Lions safety Tracy Walker remembers cousin and former high school teammate Ahmaud Arbery as 'a beautiful soul'

Michael RothsteinESPN Staff Writer5 Minute Read

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Tracy Walker says he still can't make sense of it. He has tried for months to understand why his cousin Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while jogging in broad daylight in their hometown of Brunswick, Georgia. The Detroit Lions safety says he has questions he has been trying to answer.

When the video of his 25-year-old cousin's killing appeared online, Walker says, he watched it "no exaggeration, over 100 times," each time leaving him more frustrated, more angry and more "pissed off."

"Man, he did not deserve that," Walker told ESPN. "He did not deserve that. And, you know, God has a plan for everybody, man, but, you know, it's tough. It is. That's why I watched it so many times. I couldn't grasp it. It's such a gruesome video, you want to know why."

After the video appeared last week, Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault more than two months after Arbery was killed on Feb. 23. Federal prosecutors also are considering hate-crime charges that would allow for a separate case in federal court.

Walker said he has known Arbery almost his entire life. His second cousin was a year older, played with him at Brunswick High School, always made him laugh after football games and practices, and "was slow as molasses, but he would hit you" on the football field.

After tough practices, Walker says, Arbery would joke that he was going to quit because of conditioning drills. Or he'd say something after a loss -- Brunswick was not good Arbery's senior year -- to bring levity to a difficult teenage moment.

Tracy Walker (11), now a safety for the Detroit Lions, and his late cousin, Ahmaud Arbery (21), played together at Brunswick High School in Georgia. Walker remembers Arbery making him laugh after games and practices.Tracy Walker

To Walker, Arbery was the kid who was always smiling.

"He was a beautiful soul," Walker said. "He wasn't a hateful person. He was not. I can't name one person he had a beef with growing up. Everybody loved Ahmaud because he was just a clown, a funny guy."

In high school, they lived across the street from each other. They played basketball in Arbery's driveway and spent hours after school playing "Call of Duty: Zombies" until it got dark and Walker had to go home.

"He was like, 'Man, you got to try these Zombies,'" Walker said. "I'm like, 'Man, what? I don't play Zombies because I don't like no scary stuff.' He ended up getting me to play Zombies, and now I love playing Zombies."

The two stayed close even after Walker left to play college football for Louisiana-Lafayette and then went to Detroit to play for the Lions. Whenever Walker returned to Brunswick, they caught up. The last time was in February, less than a month before Arbery was killed.

Walker went home for the Super Bowl and to celebrate his 25th birthday on Feb. 1. He and Arbery went out, and Walker bought Arbery a drink. During their conversation, Arbery told Walker how proud he was of his cousin, but he told him to keep working harder, even after he became a starting safety last season. It's a memory Walker has held on to as he has mourned his cousin.

"It gives me mixed emotions, and the reason why I say that is because it's sad because that's the last memory I have of him, but it's a good memory because he was applauding me and was telling me to keep moving forward and keep doing me, you know what I'm saying," Walker said. "Keep balling out on that field.

"It was great in that sense. He was basically giving me motivation and pushing me forward to continue being the best person I could possibly be."

Walker is determined to keep Arbery with him on the field. He already, coincidentally, wears Arbery's high school number, No. 21, and he plans to write Arbery's initials on his cleats when the NFL resumes. He also is planning to wear Arbery's T-shirts underneath his jersey during games as another way to remember his cousin.

Walker has appreciated the support he has received since Arbery's death became a national news story over the past two weeks. He says it means a lot to him that Arbery's story has resonated with so many people, including some of his NFL brethren signing a letter seeking a Department of Justice inquiry into Arbery's death.

Walker said he and his family would like to see the people involved in Arbery's death held responsible. "We want justice for Ahmaud," Walker said. "We want the proper justice."

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