something that is our thing, that we can be part of. For Robert, it’s unmissed games. That’s where he excels and gets applause ... disabled people get very little of that.”
Behind Walls is another team that has helped him make his mark at Turner Field: his family and supporters who acted as coaches from an early age.
Only Walls wasn’t a gifted young athlete. He was the opposite — too small, too slow. He achieved a different spotlight in baseball.
‘Be the best you can’
Walls’ sports-minded parents helped form the Old National Athletic Association in College Park, a recreational youth program. Their only boy wanted to play, but he was so small, it was almost unsafe for him.
“But he was always there, even if he was a mascot,” said his mother, Margaret Hill. “He even wore overalls and cheered with the cheerleaders.”
After he repeated kindergarten, then second grade, he was behind his peers for good.
“We wonder if he would be considered to have some type of autism now,” she said. “We went through tests and did all these things, but ... we still didn’t have a diagnosis. His IQ was low, but not that low.”
His parents, both teachers, were committed to preparing their son for life beyond their home.
Robert Walls Sr. was a math teacher and counselor at Booker T. Washington High School. He and Robert went to Braves games, admiring slugger Dale Murphy for his longevity.
“Take your time and give it your best shot,” father told son. “Be the best you can be.”
In 1983, when Robert was 15, his father was killed in a hit-and-run accident while crossing Old National Highway. Robert Walls Sr. was 46.
“He was bald when he died, like I am now,” Walls said, grinning, then turning serious. “I was angry about the way he died.
“He was a softball and football coach when I played. He was my coach and I was the smallest one on the team. ... He was a real good coach. Patient. Sometimes angry.”
His mom stepped in as his main support. For Halloween in 1993, when Walls was 34, she made him an Indian costume. When the 1994 baseball strike ended, Walls wore it to a Braves game. Thus the streak began.
Structure and spirit
“We’ve always been people who wore [spirit wear], like my vest with tomahawks all over it that I made,” said Hill, who has made seven Indian costumes for her son over the years.
Repetition and structure helped Walls. For his birthday every May, his mom gave him Braves season tickets.
“Just enjoy yourself,” she taught him. “Don’t worry. Just live your life.”
While his two sisters went to college and one to law school, Walls trained as a mason. He never got a job doing that, but found part-time work doing manual labor.
In 2006, when he was 38, his mom told him he needed to move out.
“Someday I will die and I want to make sure you are taken care of,” Hill, now 72 and living in Cumming, said she told him. When that day comes, she joked, “I’ve told my family to plan my funeral on a day that’s not a Braves game. I really wouldn’t want him to miss it.”
Becoming the ‘Chief’
Over the years, the Braves’ nickname has been criticized as culturally insensitive.
Walls thinks otherwise. Critics, he said, “should be proud that a team uses it. It honors them. The team is just brave.”
Is he brave?
“Coming out and wearing this all the time? Yes,” he said. “But the bravest thing I have done is moving out on my own.”
“It was hard at first,” Walls said. “I moved during the season, during a [Braves] road trip.”
Residents of Just People Village have Down syndrome, autism, mental illnesses, head injuries and other challenges. They mostly need help getting safely around Atlanta.
Sports helped Walls get used to his new home. Patterning himself after former Braves second baseman Mark Lemke, Walls last season batted over .900 as the leadoff hitter for his Special Olympics softball team.
His job never interferes with the Braves. By late morning he is done with his three-hour shift cleaning an Old Navy store. He learned to ride the southbound train from North Springs to the Turner Field shuttle.
He usually arrives 2 1/2 hours before a game, just after the stadium opens. He carries his costume in his backpack. No matter how hot it gets, Walls wears it over his shirt, jeans and size-6 Nikes.
The airbrush lady paints his cheeks for free, and people ask for his photo. “Chief,” some call him.
Walls has met Braves legend Hank Aaron and won a free trip to spring training. The ushers, security guards and even the players know him. Last season, reliever Peter Moylan gave Walls his glove.
“He congratulated me on my 1,000th game,” Walls said. “It’s kind of neat, but I’m not really famous.”
One small asterisk
Today will mark his 1,081st Braves game. His streak carries one small asterisk: He missed one game in 1998 while attending his grandmother and her twin’s 90th birthdays. But otherwise he’s been there, when he was sick, when the weather was terrible.
Next season, he said, he may think about breaking his streak. His mom thinks missing a game might be good for him, because some things in life are more important than baseball or routine.
He’s not so sure. Baseball celebrates those who keep showing up, like Braves manager Bobby Cox has for so many decades. Cox will retire after this season, but Walls intends to keep going.
“A great fan cheers when things happen, and if they are not playing well, cheers and they’ll start playing better,” he said. “If you are a real fan, you will be here all year.”