SANTA CLARA - Step one in Delanie Walker's mission to combat drunken driving: Get the NFL to clean up its own act.
"It starts with us. It starts with the NFL," the former 49ers tight end said this week. "We need to lead by example. And those (DUIs) need to be eliminated."
Walker became a sudden crusader on the topic last month.
Shortly after the 49ers landed in San Jose after their Super Bowl defeat, he got a phone call that made him forget about the loss to Baltimore: His aunt, Alice Young, who had helped raise Walker, had been killed along with her husband, Bryan, when they pulled to the side of a highway outside New Orleans.
The Youngs were in New Orleans to watch the Super Bowl, where Walker had perhaps his best performance of the season. They attended a postgame gathering with Walker, and he was the last family member to see them alive.
According to police reports, Nechole Thomas, 26, struck the couple's car from behind at more than 100 mph, causing both vehicles to burst into flames. Thomas survived the crash and was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide, one count of driving while intoxicated and one count of reckless operation of a motor vehicle.
Soon afterward, Walker became involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), adopting the group's cause to eradicate drinking and driving.
"He lost his aunt and uncle, with whom he was very close," said Jody Iorns, executive director of MADD's Bay Area office. "I believe they left eight young children. Eight kids who are now without their mom and dad. That takes it to a more powerful level for him."
Earlier this month, Walker raised $2,214 for MADD as part of an autograph signing in San Carlos. On May 11, he'll lead a team at a MADD walk at Cesar Chavez Park in San Francisco. He said he wants to hold similar events in his new NFL home, Nashville, and to share his story whenever possible.
One of his target audiences is his fellow NFL players.
In the past two years, 30 players have been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, including three 49ers. One 49er, reserve offensive lineman Al Netter, was arrested Feb. 20. Three days later, a player on his new team, Titans tight end Brandon Barden, was arrested on suspicion of DUI after his car went off the road. Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson of Stockton was arrested on DUI charges Friday morning.
"We (players) need to flip that around and be the leaders," Walker said.
Earlier this week, the NFL announced it has expended its three-year partnership with MADD.
The group already is working with 11 teams on a program that promotes designated drivers at tailgate parties. Iorns said MADD members walk through the parking lots before games to make sure each group has a member who isn't drinking. She said 95 percent to 98 percent of the time, there is a designated driver, who is given a coupon for a free soda.
The Raiders were part of the pilot program.
"The very first time I did that, I was a little intimidated," Iorns admitted. "Walking into a sea of black and silver, it was ... how would we be received? I have to tell you, I was so genuinely thrilled and touched with the reception."
Iorns said she is working with the 49ers on a similar program at Candlestick Park for 2013.
At this week's owners meeting in Phoenix, MADD national president Jan Withers told owners, coaches and their spouses the story of her daughter, Alisa Joy, who was killed at age 15 by an underage drunken driver.
MADD chief executive officer Debbie Weir, who also spoke at the owners meeting, said one of the most effective ways of fighting drunken driving is through the victims' stories. Weir said the plan is for victims to give presentations to all 32 NFL teams before the 2013 season begins.
Walker said he's eager to do just that. MADD members also feel an NFL player like Walker could be effective at reaching a sports-crazy demographic that is most responsible for drunken driving in the country.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 49 percent of those arrested for drunken driving are 21 to 34 years old, and of that group, 83 percent are male.
Said Walker: "I'm trying to open up people's eyes. If I can keep one person from drinking and driving, I feel I'll have done my job."