A new beginning
After battling addiction and depression, former UW football standout Walter Bailey found life after death
Walter Bailey poses for a photo outside his house in Portland on June 20. “My home is my safe place,” he said. After a successful football career at University of Washington, Bailey lived on the streets for several years. He is now a Peer Specialist and Counselor at the Imani Center in Portland. (Christena Dowsett / Special to The Seattle Times)
By Mike Vorel |
Seattle Times staff reporter
“I always look back at that day that he called me, and he was desperate. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I was just glad that he called and that I had an opportunity to help him. For him, anyway, what seemed like the end of his life actually turned out to be the beginning.”
— Matt Asay
PART I: THE END
Walter Bailey was broken.
It was 7 a.m. on April 28, 2010, and the drugs were gone. The liquor was gone. The sun was up, but he couldn’t see it.
He was lying in the darkness in a dope house in Portland, a mile from the childhood home where his parents still lived. The windows were taped over with black garbage bags. There was no electricity. No water. No light. No heat.
On Monday, Bailey called it “a dungeon chamber of misery.” The house was rotting from within.
In retrospect, so was Walter.
He was 40 years old and frighteningly frail, the withering remains of a Rose Bowl hero. He was drowning in addiction and undiagnosed depression; he was a father of two girls for whom he was incapable of caring. He couldn’t keep a job or a partner or a promise or a phone. He was simultaneously homeless and so close to home.
Walter’s football career never came to fruition. He felt like a failure, so he tried not to feel.
“I couldn’t tell you that I had a plan to end my own life,” he said. “But there were times where I would say to myself, ‘I would be better off if I was not breathing. I would be better off if I was not here.’ ”
Here, hiding. In the darkness. In the dungeon. Here, in the moment when everything changed.
· · ·
Of course, Walter Bailey could always make a moment.
Consider the community track meet when he was 5 years old. Walter was supposedly too young to run. But “he just would not stay in the stands,” recalled his older brother, Robert. “He ran a 100-yard dash with some 10-year-olds, I think. He not only won the race, but he set a record.
“That’s when we knew, ‘OK, something special’s going on here.’ ”
No matter the sport, Walter was special. Track and field: special. Basketball: special. Football: special.
Athletically, invariably, Walter Bailey was the best.
“Whatever he put his mind to, he could just show up,” said his best friend, Matt Asay. “He could wake up from a nap and just walk out on the football field, put his helmet on and score.”
For years, Walter scored, and the same horn sounded. It came from his father, Robert Bailey Sr., who blew an air horn to punctuate positive plays. After games at Washington, coach Don James routinely let Robert Sr. in the locker room. He’d blow his horn twice and yell, “Two toots for a great game!” Walter says “my dad was the loudest guy in the stadium.” If you went to a Husky game, chances are, you heard the horn.
Washington went 31-5 in Walter’s three seasons in Seattle, from 1990-92. Each campaign culminated in a Rose Bowl appearance. Bailey’s family would meet in Pasadena, California, to attend the games together.
“It was just overwhelmingly exciting to be in that situation,” said Robert Jr., one of six Bailey kids.
The Huskies were in said situation, in part, because of Walter. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback “was just so athletic,” according to former safety Shane Pahukoa. “He was able to make physical mistakes, and then in a split-second recover, tip the pass, break it up, make a pick.” He made eight of them, in fact, in 1991 — which remains tied for third in program history nearly 30 years later.
And there’s one, in particular, that Michigan fans might remember. It came in the first quarter of the 1992 Rose Bowl, when Elvis Grbac faked a pair of handoffs and dropped back to pass. He uncorked a deep ball down the middle for wide receiver Desmond Howard, the Wolverines’ newly anointed Heisman Trophy winner.
Pahukoa tipped it, and Walter picked it, instead. He stood up, dropped the ball and raised both arms to his audience. He mimicked the Heisman pose in front of 103,000 fans. Somewhere, a horn sounded, even if he couldn’t hear it.
“We all went to dinner together after the game,” Robert Bailey Jr. said. “And as we walked into the restaurant, they were playing the replay of that interception on the big-screen television. Everybody turned around and noticed that it was him in the room, and the restaurant just kind of erupted. And that was a moment.”
Walter Bailey figured he’d feel like that forever. He was here. He wasn’t hiding.
Two toots for a great game.
· · ·
What happened when Walter Bailey could no longer hear the horns?
In 1992, secondary coach Larry Slade — whom Walter considered an inextricable element of his success — left for a job at Maryland. Walter was “basically grieving,” without the tools to cope. Agents were approaching. The NFL was looming. Walter was stressing, and doubting, and drinking.
“It was drinking to not feel,” said Bailey, who had two interceptions in his senior season after recording eight the year before. “I wasn’t sleeping. I had race brain. Coupled with anxiety and depression, that was like a time bomb waiting to go off.”
He needed help, but no one knew it. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Instead, he wore a mask. He played a part. He hid in plain sight.
To the world, he was “Sweet B” — the smiling, swaggering, unbothered ballhawk, the guy who rapped at parties when he found a microphone.
But there were cracks in the mask, if you were close enough to see them. Walter never graduated. He continually acted out. He was suspended on senior day for skipping a study hall. He said his coaches and professors “did all they could. They just didn’t have the right kind of help that Walter needed. I felt like there was something broken and there was something really wrong with me.”
Walter hurt his shoulder in the 1993 Rose Bowl, and then he performed poorly at the NFL combine. Depressed, he skipped scheduled meetings with NFL teams. He went undrafted, signed with the New York Giants and was cut after testing positive for alcohol and marijuana. He played one year for the Sacramento Gold Miners of the Canadian Football League. And then, just like that, his football career was over.
He was 24 years old, and he couldn’t hear the horns. He felt like a failure, so he tried not to feel.
“I just started partying every day and working odd jobs,” he said. “It wasn’t that football was quitting on me. I was quitting on football and had no idea what was going on.”
For years, he bounced erratically between Portland and Seattle. He worked at Bally Total Fitness, at Adidas, at Labor Ready, at Aerotek. He started a car service taking clients to the Portland airport. He worked as a delivery driver for a sushi company in Seattle. He got jobs and lost them. He burned through money and hid behind the mask.
He treated depression with addiction, and it was always getting worse.
“I started experimenting with all kinds of stuff, like pills and heroin,” he said. “Anything that looked good, tasted good and felt good, I was trying it. I was experimenting with anything that would make me feel numb.”
In 1996, Walter’s first daughter — Brianna — was born. He couldn’t stay sober. He wasn’t fit to be a father. Within two years, Brianna and her mother moved without him to Las Vegas to start a new life.
At that point, he says, “cocaine brought me to my knees.” He didn’t talk to his former teammates; he didn’t want them to see. Asay wouldn’t hear from Walter for years at a time. He went 10 months or more without calling his own parents.
“When I use, I go missing,” Walter Bailey explained. “My thought was, ‘Well, as long as they don’t know what I’m doing, then I’m not hurting them.’ ”
In reality, even the distance did damage. He used relationships for time and attention and money. He had his second daughter, Mya, in 2008. His father, Robert Sr., was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and Walter’s spiral was making everything worse.
“I was roaring through the lives of people, especially my family, like I was a tornado,” he said. “I was so gone. I was mentally abusive. I was not a good human being at that particular time.”
So he hid in an upstairs bedroom in the dungeon, in the darkness — a mile from the house where he knew his dad was dying. The distractions were gone. His daughters were gone. He was still alive, but he wasn’t living. There were no more horns to hear.
“It was grief. It was a sense of loss. It was depression,” Walter said. “It was like death. It was like I died when my career was over at Washington.”
PART II: THE BEGINNING
It was 7 a.m. on April 28, 2010, and the drugs were gone. The liquor was gone. The sun was up, but he couldn’t see it.
That’s when Walter had what he describes as “a moment of clarity.”
Nearby, a woman Walter knew was on the phone with her sponsor. She’d come straight to the dope house from a treatment center the night before. Now, she had to admit that she had already relapsed. She said in a fit of frustration that 12-step programs don’t work.
“For some reason I started crying, because this girl used to live in a house next door to me,” Walter said. “And she had her own issues, but she would go to treatment, get a car, get housing and get a job. So when she would go four-to-six months and I didn’t hear from her, I knew she was doing well.”
Through tears, he told her it wasn’t true, because, “I saw it work in you.”
And maybe that meant it could also work for Walter.
Which is why he ran downstairs and asked to use somebody’s phone. He called Asay, who hadn’t heard from him in months.
“He sounded desperate,” Asay said. “I was there within 30 minutes. He was basically living in a drug house. It was filthy. I was pretty uncomfortable going in there.
“There aren’t too many people I would go into a drug house like that for, and Walter is one of them.”
He went in and found Walter, his best friend since second grade. They threw literally all of his belongings in “a couple garbage sacks.” Together, on a Wednesday morning, they walked out of the dungeon. Walter agreed to stay with Asay.
“He looked really bad,” said Asay, who’d been sober since 2006. “He was probably 40 pounds lighter than he is now. He was skin and bones. Just the mere appearance of him was frightening. It wasn’t the Walt I knew.”
Still, in other ways, it was. Kids used to joke that if you needed to find Walter, you might as well find Matt. Walter was the best man in Asay’s wedding 15 years before. And now, somehow, they were inseparable again.
“I was pretty nervous,” said Asay, who cooked all of Walter’s meals and took him to recovery meetings. “I was trying to figure out, ‘Is he really serious about this?’ But he was showing me with his actions that he was.
“He pretty much was with me 100% of the time. He didn’t leave my sight. It wasn’t me trying to control him. I think he knew he needed to stay close to me to help him not make bad decisions.”
After a month-and-a-half of sober living with Asay, Walter took another significant step. He accepted a spot in a six-month intensive inpatient program at DePaul Adult Residential Treatment Center in Portland.
He entered the program in June 2010. He hasn’t stepped foot in the dungeon again.
· · ·
On Nov. 13, 2010, Walter Bailey went home.
He’d been in treatment for more than five months when he received an emergency pass to see his father. He walked into the house with Asay at his side.
Robert Sr. was in bed, surrounded by his family. He was no longer the loudest guy in the stadium. But his dad could still see.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Is that my baby son? God, thank you. I got my baby back.”
Robert Sr. saw a man who was six-and-a-half months sober; who didn’t need to hear a horn to know he’d made his father proud. They hugged, and they cried. They said they were sorry. Walter calls it “the most impactful moment of my life.”
“It was just powerful to see the tears and the love that they really had for each other — to just forgive each other, for whatever the past was,” Asay said. “It was done. It all melted away right there.”
“In my heart of hearts,” Walter said, “I think that gave him the peace to go to heaven.”
Robert Bailey Sr. died the same night.
Walter graduated from treatment two weeks after his dad died. He immediately moved in with his mother, Joan Bailey, who had never stopped praying for him. And he promised to repay the favor for the rest of her life.
“After work I knew I was going home to take care of her, to get her meals,” said Walter, who cared for his mother every day until she died in 2017. “We would chat. We would pray, and then we would talk about what we were going to accomplish.”
He met his wife, Myka, when both were barely a year sober in 2011. Their first official date was to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They “kind of grew up together in recovery,” Myka Bailey said.
In 2013, Brianna Morelli — Walter’s oldest daughter — made contact on social media as well. She was 17 years old, still living in Las Vegas, and she wanted to meet Walter. She deserved to know her dad.
“I never wanted to go my whole life without knowing the kind of guy he was or how he talked or what he looked like in person,” said Brianna, who added that her mother never spoke negatively of Walter. “I wanted to give myself that, at least.”
She wanted closure, at minimum, and maybe something more. So they arranged to meet while she visited her cousin at the University of Oregon. Walter made the 100-mile drive from Portland to Eugene, flush with panic and excitement and guilt and fear. He picked her up and they went to breakfast; they walked around the campus bookstore; they shared lunch and coffee; they talked about their lives.
“It was not awkward at all when I met him,” Brianna said. “I thought, ‘This is exactly what I was missing. This is exactly what I wanted.’ Because it’s different only growing up with one half of yourself. You’re like, ‘OK, what’s my other half like?’ My dad kind of completed that puzzle for me.”
And, he admits, she did a whole lot more for him. She hugged him. She forgave him, even with his flaws. She told him she was proud. She left the past behind. After he dropped her off at the Eugene airport, Walter “cried like a baby.”
It turns out, to fix them properly, he needed some extra help.
“It was beautiful,” Walter said of his reunion with Brianna. “I believe a portion of my heart was delivered back to me that day.”
Walter Bailey went back to DePaul Adult Residential Treatment Center in 2012.
As an employee. As a resource. As charismatic proof that a program can work.
He was named a drug and alcohol counselor in 2013. Two years later, he accepted a job as a peer support specialist and counselor at a nonprofit organization called Central City Concern — where he helps African Americans with mental health and addiction treatment.
He no longer needs the mask. He has nothing left to hide.
“Walter is one of the lucky ones, in the fact that he’s found his passion,” Myka said. “He absolutely flourishes at work. He just is able to connect with people.
“I’m not saying he’s out there trying to save everybody’s life, but he’s definitely there to share his story and let them know, ‘I basically came from the bowels of hell. And if I can do it, you can do it.’ ”
And Walter has aspirations to do even more. He’s preparing to launch a company called Dynamic Athlete Solutions — which would provide mental health and addiction services for college athletes, administrators and coaches. Essentially, he wants to provide the help he needed in 1992.
“That’s where he can be most impactful — either with drugs and alcohol, mental illness or athletics,” said Asay, the best man in Walter’s wedding last fall. “For somebody dealing with those three things, Walter is going to be a savior. Because a lot of times you feel like you’re all alone and you can’t talk to anybody.
“I watch him help people all the time. Today, he’s a very strong presence in this community. He’s a pillar of strength and encouragement pretty much everywhere he goes. He’s as good a human being as you’re going to find. That’s the big change, and it’s about as big a change as you can make.”
In the last decade, the changes have been dramatic. Walter has loving relationships with his wife and both of his daughters. He lives in the same house where he made amends with his father, where he cared for his mother and made countless moments as a kid. He has a home, a family, a future. He’s focused on helping others; he doesn’t need to hear the horns.
On April 28, he celebrated 10 years of sobriety.
“In recovery, we learn that all you really have is 24 hours,” Myka Bailey said. “So he’s kind of keeping that in mind and not getting an ego about the time. Because that’s just time, but it’s about how you do it on a daily basis — minute by minute, hour by hour.
“I absolutely think 10 years was big for him, but I also think his first 24 hours was probably the most important.”
For him, anyway, what seemed like the end of his life actually turned out to be the beginning. Walter opened the door of the dungeon and walked into the light.
Walter Bailey tallks about his journey to becoming a substance abuse counselor