Building endurance at a young age means a lot now for Warren's Walker Jr.
Good habits start early.
Besides genetics, good fortune and even hard work, this might help to explain Martin Walker Jr.
Warren's senior running back is one of the most energetic, shiftiest and relentless rushers in Lake County. He's piled up more than 1,100 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns so far this season in leading the Blue Devils to the North Suburban Conference championship, an 8-1 record and a top seed in the IHSA Class 8A playoffs, which begin Friday with a home game at the O'Plaine Campus (7 p.m.) against Neuqua Valley.
Walker Jr. is as energetic and as shifty as, well, a young puppy, which was actually one of his earliest football "opponents."
And Walker Jr. is as relentless as a steep sledding hill, which happened to be one of his earliest conditioning challenges.
While Walker Jr. was having fun doing family activities years ago when he was younger, like racing on hills and playing with his puppy, little did he know that he was preparing himself for being just the workhorse Warren would need in the backfield in 2018.
This season, the Blue Devils have handed the ball off to Walker Jr. nearly 25 to 30 times a game. And the 5-foot-7 Walker Jr., who also rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last year as a junior, often seems as fresh on his 30th attempt as he does on the first.
That's not a coincidence. It's a habit, a good habit, started long ago.
"I used to run the hill at the Warren Township Center (at Washington and Almond) with my Mom (Diane), my Dad (Martin Sr.) and my sister (Desiree)," Walker Jr. said. "Sometimes we'd bring my friends, too. We just raced and raced, up that hill.
"That was a great time with my family. I think it really helped me for football, too. It built endurance and strength. It was hard running up that hill."
It was also hard for Walker Jr. to win those races. At least at first.
The baby of the family, it took Walker Jr. some time to start knocking off the competition. First to go down was his sister. Then when he was in junior high, he finally beat his Mom, who has run a marathon and a half-marathon. Finally, his Dad went down when Walker Jr. was a freshman.
Walker Jr. says that he'll never forget when he beat his Dad, who is also known as a speedster.
"My dad played football and baseball in school (at St. Joseph in Westchester) and he is really fast. Speed is his thing," Walker Jr. said. "It was so great when I finally beat him. He would joke and say that he let me win, but I know I won fair and square."
Meanwhile, Walker Jr. can't remember how many times he was the winner in family football games that included Abraham, the Walker family's chocolate lab. All he knows is that he probably started loving football in his family room, with Abraham.
When Abraham was an energetic puppy, Martin Walker Sr. would round up Martin Jr., sister Desiree and Mom Diane and play family "football" games. Martin Sr. is convinced that his son developed his stamina and some of his quick, agile moves trying to keep up with Abraham.
"Abraham was always wanting to play. That dog had so much energy," Martin Walker Sr. said. "So we'd play these football games in the family room and I figured it would be a good way to wear the kids out, too.
"There was a lot of movement, a lot of activity and it's funny when you think back on those moments where we were just having fun when the kids were young. But that time also probably really helped Martin with football when he got older."
Martin Walker Sr., who was one of his son's first coaches during his days of youth football with the Warren Township football program, has also talked to Martin Jr. about using his size to his advantage. At 5-foot-5, Martin Sr. had to find ways to overcome his smaller stature as well. He did that with speed.
Martin Jr. has done the same.
"My Dad has always told me that my size can be an advantage if I use my quickness to get around people," said Walker Jr., who not only still runs the hill but also does speed-specific training at Deep Impact Performance Training in Mundelein. "It's harder for guys to get down (low enough) to tackle me. Some people might look down on my size, but I've always been out to prove that I can be one of the top running backs in the state and that I have the talent to play at the next level."
Walker Jr. has already generated plenty of Division II and Division III interest. He is hoping that his film from this season, and a possible state championship, will open more eyes, eyes at the higher levels that could be skeptical about his size.
Playing big-time college football has always been Walker Jr.'s big goal and dream.
"I am a running back who is asked to run between the tackles based on the design of our offense, and I have performed that role for more than 400 carries over the last two seasons," Walker Jr. said. "But I also have breakaway speed to exploit the edges. I catch the ball well. I've competed against a lot of Division I linebackers and highly regarded defensive players over the last two seasons.
"My film and production should answer any concerns about my size."
Indeed. Walker Jr. has certainly made a habit, a very good one, of punishing opponents who underestimate for that.
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw