Walker makes it a priority to develop relationships
By Scott Akanewich
Liberty Hill head football Coach Jeff Walker opens a desk drawer in his office and pulls out a binder marked “Storytime” and it contains countless entries of fiction, nonfiction and various motivational speeches.
“Most of the time, it’s pretty serious,” said Walker, of what has become a locker room institution after practice every Wednesday during the season. “Sometimes, it’s a lesson in life, but I do think it means something to the kids.”
According to Panthers senior linebacker Austin Knox, listening to Walker further helps him and his teammates prepare for what lies ahead once they take the field.
“I think it motivates you for the upcoming game,” said Knox. “Sometimes, it will let you know you need to give a different kind of effort and how much you need to play with.”
Originally, it was all meant to get the most out of football players on the field.
However, what it has produced off the field has been far more of an impact.
“As a coach, you need to know which buttons to push with your players to get the right results,” said Walker. “How do you get your kids excited and ready to play? Coaching is a profession which is all about relationships.”
Despite the fact coming out of Friday night gridiron battles victorious remains of the utmost importance, it’s the bonds he builds with his players that will last long after the lights go out.
“Football is such an emotional and physical game,” said Walker. “We want to get our players to play better than they think they’re capable of, but you can’t do that if you don’t know them well, so it’s about establishing those relationships. We want to see how they react to adversity and make them the best football players and young men they can be. Sometimes this game will hit you in the mouth and you have to know how to respond.”
Walker said how he goes about this process is something he’s always been cognizant of over the course of his entire coaching career.
“I think my biggest strength as a coach is getting to know my players – it’s always something I’ve prided myself in being able to do well,” he said. “Maybe it’s because inside, I’m still a teenager – I don’t know – but I feel like I can relate real well with them.”
Despite the fact young people are far different now than when he began his career, it’s not as stark a contrast as one might believe, he said.
“It’s much different than it was 20 or even five years ago,” said Walker. “But, it’s still young men we’re dealing with.”
Another technique Walker and his coaching staff has implemented over the years is a player-coach handshake line, which everyone passes through before leaving the locker room after practice.
“Sometimes a kid can have a bad day and the coaches will get on him and he’s not too happy about it,” he said. “But, it’s our way of bringing the day to a close in a positive way.”
Senior lineman Hadley Weems agreed.
“I think it shows respect,” he said. “We respect the coaches and they respect us.”
Years ago while at another stop on his coaching journey, Walker and his coaches lined up to shake hands with their players only for one of them to ask for a hug instead, said Walker.
“It started out as kind of a joke,” he said. “But, it turned out this one particular kid really did need a hug and pretty soon the line for hugs kept getting longer and longer.”
So, Hug Day was born.
Now every Wednesday before the players leave the locker room after practice, the customary handshake is replaced with an embrace.
“A lot of kids probably don’t get hugs and the players are really good with it,” said Walker.
What causes the need for such brotherly love is wide and varied, he said.
“We deal with issues almost weekly,” said Walker. “We always have something to deal with and it helps a great deal if you know what kind of people they are. Our young men are so busy with football, homework, girlfriends and everything else, things happen.”
During the pressure-packed regimen of the regular season, these all-important relationships can’t always be cultivated with the same kind of care they can be other times of the year, said Walker.
“Summer is a great time to do that,” he said. “Especially when we’re in the weight room – I always make time to be in there with them – at that time of the year we’re around each other so much.”
Weems said the offseason is when the player-coach relationship is put to the test.
“Everyone knows our offseason is really hard,” he said. “But, it brings everyone together so when the season comes around we’re ready.”
When teams become so close, victory is even sweeter, but defeat is more sorrowful, said Walker.
“For everyone in the locker room, it hurts a lot,” he said. “But, we’ve been blessed not to have lost too many games the past few years.”