One Step at a Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

See Tony Walker run.

It's as if his red-and-white Antelope Valley High football uniform catches fire. Taking a pitchout, intercepting a pass or returning a kick, Walker's feet become flames once the ball touches his hands.

Run, Tony, run.

That speed will propel you right out of Antelope Valley into a gleaming college stadium with 100,000 cheering fans. Walker hears it from his teammates, his uncles, his friends.

Stay, Tony, stay.

Tennessee, USC or any other glamour school calling and courting can't have you. Not yet. Walker hears it from his coach, his counselor, his most trusted teacher.

Walker takes it all in, but he trusts the judgment of one person--himself. He has learned fact from fiction firsthand. And if the last four years have taught him anything, it is this: You walk before you run.

So Tony Walker, the only player from California on Sports Illustrated's preseason list of the nation's top 25 high school seniors, the best athlete Brent Newcomb has coached in 28 years at Antelope Valley in Lancaster, probably will play football and basketball next season at a junior college.

"I try to keep a level head," Walker said. "Coach Newcomb hears from all these colleges, and USC gave me tickets to a game, but I know what I've got to do."

Walker is as methodical in the classroom as he is mercurial on a football field. Lessons are learned slowly and with difficulty. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Walker is a special-education student who entered high school reading at a third-grade level.

Four years later, he reads at a high school level and his teachers proudly pronounce him ready for algebra.

Along the way came more elementary lessons. To attend school regularly. To look an adult in the eye. To allow himself a smile.

Set aside all of his athletic accomplishments--helping Antelope Valley to two consecutive Southern Section finals in football and leading the basketball team in scoring two years in a row--and Walker is still an unqualified success story.

"Tony has an auditory processing problem that he has worked very hard to overcome," said June Blackwell, Walker's special-education teacher. "He comes from a house where he had to take care of himself. He wouldn't smile. He wouldn't talk.

"Now he's a model student. He takes learning very seriously. He hasn't been tardy or absent all year, and he will work when other kids around him are fooling around."

For the fastest athlete in the Antelope Valley, academics involve one painstaking step after another. It's an uphill path, but one Walker believes eventually will lead to Division I eligibility. He plans to take the Scholastic Assessment Test next month.

"All I do is play sports, do homework, make sure my brothers do their homework, then go to sleep," he said, shaking his head. "Every day."

Walker, 18, lives with his mother, Angel, and his brothers Terrell, 12, and Tyrone, 11. Their father, Tony, lives in the Antelope Valley but not with the family.

"My dad? We're cool, but he's more of a friend," Walker said. "I'm sort of a father to my brothers. I set an example for them. They try to be like their big brother."

Walker's responsibilities run even deeper. He is the father of a 3-month-old son, Tristin, with his girlfriend of two years, Timeka, who graduated from Antelope Valley last June.

"I want to be there all the time for them," Walker said. "That's why I want to go to college, for my family."

Family ties also give him a reason to stay, to attend junior college at nearby Antelope Valley, or L.A. Valley, or Bakersfield. This makes more sense to Walker than holing up at a community college in Garden City, Kan., which Tennessee suggested to Newcomb.

"If I'm going to a JC, I want to stay around my family and friends," Walker said.

Two of his father's four brothers, Eddie and Lewis Walker, were major college running backs in the 1970s after starring at Palmdale High and Antelope Valley College. Eddie, 39, played at Colorado. Lewis, 38, played at Utah and for Calgary of the Canadian Football League.

"It's no surprise Tony is so talented, because his uncles were outstanding athletes," said Palmdale football Coach Jeff Williams, who grew up on the same block as the Walkers and was a high school teammate of Eddie and Lewis.

Eddie still lives in the area and takes a great interest in his nephew.

"Tony is a family-oriented person, and I think he wants to stay close to home for a while," Eddie said. "He's more level-headed than I was, even coming out of JC. He's realistic."

For practical purposes, Walker began playing at the JC level five years ago at a Palmdale recreation center. Isaiah Rider, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, and other Antelope Valley College basketball players would play pickup games with local hotshots and one terribly shy seventh-grader.

Once the game began, Tony Walker was at ease, bringing the ball up the floor, making deft passes and hitting the open shot.

"Every Sunday, I'd be the youngest one there," Walker recalled. "I always liked playing the older guys."

Walker had no problem being promoted to the varsity football team late in his freshman season. By his sophomore year he was a starting safety and receiver on a team that won the Southern Section Division II championship.

Taken under the wing of tailback Jermaine Lewis, Walker (6 feet, 175 pounds) emerged as an explosive weapon. He averaged 15.1 yards on punt returns, took one of his two interceptions back for a touchdown and had 10 receptions for 198 yards in an offense that rarely passed the ball.

Last season, with Lewis rushing for 2,511 yards and scoring 34 touchdowns, Walker again made most of his contributions on defense and special teams. He averaged 21.8 yards on punt returns and intercepted six passes, running them back 230 yards, including two for touchdowns. He also had a team-high 26 catches.

With less overall talent this season, Newcomb realized Walker was underutilized as a receiver. The coach moved him to tailback, and he responded with a combined 290 yards against Compton Dominguez, Long Beach Poly and Littlerock. He has 771 yards on the season. The Antelopes are 5-2 and again considered a Division II title contender.

Walker's 77-yard touchdown run was the difference in a 13-7 victory over Poly, and he scored three times against Littlerock. Twice he had touchdown runs called back because of penalties, the ninth and 10th times Walker scores have been nullified in his Antelope Valley career.

Again he is a superlative kick return man, taking back 12 punts for 238 yards and nine kickoffs for 368.

"He's just a blur on film," Newcomb said. "But Tony is more than speed. He delivers the blow when he runs with the ball, and he's a vicious tackler.

"He's a football player."

Until basketball season, anyway. Walker, a guard, tore up the Sylmar tournament in June and earned an invitation to a prestigious camp at Cal State Dominguez Hills in July.

Walker doesn't want to give up basketball, and he knows that by attending a junior college he can continue playing two sports.

"He is one of the most intelligent basketball players I've ever coached," Antelope Valley Coach Tom Mahan said. "He's a joy to be around. All the kids at school look up to him. There is a quiet strength about him.

"Everybody wants Tony to make it."

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