Walter Payton would be proud.
The late Chicago Bears superstar running back inspired thousands of football players everywhere with his rigorous training regimen of running hills.
Zaire Barnes is one of those players. Not that Barnes could fully appreciate the legend of Walter Payton when he first started running hills.
That's because Carmel's junior running back was only 7 years old back then.
"I'd go with my dad (Ronald) and my older brother Zavier," Zaire Barnes said. "We played (youth) football for years. It was really good training, physically and mentally. I think going there to those hills at such a young age taught us (a good habit) and it made us keep going over and over again on our own as we got older."
For 10 years now, Barnes, 17, has regularly run the hills at the Mundelein park district. He says it's his strong legs and strong lower body from running hills that have helped him have the strength and endurance to play both ways for the Corsairs, who start him at safety, too.
When top running back Rondel Jamison was lost to an injury earlier in the season, Barnes stepped into that primary slot on offense, while maintaining his starting spot on defense, and has helped Carmel put together an impressive run. The Corsairs have won three straight games and four of their last five, and are expecting to receive a berth in the playoffs on Saturday.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Barnes has had touchdowns in each of the last four games, and is coming off a 103-yard effort last week against St. Patrick.
"We can't keep him off the field," Carmel coach Andy Bitto said of Barnes, whose older brother Zavier was a quarterback for Carmel and is now on the football team at Saginaw Valley State. "I really don't like to play kids both ways, especially if they play a position on offense where they're getting the ball a lot and getting hit a lot. It can take away from the energy they can give on defense.
"You've got to be in really great shape to do that, play both ways for us, and in our league (East Suburban Catholic Conference). But Zaire is. He works so hard in the off-season to be in great shape."
Barnes has 6 touchdowns and nearly 500 rushing yards for Carmel so far. He's also got 72 tackles, which works out to 9 tackles per game.
"When Rondel got hurt, I knew I definitely had to step up and bring up my game more," Barnes said. "It was kind of weird at first because there would be key situations where it would be like third-and-five and we'd need to get a first down and that's when we would give it to Rondel. But now it was coming to me.
"I loved that. I loved to be involved like that. It was definitely a new role for me. But I liked knowing my coach has that trust in me. I know I have to be focused because my team needs me."
Barnes had limited experience at running back before this season. He played defensive almost exclusively last season.
So he's spent extra time with his coaches and extra time in the film room trying to learn the position better.
"I think one of the reasons I got moved (into Jamison's spot) is because Coach knows I'm a coachable player," Barnes said. "And he knows I'll work hard.
"It's a grind to play the whole game, but I've trained to press through the fatigue. I just picture myself running those hills when I get tired. I just keep moving my legs, like I do on the hills."
Barnes hopes to keep those legs moving right onto a college football field. He already has offers from Central Michigan and Toledo and has been contacted by Michigan State, Penn State, Duke, Syracuse, and multiple Mid-American Conference schools, among others.
At some point when he was running those hills as a youth player, Barnes started dreaming about playing college football someday. Now that his brother Zavier is living that dream, Barnes is more motivated than ever.
"It's so exciting that I'm hearing from some schools," Barnes said. "I really want to play in college like my brother. It was hard for me to see him leave for college because we are so close. We were very competitive, like a lot of brothers are. He taught me a lot about training hard.
"I want to do what he's doing. I just have to work for it."
The hills are still there. Waiting.
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw