Secret Weapon


I remember feeling a cold breeze on my bare feet, and I could hear the sound of a woman crying. At first, it seemed like the sobs were coming from far away. But they kept getting louder and louder until they surrounded me, like they were coming from every direction.

You know how sometimes, when you’re dreaming, you know that you’re in a dream?

I knew I was in a dream.

I was floating above an open field of bright green grass. In the distance, I saw a little, black dot. I started moving my feet to walk toward it, but I was floating. So every step I took, it was like I was on a treadmill. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get closer to that dot.

Most of this is just nonsense — the floating, the dot — you know, random stuff. Dream stuff.

But the cold breeze was as real as anything I’d ever felt. And the crying … I could feel the pain in it. That’s how real it was.

Then I realized that I recognized the crying.

It was my mother.

That’s when the dream ended. I opened my eyes, and I was no longer floating. I was 20 years old, home from college, lying face up on the living room floor of my childhood home where I had fallen asleep watching television earlier that night. My feet were sticking out from the bottom of the blanket. The front door was open and I could feel the wind blowing in.

I looked up and saw that my mom was standing outside on the porch of our home in Homestead, Florida. She was on the phone.

“Wait,” she said. “James Walker … you mean his father, right? Not Junior. Not my James.”

She lowered the phone and started to sob.

Then she told me my brother James had been shot.

I started watching James at football practice after school when I was five years old. And it wasn’t by choice, either. My mom was always working, and there was only one rule James and I had to follow when she wasn’t around: “Stick together.”

James was my half brother, but we grew up together in the same house and we were as close as two kids could possibly be. He was a year older than me and met the age required to join the football team first, so I’d just stand on the sidelines every day and watch him do all these amazing things I had never seen anyone do before. He was throwing passes, he was hitting people — he was with all these kids laughing and hollering and high-fiving. It looked like the most fun anyone could ever have. Before I had even played a down of football, my brother had me addicted.

Before I had even played a down of football, my brother had me addicted.

I’d always try on his helmet when we were walking to and from practice. On game day, I was like his personal equipment guy, making sure he had whatever he needed — jersey, cleats, everything — all packed up and ready to go. And I’d carry his helmet and shoulder pads up to the doors of the weigh-in room before the game started. I was his guy.

A year later, when I was old enough to play for the team James was on, it was like I was in heaven.

“Don’t listen to what anyone says,” he’d always say to me. “You’re the best player on this field. You’re the secret weapon.”

Except I wasn’t. I was small, I was slow — I was an average football player at best. James and I were only a year apart, but really I was just the classic little brother. Shoulder pads and jersey too big, running around all over the place, no idea what I was doing. But it was fun. And gradually, I started to understand how to actually play the game.

John Brown

Football became our life’s focus. It was the only thing we knew. It didn’t matter if we were playing on an organized team or just playing street ball with our friends. Me and my brother — Smokey and Junior — on any given afternoon, could be found somewhere playing football.

As we got a little older we started playing for money. After school a bunch of kids would show up at either the park or “the Alley” — where the serious games went down in our neighborhood — and we’d split into teams. Usually we’d go five dollars a head for each game — so maybe five of us together would put up $25 and the other team would do the same — and we’d go until it got too dark to keep playing. James and I were always on the same team. We’d lose a few here and there, but most of the time we came out ahead. Sometimes we would take home more than $50 combined in one day.

And let me just say, $50 to a little kid in Homestead is like infinite money — the average kid would have spent it on candy bars and soda, but we opted to help our mom support the household. So football was sort of our job before we were old enough to have a job, and we loved every minute of it.

Every night, James and I would go home and tell our mom about how we were going to make it to the NFL someday — and get paid for real.

“We’re gonna make it and get you out of Homestead. We’re gonna take care of you. No matter what.”

That was our promise to her.

“James Walker. Your son. He’s been shot three times.”

That’s what my mother heard on the phone that night. The sight of her breaking down is still stuck in my brain. Same with the words that came out of her mouth when she finally turned and was able to talk to me.

He’d been shot twice in the chest and once in the head.

The only thing I remember after that was putting on my shoes and running with her to my friend’s car when he came to pick us up. Everything else was a blur until we arrived at the hospital.

We had to wait outside when we got there — doctors were still working to stabilize him. A big crowd began to gather, even though it was five o’clock in the morning. Some people were still dressed up, like they hadn’t gone home after a night out at the club. I recognized some of them and heard all kinds of talk about my brother and his friends, but nobody seemed to really know what had happened.

It was tough to look at James lying in his hospital bed. His whole body was bandaged, his head was wrapped and half of his face had swollen to the size of a basketball. The only sound inside the room was the beeping heart monitor and the gasps of the respirator. He couldn’t talk. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t open his eyes. We weren’t allowed to hug him or even touch him.

But he was alive. He was with us. For the moment, at least, we could still talk to him, and he could still listen.

I couldn’t think of anything to say at first, so I just sat down in one of the chairs next to his bed.

I sat there, and I didn’t talk — just prayed to God.

And I hoped with all of my heart that I was somehow still dreaming.

James was always there to motivate me, every day, on and off the field.

When one of the coaches at our high school told me I was too small and that I’d never be a part of his football team, I think James was angrier with him than I was. James probably would have gone off on him if I hadn’t been around, but he didn’t because he knew it wasn’t worth it.

Instead, he told me I should switch schools.

“You’re the secret weapon,” he’d keep saying. “Who cares what any coach says. Or what anyone else says. Just go somewhere else and be the best. Just go.”

For real — there was zero indication athletically at this point that I was going to make it playing football. But that didn’t matter to James. He believed in me. And I believed in him.

So I took his advice. I transferred that year from South Dade to Homestead, South Dade’s biggest rival. And that meant my brother and I would actually get to play against each other for the first time. I had worked my way up the depth chart at Homestead, so I knew I was going to see the field a lot. And James was a defensive back and I was a receiver, so it was like a legit head-to-head matchup.

My mom was a wreck just thinking about it.

He was my brother, and he was my best friend — but that week, he was my football enemy. It got heated in our house. James and I would constantly be talking trash and one of us would take it too far, which would lead to an actual fight. Then we’d cool off and start the process over until one of us eventually took it too far again — you know how brothers do.

The game itself got a little ugly. 

James could hit about as hard as anyone I remember, and he knocked me on my butt more than once, which I didn’t like. I caught a few balls on him, but the game was really more of a continuation of our fights at home than anything else — not a lot of football action. My team ended up coming out on top 7–0.

He cried afterward, and then we hugged and said “good game” and everything. It was one of those moments when I felt a real sense of accomplishment. My big brother had always been bigger, stronger and faster than me, but this time, I came out on top.

Little brother was the big winner.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The last conversation James and I had before he was shot was in 2010, the summer after our sophomore year of college. He was trying to convince me to transfer to his college, MidAmerica Nazarene. Out of high school I’d gotten a scholarship to Mars Hill, a D-II school in North Carolina, but even though I was having a great season on the field, I was having academic issues. So the next year I transferred to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. I was just looking for a way to get back on the field.

But by the time I enrolled the team was already at its limit for out-of-state players. So even at community college, I couldn’t play. They allowed me to practice with the team, but I couldn’t actually play on game days.

James saw that I was suffering. He knew I just wanted to be out there on the field. He asked if there was anything he could do to convince me to come and play with him — so that we could be on the field together again.

I told him I’d think about it.

But I never got the chance.

On the night of July 3, 2010 — the night before James was shot — a friend had told me and my mother that James had been robbed while hanging out in the neighborhood. When I went and checked out the scene, I saw a police officer there who was a friend of our family. He had always kept an eye on my brother and me ever since we’d graduated from high school, because he knew we were trying to make something of ourselves.

“Be careful,” he said to me. “Warning comes before destruction.”

The whole next day, my mom told James over and over that it’d be better if he just stayed home and didn’t go out for a few days. She knew what kind of place Homestead was, and the kind of people James had been hanging with.

I wanted to tell him to stay home, too. I wanted to tell him what the officer had said, and that we had all seen the news over the years — violence was a fact of life in our neighborhood. Even if you were just out walking, there was always a possibility something could go wrong.

But he left the house early that morning, and I never got a chance to talk to him. He promised my mother before he left that he wouldn’t cause trouble.

I don’t think I’ll ever know what really happened to James that night, but what we heard later from some of the people standing outside the hospital — people from the nightclub — was that an argument had broken out between some guys and the group James was with, and people started fighting. But James — remembering the promise he had made to our mom that he wouldn’t cause any trouble — stayed out of it. He never even got out of the car.

He was still sitting on the passenger’s side in the front seat when somebody ran up and started shooting.

John Brown

The doctor told us that my brother had walked from the car into the hospital himself. I don’t know how — the doctor didn’t even know how. Shot three times, bullet fragments still scattered throughout his body and his brain … but he got out of the car, and he walked in on his own two feet.

The doctor also said that when James was on the operating table his heart stopped on two separate occasions. Both times he was gone long enough to be pronounced dead, but both times they were able to bring him back.

They told us he wouldn’t last more than a few days on the respirator. They asked us if we wanted to remove his breathing tube. But my mom said no.

I remember she said, “God will take him when he’s ready.”

Almost two weeks later, James started breathing again on his own.

He wasn’t able to talk — wasn’t really even totally awake — but I always went to see him anyway. I would just sit with him and talk to him. He was always so excited to see me — I could tell. His face would change, he’d be more alert and moving around more.

And I would always see the tears welling up in his eyes when I’d take his hand and tell him about playing football.

I’d tell him how I was still practicing at Coffeyville. How I wasn’t dressing for games, but that every day I was out there practicing, getting better and hoping that somehow I’d get on the field again.

I would always see the tears welling up in his eyes when I’d take his hand and tell him about playing football.

I told him he was the reason I would never give up. And I told him every time I saw him that I still remembered our promise.

I was going to make it to the NFL, no matter what it took, no matter how many times I had to switch schools or convince a coach that I was worth a roster spot.

I was going to take care of our mom — and him.

Anytime I wanted to quit, or I started to believe all the negative things that people had said about me in the past — that I wasn’t big enough or fast enough or just plain good enough — I’d think about James. And anytime there was a break from school, I’d go back to Florida and talk to him about everything.

He would never say a word. But he didn’t have to. I knew that he was in there, and that he was fighting to live for our family.

Every single time I left that room, I was more determined to make him proud.

James had hung on for almost 10 months.

In April 2011, I was offered a scholarship to play football at Pittsburg State. The coaches had seen me practice at Coffeyville. My hard work had paid off. I was finally going to be playing football again.

The next day, James passed away.

I’ll always feel like the reason he hung on so long was because he was waiting for me to get my act together before he left this earth and found peace beyond this life. And once he knew I was good — once I got that scholarship offer — it was time for him to go.

He knew I was going to be O.K.

The first time I got on the field at Pittsburg State was for a punt return. I was wearing number 5, James’s old number. I fielded the punt at our own 16-yard line, and I just ran … and ran … and ran. I ran, untouched, all the way to the end zone.

As soon as I crossed the goal line, I pointed up to the sky and thanked James for helping me get there — to the end zone, to Pittsburg State, to the game of football. None of it would have been possible without him.

It hurts to think about someone you want to see so bad, but can’t. And it’s a hurt that never seems to go away. It makes me feel sick, and it makes me mad, and it makes me think about all the different ways that my life — both our lives — could have worked out if James hadn’t been sitting in the car that night.

Carla Wehmeyer/Pittsburg State Universit

Stick together.

That was our only rule. One that I still try to follow.

He may be gone from this Earth, but we still talk sometimes, me and my brother. When I have a good game, when I have a bad game, or especially when I’m having a tough time in my life outside of football, I can hear him. I still talk more than he does, but I know he’s always listening. And sometimes I can still hear him saying, “You’re the secret weapon.” It never fails to fire me up if I’m feeling low.

Sometimes I tell him how much I miss him — how much he still means to me. That I wish we could go back and just be Junior and Smokey again, wrestling in the living room or watching Taz and Bugs Bunny cartoons in the morning before school.

I tell him that I would give everything I have to get him back here, even if it was only for one day. One more backyard barbecue or family reunion. One more chance to throw the ball around with him somewhere. I would give every penny I’ve made in my career.

I tell him that nothing in this life will ever feel as good as the time we spent playing together. And that I think it’s actually kind of funny, so many years later, that he’s now the one who is watching me play — he’s the one cheering me on.

James is always with me. He was with me on draft weekend in 2014 when the Cardinals picked me in the third round. He was with me for the incredible four years I spent in Arizona.

And now he’s in Baltimore with me. He’s a Raven, too. And he’ll continue to share in whatever success I may have, now and forever.

I tell my brother every day that it’s because of him I was able to make it to where I am right now. And every morning when I wake up and look around at everything I have been lucky enough to achieve, I say, “Thank you.”

To James.

Thank you for being a part of my life, even though I wish so much that you could have stuck around longer. Thank you for helping me get Mom taken care of. And thank you, more than anything, for getting me to where I am.

Because if it weren’t for you, I don’t know if I ever would have found the courage to pursue my NFL dream. All those times you told me that I was the secret weapon meant so much to me.

But the reality is, you were mine.