By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Green Bay - This was a business trip. Erik Walden couldn't make the two-hour drive south to his hometown of Dublin, Ga. So with the Green Bay Packers playing in Atlanta, 50 friends and family members came to him.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play in front of your family on prime time," the outside linebacker said.
Green Bay knocked off the host Atlanta Falcons, 25-14, on Sunday with Walden drilling quarterback Matt Ryan multiple times. For him, his best game this season. This trip home was another cold reminder of what drives Walden, what made him.
The life-changing memories returned. His dad dying of a stroke when he was 10. His cousin stabbed to death in drunken fury when he was 12. His grandmother passing away. Three tragedies - back to back to back - sent tremors through Walden's childhood.
On spot, he forced himself to grow up.
"It kind of made me the man I am now," Walden said. "I didn't have no choice, really, but to adapt. It allowed me to mature earlier than I was supposed to."
Wrestling with the delicate concepts of life and death, as a kid, Walden forged ahead. And cut four times in his first three NFL seasons, as an adult, he sees the net result. He won't go down without a fight. Truth is, Walden is still fighting for his NFL life. This one-year, $600,000 contract with the Packers will dry up. He knows this.
Pressure, naturally, is mounting. Walden has one sack through five games. Teammate Frank Zombo is back from a broken scapula.
But Walden doesn't ask why, he doesn't look in his rearview mirror at the outside linebackers gunning for his starting job. Instead, he takes a look at the tattoo on his left arm. The initials of his late father (Gerald), cousin (Wesley) and grandmother (Elizabeth) are inked on a cross.
More than any amount of hours in the gym or the weight room, overcoming their deaths is how he got here.
"I really do believe that probably played the biggest role in what he has become," said his mother, Shirley Taylor. "I really do believe that. It's made him tough. I believe that enabled him to go through a lot of what he's been going through. All these ups and downs."
The day his dad died, Walden rushed to his mother's bedroom, crawled into bed and cried. And that was it. His demeanor at the funeral was different, strange.
This was shock, composure or some blend of the two. Mom had no clue what Erik was thinking. For whatever reason, her son refused to sit down. Family and friends all took their seat. The ceremony commenced. And Walden remained at the head of his dad's casket.
Motionless - without a tear in his eye - he stared off toward the crowd.
"I said, 'Erik, do you want to sit down?' " his mother recalled. "He said, 'no.' The wake lasts for an hour and a half. He just stood there saying nothing."
Walden wasn't sure how to feel, what to think. He was too young to be depressed, yet still old enough to understand the magnitude of this. And two years later, he lost his older cousin, Wesley. As Walden remembers, one brother urinated on the other's couch.
They argued. A physical fight ensued. And Wesley's brother stabbed him in the back. This hurt just as much as losing his dad. Erik looked up to Wesley.
"He was one of my only cousins I had a really good relationship with," Walden said. "That hit home."
Shirley took her son to church more, telling Erik that everybody dies. Wesley just left them early. Religion helped.
In school, Walden's grades dipped a bit but nothing extreme. No outbursts, no unleashed rage of any sort, no more crying spells. Walden told himself there were kids all over the world his age far worse off. Starving kids, dying kids. He needed to be strong for his mother.
"It was a down stage for a minute," said Walden's brother Garrick Wells, who's 13 years older. "He never talked about quitting anything. He never got into a state of depression. It wasn't anything like that. It was just like, 'This isn't real.' "
So he turned to sports. As Walden grew older, Garrick told him that any moment he took off was a lost opportunity. "Somebody else is always working," he'd say. So Walden played every sport possible.
"He never had a night of rest," Wells said. "Never. That helped out a lot."
And in time, he accepted tragedy. As a high school senior in 2002, Walden had 19 sacks in leading Dublin High to the state title game. He went onto Middle Tennessee State and set the school record for sacks (22½). A small-town kid suddenly had a chance. In 2008, Walden became the first Middle Tennessee player drafted in five years.
And the nomadic life of a special teams player began. Walden was cut by the Dallas Cowboys (Aug. 30, 2008), the Kansas City Chiefs (Nov. 18, 2008) and the Miami Dolphins twice (Sept. 4 and Sept. 28 of last season).
After the fourth cut, Walden didn't bother. The Dolphins let him go and he didn't even call his mom with the news.
"I called him a couple days later and asked, 'By the way, are you a Miami Dolphin?' " she said. "He said, 'Oh, yeah, Mama, I got some bad news. Miami let me go.' I said. 'Huh!? Are you for real?' "
Mom tempered her reaction. She could tell by his voice that Erik - unflappable Erik - was hurting. So she stopped herself and said everything would be OK. The first three years of Walden's NFL career were hell. He considered leaving football altogether.
"You start questioning yourself - is this football stuff really for me?" Walden said. "Should I find something else to do?"
He was that 10-year-old at the casket again. No emotion. Only that sensation of self-reliance returning.
A month later, the Packers picked him up. You know the rest.
In the season finale, Walden's three sacks of Chicago's Jay Cutler propelled Green Bay to the playoffs. To him, the game felt like slow motion. Everything was quiet, calm. "Nothing can stop you when you're feeling like that," Walden said.
A year later, he's starting. Walden remains raw, unpolished in areas. He admits his play has been "up and down." Still, coaches repeat that his technique has improved drastically. With 18 tackles, he's been solid against the run. Above all, Walden plays with violence.
Multiple times during training camp, his play caused outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene to burst out of a cannon onto the field.
"His physicality, I think, is second to none," Greene said. "When he wants to play physical, it's hard to block him. He's constantly working on his technique and fundamentals. I think Erik Walden can play in this NFL as long as he wants to play."
Emotionally, Walden moved on from the deaths of his father, cousin and grandmother. The other cousin who stabbed Wesley did time in jail. Walden doesn't harbor resentment, saying, "He can do him and I'll do me." He's focused on remaining a starter on a Super Bowl champion, on proving himself.
If Dad was around, he'd be proud, Wells said. But pausing for a moment, he wonders if Walden would still be in NFL.
Certain events make people who they are.
"Would he have been pushed too hard he wouldn't make it?" Wells said. "Would you be pushed less? You really don't have an answer for that."