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Defensive Player of the Year: Haddonfield's Walker led by example

There were no roaring crowds when the weight room opened at 6 a.m. on those cold winter mornings. There were no Friday night lights, no marching band, and no cheerleaders during film study on a typical day during a typical week of the football season.

There were no roaring crowds when the weight room opened at 6 a.m. on those cold winter mornings.

There were no Friday night lights, no marching band, and no cheerleaders during film study on a typical day during a typical week of the football season.

Mark Walker would pull into the parking lot at Haddonfield High School in the middle of January, long before the sun rose above the tall trees along Kings Highway.

Walker would stay after practice at the end of October, watching one more display of an opponent's no-huddle spread offense.

"It was his preparation, his attention to detail," Haddonfield coach Frank DeLano said of the secret of Walker's success. "He wanted to be the complete player, and he worked to make it happen."

Walker and his Haddonfield teammates - many of whom would join him during those early-morning weightlifting sessions in the winter and spring, and during those film sessions in the fall - put together a football season for the ages.

Haddonfield not only became the program's first undefeated and untied team since 1964, not only became the program's first 12-0 team, but Haddonfield also dominated a loaded South Jersey Group 2 playoff field. It outscored three opponents by a combined 102-7 en route to capturing the program's third sectional title, including the second in a row.

For his leadership role on and off the field, Walker is The Inquirer's South Jersey defensive player of the year.

"It was a great ride," Walker said of a season and career that ended with a 27-0 victory over archrival West Deptford in the South Jersey Group 2 title game last Sunday afternoon at Rowan University.

Walker was at his best in the biggest game of the season. He made 15 tackles, including three for loss, and landed a seismic hit that forced a third-quarter fumble to turn the game fully in the Bulldogs' favor.

For the season, Walker made 108 tackles, including 18 tackles for loss. He also ran for 280 yards and scored seven touchdowns as a fullback.

"He showed up in big games," DeLano said, noting that Walker scored on a fumble return in a 37-0 win over Woodstown in the first round of the tournament and also scored on an interception return in the annual Thanksgiving Day game against Haddon Heights.

Walker was the leader of a defense that allowed just 27 points in the final eight games of the season, with four shutouts and another game in which the opponent's only points were on a safety.

DeLano said Walker was a "lead by example" player who also served as the team's long snapper.

"There wasn't much he didn't do," DeLano said. "He was one of the toughest linebackers I've ever seen and one of the best to ever come through our school."

As did many of Haddonfield's seniors, Walker came up through the town's youth football program and dreamed of playing for the varsity under the Friday night lights at the historic stadium on the high school campus.

Walker's older brother Mike was a standout player for Haddonfield and a senior for the 2011 team that went 11-0 before losing to West Deptford in the South Jersey Group 2 final.

"We idolized those guys," Mark Walker said of the current seniors who were freshmen that season. "We wanted to be just like them."

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Walker said he learned early in his high school career that his work off the field - in the weight room, in film study - would determine his level of success.

He was one of a group of around 10-15 players who regularly worked out in the weight room before the start of school.

"It was so much fun, getting there early, hanging out with the guys," said Walker, who is considering Lehigh and Johns Hopkins among other colleges.

While Walker used the weight room to build strength, speed, and stamina, his commitment to film study might have been equally important to his development into a dominant defensive player.

"As you get experience, the game slows down, and then when you understand how to study film, it slows down even more," Walker said. "I could tell when I didn't study enough film - I wouldn't play that good that week.

"I knew it was important. I knew I had to do it."

In the 10 days before the last game of his career, the rematch with West Deptford in the championship game, Walker watched more film than ever.

He said it was a little boring because of his familiarity with the Eagles' offense. The game marked the fifth time he had started at linebacker against West Deptford since his sophomore season.

But he said he "forced himself" to watch one more play, to notice one more tendency, to condition himself to read one more key.

The result was a dominant performance in the bright sunshine on the biggest stage as Walker and the Bulldogs became the first team since 2006 to shut out the Eagles.

"There was no other way to end it," Walker said of the Bulldogs' perfect season and his illustrious career.