SANTA CLARA — Delanie Walker put his jaw on the line this week. He traded in his black practice jersey — the 49ers' code for "don't hit me" — for his usual red No. 46. And then he sat patiently in front of his locker for about 10 minutes, working his mandible nonstop to answer the questions everyone has been asking:
Is the jaw better? How hard can he practice? And most important of all, will he play against the New York Giants in the NFC championship game this Sunday?
"If they leave it up to me, of course I'm gonna play," Walker said Thursday, the day after he returned to the practice field. "I want to help my team out, and this is a big game, and I feel like if I'm out there maybe I can help out with the offense."
It will not be left up to the tight end. The 49ers medical and training staff will make the call on this one, in conference with coach Jim Harbaugh. The team kept Walker on the active roster heading into the playoffs, knowing there was little chance he could play against the Saints in Round 2. Now he'll have to win a race against time and biology to have a chance to face the Giants.
Walker's jaw was broken in two places — on the left side of his chin, and just under his left ear — in Week 16 when Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill inadvertently kneed him in the face while Walker was blocking for Frank Gore late in the first quarter at Seattle. Walker was not concussed and did not experience headaches, but he said he knew right away he had fractured the bone.
Doctors inserted wires in the upper and lower jaw and connected them with rubber bands to stabilize the area. Meanwhile, Walker went on a liquid diet for two weeks, slurping down protein shakes, soups, Boost nutritional drinks and a soggy mush made from blended rice.
What did he miss most? "Hamburgers," Walker said with a laugh.
By the week before the New Orleans game, he had progressed to soft foods like bananas and pasta. Amazingly, Walker said Thursday that he had lost just a few pounds during the ordeal. Doctors removed the wires Monday, clearing Walker to resume limited work on the field. It's hard to say exactly how limited, because reporters have access to only a tiny portion of practice.
"Really, I didn't do too much, so I won't say I was rusty," Walker observed. "I feel like I was good. Everybody said I looked faster and that I looked like I was over-hyper. Because you get back on the field, you try to do everything full speed."
Medical staff examined him after practice Wednesday, a process that Walker expected to become a daily ritual before Sunday. He said Friday he would be a game-time decision.
It was Walker's idea to shed the black jersey — perhaps a symbolic act since it's highly unlikely he would have been allowed to participate in contact drills.
"I felt like I didn't need it, so I took it off," Walker said. "I didn't want to be labeled as not being touched. For me to really know if I can play, I gotta be able to do some contact."