Monday, 03 July 2017 19:40

State hurdles champion Justin Walker leaving Fullerton College with records and plans

Justin Walker keeps a photo on his phone of his father, Joseph.

Captured in the mid-1980s, a dozen or so years before his son was born, the snapshot shows the elder Walker, a hard-hitting safety for Wake Forest University, hitting an enemy tight end so hard the poor guy’s helmet flies loose.

“The Hit,” the younger Walker calls the still.

The photo is one of the few remaining artifacts the family has from Joseph Walker’s playing days; undeniable proof the stories his sons have heard time and time again are in no way exaggerated or embellished.

“Maybe he was doing some damage out there,” Justin Walker said.

Like his old man, Walker too is doing damage in college.

This spring, the outgoing Fullerton College student-athlete set a school record of 13.97 seconds in the 110-meter high hurdles, capturing the California Community College Athletic Association state championship.

And to think, track is Walker’s fall-back sport.

Less than three years ago, the 20-year-old was an uber-talented football player with no NCAA Division I, II or III university to call home.

All he had was that photo in his phone and an adage the man in it passed down:

“Tough times never last, but tough people do.”

***Young legs

Justin Walker jokes that as soon as he could walk, his dad was teaching him how to back-pedal like a defensive back.

The boy grew up in Frederick, Maryland a football wunderkind, dazzling at quarterback and running back against kids two, three, four years his senior.

“Get Justin the ball and let him make plays,” coaches advised.

In sixth grade, Walker nestled his way under the wings of Frederick native and 1964 Olympic sprinter Debbie Thompson Brown. He learned proper running form and breathing technique, as Brown entered him in races against teens with more experience.

Under the former Olympian, Walker ran his first high hurdles race. The first of many.

“Kids have a lot of energy, so they tell us to run, and we do it as fast as we can,” he said. “I got my endurance up, and she put me in 80-meter hurdles. She taught me a lot, and got me liking the sport, because at first I was only doing it for football.”

Walker added basketball to his extracurriculars in high school and starred on the track team. But he said a position change in football sapped a bit of his confidence.

The track proved to be a safe haven.

As a high school freshman, Walker received words of wisdom from an elder teammate who’d go on to win state championships in two hurdle events. Three years later, Walker broke the kid’s school records.

Records are meant to be broken, he recalled coaches telling him.

A combination of injury and sub-par grades coming out of Frederick High kept Walker – the first of his family to earn a degree – off of recruiters’ radars.

So he took a year sabbatical from sports while attending a Maryland community college, and then caught a break when an old football friend bound for California encouraged him to send a highlight video to Fullerton College coaches.

The Hornets’ staff was enamored, and urged him to move west.

His parents, on the other hand.

“They said no way,” Walker recalled. “I told them I’d always wanted to live in California, that it was a good opportunity to mature as a person.

“They said I could go, and I took it from there.”

***Run like the wind

There’s another photo Walker holds dear, taken in May.

In it, Joseph Walker, cap backwards, is embracing his son, who’s a few inches taller, dressed to race and appears to be overcome with emotion.

A year before the photo was taken, Justin Walker was enjoying a fruitful maiden track season at Fullerton College. He’d played sparingly for the school’s 2015 football team, but wrecked shop in the 110-meter hurdles and long jump, qualifying for the state championships in both events.

However, four hurdles into the state 110-meter race, Walker fell, finishing eighth out of eight racers, nearly 10 seconds off the pace.

“That ate at me all summer,” he said. “Coming in this year, I couldn’t let that happen again.”

Walker led Fullerton’s football team this past season with seven touchdown receptions. The Hornets had their best season in more than three decades, winning 12 games, the state title and the mythical national championship.

Widely considered a top community college prospect last fall, Walker accepted a scholarship to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a Division I school out of Conference USA.

In the spring, Walker returned to the state championships in the 110-meter hurdles and long jump.

But he nursed a groin injury suffered at a Southern California qualifying event, and spent race week preparing gingerly.

In May, he took his spot on the block and, bang, “just went,” he said.

Long-limbed at 6-foot-5, Walker bested Asa Allen of Merritt College by two-tenths of a second, 13.97 to 13.99, breaking a 41-year-old school record.

A few days before the race, Walker said his father told him: “I didn’t miss your first race, so I’m not going to miss your last one.” The elder Walker flew into LAX from Maryland and rode a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Sacramento to watch his son etch his name in Fullerton College lore.

“For my dad to come and see me run my last meet meant a lot,” Justin Walker said. “I had to win it for him.”

Walker leaves for University of Alabama-Birmingham later this month. He talks of playing well enough there to one day play in the NFL, to show his parents their investment in him was worth the sacrifice.

“They don’t live the life they want to live because they’re doing so much for me,” Walker said. “I have to pay them back by doing my part, by going to school, by getting to the NFL so I can try my best to repay them.”

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