'I Just Say It Like It Is'

CLAY WALKER FIGHTS BACK AF­TER MS DI­AG­NO­SIS

Golf Digest (Malaysia) - - Contents 01/18 - BY E. MICHAEL JOHN­SON

Clay Walker fights back af­ter MS di­ag­no­sis.

For more than a decade, coun­try-music star Clay Walker has ded­i­cated him­self to rais­ing money for and im­prov­ing the lives of those with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis. There’s a rea­son for that: Walker has had the dis­ease, which dis­rupts the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, for more than 20 years.

Golf played a role in his di­ag­no­sis. In Fe­bru­ary 1996, Walker was at the top of a back­swing and felt what he de­scribed as “some­one shock­ing me down my spinal cord.” Two months later, he was di­ag­nosed with re­laps­ing-re­mit­ting MS, and the prog­no­sis was grim.

“I was told in four years I’d be in a wheel­chair, and in eight years I’d be dead,” he says. “That’s a hel­luva wake-up call for a guy who is 26 years old. I was con­cerned MS was go­ing to ruin my life and take away the things I love most: the abil­ity to play with my kids, to walk, to sing, to play golf. I love golf so much. I re­mem­ber they put a catheter in my arm for steroid treat­ments, and ev­ery time I folded my arm play­ing golf I could feel that catheter. I was de­ter­mined if I was go­ing to die, I was go­ing to be do­ing the things I loved.”

In­cred­i­bly, Walker, who lives out­side Nashville with his wife, Jes­sica, and four chil­dren, has been re­lapse- and pro­gres­sion­free for 19 years thanks to a drug treat­ment de­vised in con­sul­ta­tion with his neu­rol­o­gist, Dr. Jerry Wolin­sky. That has al­lowed Walker to con­tinue do­ing all the things he loves. A 7.4 In­dex who plays out of Cham­pi­ons Golf Club in Hous­ton, Walker once got as low as a 1.2, with a ca­reer-low score of 68. He plays once or twice a week and cred­its Steve Elk­ing­ton with teach­ing him cor­rect fun­da­men­tals and a “magic move” that al­lowed him to re­cently rekin­dle his love for the game. “I used to play five to seven days a week when I was a 1-hand­i­cap,” Walker says, “but I love the game more now.”

More im­por­tant for those in the MS com­mu­nity, few pos­sess as much of a pas­sion for rais­ing aware­ness and funds than Walker. Cham­pi­oning the cause through his char­ity, Band Against MS, Walker has raised millions of dollars through events such as an an­nual bike ride, “Give MS the Boot” con­certs and a yearly golf tour­na­ment at Peb­ble Beach. The lat­ter was in large part due to his friendship with the late RJ Harper, the long­time Peb­ble head pro and se­nior ex­ec­u­tive who in­stilled the im­por­tance of vol­un­teers and struc­ture in run­ning an or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“I can’t say enough about struc­ture,” says Walker, who com­petes an­nu­ally in the AT&T Peb­ble Beach Pro-Am. “To have a great golf game day in and day out, you need to have in­cred­i­ble fun­da­men­tals. The same is true in busi­ness and char­ity work. Hav­ing the right chair­per­son, the right staff and the right com­mit­tees for char­ity is ev­ery­thing. These are not suc­cess­ful by ac­ci­dent. They have a re­la­tion­ship with me that is authen­tic. There’s trans­parency, and there is a com­mit­ment on my side to do my part. When you have those com­po­nents—those fun­da­men­tals—you can be suc­cess­ful. With­out them, you can­not.”

Walker knows of suc­cess but also has first-hand knowl­edge of the other side, hav­ing grown up in poverty in Beau­mont and Vi­dor, Texas. Most of the clothes he wore through high school were hand-medowns from rel­a­tives. He also be­lieves be­ing part of the coun­try-music com­mu­nity gives him a cer­tain per­spec­tive on want­ing to as­sist peo­ple in need. “They call coun­try music blue-eyed soul,” he says. “I be­lieve the peo­ple in it know where pain and suf­fer­ing come from. So when they see some­one go­ing through a hard time, their re­sponse is, ‘Yeah, I’ll help ya, brother.’ ”

That keeps Walker grounded de­spite con­sid­er­able suc­cess. His first four al­bums all went plat­inum, and he has had six No. 1 sin­gles. One of them, ti­tled “Live Un­til I Die,” was re­leased be­fore his di­ag­no­sis. Walker, how­ever, prefers to ref­er­ence his song “The Chain of Love,” which he wants to turn into a chain of hope for those with MS. On his web­site there is a sec­tion ti­tled “Meet The He­roes,” a com­pi­la­tion of sto­ries from those af­fected with MS.

“When I see some­one who has been dev­as­tated by this dis­ease, and I watch them rise above the ashes, it is noth­ing less than heroic,” he says. “No one knows when this dis­ease is go­ing to take a dif­fer­ent course. So, there is some fear that drives me. But for the most part, it’s, How can I help the ones not as lucky as me? I want to join arms with them and form a great chain of hope. It’s those he­roes that are the strong­est links in that chain. If I can con­nect those he­roes to the rest of the MS com­mu­nity, I have ev­ery be­lief that we can find a cure for MS.”

That be­lief is not merely wish­ful think­ing. Walker is work­ing on an app with AirStrip, a com­pany that de­vel­ops pro­grams that con­nect clin­i­cians and pa­tients across ge­o­graphic, tech­no­log­i­cal and work-flow bound­aries. The app al­lows pa­tients to in­ter­act dig­i­tally, and Walker says some of the best MS spe­cial­ists on the globe are work­ing on it. The goal, he says, is to have who­ever is will­ing from the MS com­mu­nity to share their data do so.

“I want ev­ery per­son with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis to get in­volved and be­come a part of this cure,” says Walker, who con­tends that per­haps his great­est as­set is con­vinc­ing peo­ple he’s the per­son to work with on this. “The rea­son I be­lieve I have the in­tegrity I do within the MS com­mu­nity is be­cause I just say it like it is,” he says. “I don’t make prom­ises I can’t keep. I’m just one of them.”

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