Updated 3:15 pm, Friday, May 19, 2017
Wayne Walker, who spent 15 years in the NFL as a linebacker for the Detroit Lions and then two decades in the Bay Area as the sports director for KPIX (Channel 5), died Friday from complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Walker, who had lived in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, since the mid-1990s, was 80.
Soon after Mr. Walker joined KPIX in 1974 until he left the station in 1994, he became as well-respected and popular as perhaps any sportscaster in Bay Area history.
“I don’t know that you could really properly explain to people who were not there how big of a deal Wayne was as a sports personality in the Bay Area,” said KTVU sports anchor Joe Fonzi, who worked with Mr. Walker for more than a decade at KPIX.
“There was a point where Wayne was pretty much the voice of record when it came to Bay Area sports.”
His NFL experience gave Mr. Walker credibility with both the public and the athletes he covered. He added to that with a straightforward delivery in his sportscasts that he typically brightened with a gap-toothed smile.
“He was the best,” said Joe Montana, the 49ers’ Hall of Fame quarterback. “He did things the right way that allowed him to get answers and trust from players that no one else could.”
Montana said that athletes often become guarded around certain reporters because the athletes believe the reporters have “an agenda.”
“They’re looking for something that fits into their agenda, no matter (what) you say,” Montana said. “I don’t think Wayne ever had an agenda. He was always on the up-and-up.”
In the ’70s, Mr. Walker made his mark in the Bay Area with his “sports challenges,” in which he would compete against individuals, teams and — in probably the most memorable segment — a cable car in a race up California Street.
Those segments were “incredibly popular,” said Art Dlugach, who became the KPIX sports producer a few months after Mr. Walker began working at the station. “When he did (the segments) with kids, 10-, 12-years-old or younger, those were the best. … People just really liked them and he liked doing them, for sure.”
Mr. Walker attended the University of Idaho and was selected by the Lions in the fourth round (No. 45 overall) of the 1958 NFL draft.
Over the next 15 seasons, he played 200 games as an outside linebacker and was named to the Pro Bowl three times. Mr. Walker also doubled as a placekicker and still ranks ninth on the Lions’ career scoring list with 345 points.
His longevity in the sport impressed those who followed him in the NFL.
“Fifteen years, as a historian of the game and knowing as much as I know about the game, that’s rare air,” said Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back who spent the first 10 of his 14 NFL seasons with the 49ers.
Mr. Walker enjoyed a strong relationship with the 49ers. He had two stints broadcasting many of their games as an analyst on CBS telecasts. He also had two stints (1979-81 and 1987-97) as the analyst on their radio broadcasts.
Add in the “Wayne Walker’s 49ers Preview” shows on KPIX, and he knew the team inside and out.
Lott recalled the bond Mr. Walker had with head coach Bill Walsh. Lott said that Walsh allowed Mr. Walker “to see the stories behind the curtain. … There were certain stories that nobody knew that Wayne had a chance to get. And there were things that Bill wanted him to know that no one else could know other than Wayne.”
For someone who spent so much time in the public eye, Mr. Walker’s personality was decidedly understated.
“He was really a very relaxed person,” said Dlugach, who is now a sportswriter and broadcaster in Texas. “He certainly never seemed to be off-kilter on the air or off.”
Said Lott: “Wayne was so good at allowing you to feel like you’re just sitting there talking, that you’re not in front of a camera.”
That calm demeanor belied how important his jobs were to him.
“He was very demanding of himself and everyone around him,” said longtime KPIX news anchor Kate Kelly. “You upped your game when you worked with Wayne because he really expected you to bring your ‘A’ game.”
Said Dlugach: “He could be a pretty tough editor if he didn’t like what I wrote.”
Few, if any, people in the Bay Area didn’t like Wayne Harrison Walker.
“He was always a fun person to talk to — not only for an interview, but just in general,” Montana said.
Said Fonzi: “There were a lot of people who were very caught up with their status as a quote, anchorperson. You never got that from Wayne.”
Kelly said that with Mr. Walker, “what you saw was what you got. I never saw him be anything else but a professional, a solid guy, funny — oh my goodness, he could make you laugh.”
Lott, in effect speaking for hundreds of Bay Area athletes over the years, said, “We saluted him for his grace, and not only his grace, but his ability to allow us to be able to share our stories, share who we are.”
Mr. Walker is survived by his wife, Sylvia, sons Steve and Doug and daughter Kathy, and eight grandchildren. A celebration of his life is pending.