By TERESA M. WALKER
AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Delanie Walker says he heard about the car crash that left two people dead. What he didn't know until he stepped off a plane in San Francisco was that it involved family members he'd hugged only hours earlier at a team party after the Super Bowl.
He didn't want to believe it until his mother told him his uncle's police badge had been found in the fiery wreckage. Walker says that's when he learned it was his aunt and uncle who had perished.
"That's when I knew it was them," he recalled.
It's been a whirlwind since then for the tight end, who signed a four-year, $17.5 million contract with Tennessee, taking him away from his California home, and has been working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to speak out in memory of Alice and Bryan Young Sr.
According to police, the Youngs had stopped on the side of Interstate 10 just west of New Orleans when their Nissan Altima was hit from behind by a Mercedes. Both cars burst into flames, and the bodies weren't found until the fire was extinguished.
Walker said he's sad this is what it took for him to pay attention to drinking and driving. So he's trying to use his position playing in the NFL to publicize the dangers to everyone, especially as a player whose teammates in the locker room may listen more closely.
"People will drive 100 times drunk before they get caught," Walker said. "That goes for everybody. I fell into that boat before this incident happened. ... It's sad you don't realize. Some athletes feel we're big and we're untouchable and a few drinks don't bother us. But it does. It messes up your judgment, your sight and sometimes you got to realize that. Have a plan before you go out."
Walker has taken part in approximately 10 events already, including speaking at his high school in Pomona, Calif., the NFL's rookie symposium in June and was on hand when Tennessee's governor signed a law requiring ignition locks for convicted drunk drivers. More events are coming up in Nashville in September.
"If I can get my story across and somebody can listen to what I'm talking about and note drinking and driving is bad, I feel like I accomplished my goals," Walker said.
The Titans have big plans for Walker on the field.
They see the 6-foot, 248-pound tight end as a crucial piece of the offense, both in helping to block for running backs Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene and as a target for quarterback Jake Locker.
He offers the ability to better disguise plays with fellow tight ends Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson, along with bringing a versatility Tennessee lacked with Jared Cook, a receiving threat who was allowed to leave for St. Louis.
"The phrase that keeps getting kicked around I think is Swiss Army knife," Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said of Walker. "The guy that can do everything, great teammate, great leader. I'm excited about the flexibility he's going to bring to the offense."
Walker also is out of the shadow of former teammate Vernon Davis in San Francisco. Walker has never caught more than 29 passes in a season, and he had just 19 receptions and three touchdowns last season as the 49ers won the NFC championship.
He has been on the physically unable to perform list after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee following June's minicamp. He's hoping to be cleared and practice next week. With a career average of 11.9 yards per catch, he's eager to join the offense.
"I think I'm the missing piece in the puzzle," Walker said. "Not being out there to jell with them, that's why it's tough on me. For me to be doing treatment and not be out there and really jelling with the team and understanding the philosophy of the offense, it's kind of set me back."
Walker may not play in a preseason game, but his goal is being ready for the season opener Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh.
"So long as I can get some practice in before I play against Pittsburgh, I feel like I'll be confident enough," Walker said.
NOTES: Coach Mike Munchak said Thursday that Fernando Velasco will start at center Saturday night when the Titans visit Cincinnati. CB Tommie Campbell, competing with Alterraun Verner for a starting job, also will start. ... RT David Stewart, who missed the preseason opener with a sore ankle, returned to practice Thursday and is expected to start. WR Kenny Britt also returned to practice after missing three straight sessions. WR Kendall Wright (sore calf) also practiced after missing Tuesday, and DT Sammie Hill (elbow) returned too.
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