- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Proof that the football gods often have a twisted sense of humor: Both Javon Walker and Ashley Lelie are here these days training at Athletes Performance. They're here, in fact just a few feet apart on a recent Thursday afternoon, at the same time but with different purposes. Walker still is rehabilitating his right ACL so he'll be ready to make an impact this season for his new team, the Denver Broncos, while Lelie's focus is working out in hopes that he'll no longer be a Bronco in 2006.
Walker and Lelie figuratively were in the same place until the draft's first day, when the Green Bay Packers finally dealt their former first-round pick (2002) for the first (No. 37 overall) of Denver's two second-round picks. Walker says he decided not long after suffering his season-ending injury against Detroit in the first game last season that he would not play for the Packers again and shared those feelings with ESPN.com in March. Lelie reportedly wishes to be a team's No. 1 receiver and believes a trade is the best means to accommodate that wish. Like Walker last spring in Green Bay, Lelie is threatening to boycott practice until his demand is met, only Lelie's gripe is with catches and not cash, as was Walker's.
Now, as fate would have it, Walker and Lelie are teammates, the former having gained what the latter still covets: freedom, ironically at Lelie's expense. At one point, Walker says, they believed -- receivers do talk -- the right price for their services might be each other.
"At the time when I wanted out of Green Bay I was encouraging [Lelie, that] if he went to Green Bay, he would love it up there because it might be a better fit for him," Walker says. "He would love Green Bay. He would have loved the fans. He did the same thing about Denver, didn't bad-mouth them or anything.
"It's not like if a guy wants out of a certain team that he is going to go to another team and do the same thing [be unhappy]. Certain [places] don't fit certain people."
Fit? Before pulling off the trade, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told Walker that he believed the Packers' disgruntled receiver was the missing piece to Denver's Super Bowl puzzle. And Walker has the peace of mind his stepfather and his agent said he was missing his last days in Green Bay, not to mention a nice chunk of change.
"I feel relieved now," Walker says. "I feel like a big burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I'm happy with the situation now, I'm happy being in Denver. I hope I can provide for them what I provided for Green Bay."
Walker has plenty of reasons to be content, considering he now has the ability to provide financially for his loved ones, friends and generations of Walkers to come. The Broncos and agent Kennard McGuire are finalizing a five-year extension (set to kick in next year) worth about $40 million that includes a $15 million, two-tiered option bonus, $10 million due in 2007 and the other $5 million due in '08. Walker will play out the final year of his rookie contract plus receive a $1 million roster bonus from the Broncos.
Walker will make close to $25 million in salary and bonuses over the first three years of the deal (2007-09), making him one of the highest-paid receivers in the game.
Not bad for a guy who played less than one game last year and is coming off a major injury. And it only took the threat of a holdout, criticism from his future Hall of Fame quarterback, a lost season, an agent change (from Drew Rosenhaus to McGuire), a promise to retire rather than play for the Packers again, and, finally, a two-day, three-city tour to get to this point.
Walker's feelings probably hurt worse than his knee last year after Packers quarterback Brett Favre spoke out against him, practically forcing Walker to cave even before staging his boycott. Worse, in Walker's mind, was that Favre's comments went unchecked by the organization, an example of the special treatment Favre received that Walker resented. Favre often was coached differently, which is to say sometimes not at all, Walker said.
"I mean, you know, who runs the team?" Walker says. "Anybody [else] they might have said something, but being that it was Brett they probably didn't know how to approach the situation."
The rift with Favre didn't drive Walker to want out of Green Bay, he said. Walker said he had more of a problem with several unnamed teammates privately gossiping about his contract situation and how it affected them than he did with Favre's public comments. Walker also had a problem with the procession of veterans having to leave (Darren Sharper, Mike Wahle, Marco Rivera, Mike McKenzie) or sit (Bubba Franks) in order to receive paydays, while the Packers wouldn't so much as discuss a possible renegotiation of the deal Walker signed in 2002.
Walker said he signed with Rosenhaus because of his aggressive reputation. He ultimately fired Rosenhaus because, Walker believed, that reputation was working against him.
"I felt like the Packers weren't gonna let me get what I want dealing with Drew," he said. "I had a feeling that they would be stubborn towards me just because Drew is my agent. Even during the course of the season, 'When are you going to fire Drew? When are you going to fire Drew? When are you going to fire Drew?'"
Walker said he has no lingering resentment toward Favre. In fact he'd like an autographed No. 4 jersey to hang in his home.
"Shoot, if Brett went to another team, another organization," Walker says, "I can go play with him."
At first, Green Bay wasn't willing to play ball, denying Walker and his agent's request to seek a trade, which led to his retirement threat.
"I believe that God had a plan for me so something would have, eventually, happened. That's what I was trusting in," Walker says.
Then, just days before the draft, the Packers sent Walker to visit and undergo physicals with prospective trade partners New Orleans, Denver and Philadelphia. The Dolphins and Chiefs also were talking to Green Bay, but weren't able to get their hands on the receiver to check out his knee.
Walker is working toward completing his degree in social sciences from Florida State and was about to take a 10 a.m. final the Thursday before the draft when McGuire called to tell him he had no choice but to miss the test in favor of making a flight. The night before Walker had spoken to Shanahan, who confirmed the Broncos' long-reported interest but still had doubts about whether a trade would be consummated.
On the morning of April 27, Walker boarded a flight from Tallahassee, Fla., through Miami and on to New Orleans. He arrived in Denver late that night.
Walker had brunch with Shanahan on Friday the 28th and the coach went so far as to bring Walker to his home to meet his wife. It excited Walker to hear Shanahan's plans for how he'd use him opposite Rod Smith.
"Deep down I knew that [Denver] would be a perfect fit for me," Walker says. "That's what I've always wanted, to go into a game knowing that the ball club is trying to figure out a way to get the ball to Javon Walker."
If not for Shanahan's, ahem, delaying him, Walker would have continued to New England that afternoon. He instead traveled to Philadelphia and watched the early part of the draft at the Eagles' facility. This thing went down to the wire. Walker was in the Philadelphia airport about to fly to Boston, still set to visit the Patriots, when he got a call from a couple of buddies informing him that he'd been dealt to Denver.
Walker knows the deal. It's up to him to prove that he was worth a second-round pick and $40 million after only one Pro Bowl season (2004).
Walker, who rehabs from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, promises to be ready for the start of training camp. This season he hopes to make headlines of a different sort.
"Each and every week you pick up the paper," he says, "you're going to see Javon doing something with Denver."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.