By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Inside Brown County Jail, only a few people recognized Erik Walden. Not many.
The Green Bay Packers’ outside linebacker didn’t spend Thanksgiving weekend with any friends or family. He was alone. Inside a cell.
“I just sat there and faced the consequences,” Walden said. “That’s what you have to do. Once it’s said and done, move on from it.”
Walden thought about the three seasons and four teams it took to get here. Everything could vanish.
To be sure, it would have been very easy — and very convenient — for the Packers to rid themselves of Walden. Last November, he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. On the field, he struggled and by the postseason was benched. In the off-season, the Packers re-signed the 27-year-old at a discount rate. And here Walden is today, still an integral part of the defense.
Everything off the field is in order. So everything on it is just fine.
Walden and his girlfriend, Erika Palmer, stayed together through the incident. The couple also has two children. They didn’t want to split. So at least six times in one conversation this week, Walden used the phrase, “move forward.” He knows maintaining peace away from the game is essential to his career.
“Absolutely. I feel like you have to have everything intact as far as that family circle for you to be successful,” Walden said. “So if anything is off track, it can affect that performance. You want to make sure you’re on the same page with your family and the people that are supportive. You have to make sure that’s intact so it allows you to make sure there aren’t any distractions off the field.”
The argument stemmed from Walden’s desire to return home to Georgia that holiday weekend. His jersey number was being retired at his high school. Based on Palmer’s original story to police, the district attorney in the case claimed that Walden was the “primary physical aggressor.” Palmer had told police that Walden pushed her and she cut her forehead on a bedpost, a wound that required four stitches.
After the fact, Palmer changed her story, saying she initiated the fight and that Walden acted in self-defense. In February, the case was eventually resolved with a deferred judgment agreement. Walden agreed to 50 hours of community service and regular counseling.
So life went on. The two stayed together.
Once the dust settled from this very public arrest, Walden and Palmer had a heart-to-heart conversation. Walden said they agreed that nothing like this would ever happen again.
“If it’s someone you love and you have a family, you can’t give up on that, Walden said. “So everything’s cool, everything’s steady.”
To complete his community service requirements, Walden helped out at schools and hospitals in Georgia, adding, “That wasn’t punishment. That was something I enjoyed.” His girlfriend is still attending college classes and taking care of their two children. Walden says he talks to his son and daughter every other day. They’re “getting big and eating up everything.”
Walden repeats that the incident was blown out of proportion. Still, Walden’s reputation was stained last season. In Green Bay, off-field trouble is rare. The sight of Walden in an orange jumpsuit next to his lawyer spread instantly.
“From a media perspective, it doesn’t help, especially with an emphasis in society on protecting women,” defensive end B.J. Raji said of the perception of any domestic-violence case.
“That’s a tough position for him but in no way does that define him as a person. It happened once. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. I don’t know exactly what transpired, but he’s no different than anybody.”
Inside the locker room, players can be phony. Raji said he can recognize when someone’s genuine and when someone’s putting on an act. And Walden is very well-respected. Raji calls Walden a “genuinely nice guy,” adding “we all respect him.”
The Packers need Walden on the field, too. This is his third season under Dom Capers. Walden’s speed and violent, game-changing presence remain major assets — even if 265-pound first-round pick Nick Perry is the starter opposite Clay Matthews.
“He’s a good player and he always has been since he got here,” defensive end Ryan Pickett said. “We know what he can do what we expect him to do. He’s a great player.”
Suspended for the season opener, Walden made noise immediately in Green Bay’s 23-10 win over Chicago. He teamed with Matthews for one sack and drilled Jay Cutler on one of the embattled quarterback’s four interceptions.
The physical attributes never changed. Walden was turning a corner before the arrest in 2011. This year, he doesn’t foresee another midseason swoon.
His conscience is clear.
“It goes back to just being football,” Walden said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, so it’s not hard at all. But when there’s something there bothering you, it can definitely take its toll on you. So I wanted to make sure everything’s intact, everything’s positive and the people around you are actually for you.”
He doesn’t set specific goals. Today, Walden says he “lives for the moment.” He plans on visiting his family whenever he gets a break. Palmer was up often for training camp and visits for games. Their relationship is strong.
For now, marriage proposals are on hold. He’s not looking too far ahead.
Walden realizes he must prove himself again.
“You can never take anything for granted,” he said. “Just keep pushing, keep working and you can’t be denied.”