Michael Walker roamed around Horizon Christian Academy football practice Monday in a T-shirt and running shorts free from the protocol of a normal Monday practice. His ribs were bruised from the Warriors’ 62-19 loss to North Georgia this past Saturday. His back was tender, his quads sore.
"You just got to keep them fresh," Walker said, and so he refrained from doing drills.
Walker’s ailments were a matter of perspective. At this point a year ago, Horizon’s season was over. The Warriors hadn’t won a game a year after not playing a game, and Walker had months to let his body heal.
Now, he tossed a football behind the goal post at Bennett Park as Horizon’s offense walked through its playbook. There is more football to play for the Warriors. In two weeks, they’ll play the No. 1 seed in the GICAA Division II playoffs. No need for the team’s captain to risk further injury.
"We’re excited," Walker said. "We’re ready to be beat up, but also to beat them up too."
It’s been a season of confounding progress for the Warriors. At times, they’ve resembled the team that went 0-10 last season when progress was as much defined by mere existence after Horizon didn’t have enough players to field a team in 2012. There have been the same kind of lopsided losses – 40-6 to Nathanael Greene Academy, 44-0 to Grace Christian, 56-6 to Johnson Ferry.
But, yes, there have been wins this season. The first, a 42-0 rout of Hearts Academy, broke a win-drought stretching back to Oct. 22, 2011.
"It was a huge boost of confidence for all of us," Walker said.
Horizon showed more progress the following weeks in a 7-0 loss to Unity Christian and 13-0 victory over New Creation, games the Warriors lost last season by a combined 41-0.
Walker said he’s noticed more discipline from players this season. The instruction from head coach Charles Wiggins and his staff has soaked in deeper which has translated into better blocking and route running and tackling and all the rudimentary facets of the game Horizon struggled with last season.
"It’s just a lot simpler than it was last year," Walker said.
Indeed, losing complicates, and so it did for Walker a year ago when he was named a team captain and felt his way through being in a leadership role for the first time. He wasn’t comfortable, didn’t know what to do or say despite being the team’s most obvious talent, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound tight end and linebacker who could fit in on most GHSA teams.
So he designed his summer schedule to enhance his leadership skills. He continued to host the team for weight training inside a converted barn at his parents’ home. He went to college camps. He focused on his tackling form, dragging down five-person tackling sleds by himself.
"It was a tough summer for me," Walker said. "I knew that I had to step it up because I didn’t want another 0-10 season. I wanted more wins and more touchdowns."
The wins have come. So have the touchdowns, many thanks in part to Walker’s blocking and catching ability. He has 14 receptions for 250 yards and three touchdowns going into next Friday to along with 108 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and two interceptions on defense.
As Walker’s leadership role improved, he noticed more leaders emerged. There’s been John Winkler, Travis Pittman, John Michael Booth, Chase and Cole Brown.
"They have this urge to just want to win and win and win," Walker said.
An urge Walker and Horizon football are getting used to.