The Fort Belvoir Bulldogs and Braddock Road Youth Club football teams were embroiled in a scoreless tie with about 30 seconds left in a championship game several years ago when Coach David Walton improvised a play for his son.
The trick play called for D.J. Walton, now a Hylton High School junior, to stroll over to the Fort Belvoir sideline to consult with his coaches. But the young Walton was careful to stay in bounds. Fort Belvoir then snapped the ball and threw a pass out to Walton, who raced 70 yards for the winning touchdown.
It was at that point Walton realized he always would want to be a player his teams relied on in the clutch.
"If a big play needs to be made, I want to be the one to make it," said Walton, last week named first-team all-Cardinal District running back and defensive back and second-team all-district kick returner. "I like the game put in my hands."
Hylton has done that. In the Division 6 state championship last year, it was sophomore Walton, not top back Robert Downing, who scored on fourth-quarter touchdowns of eight and 10 yards in a 21-13 win. Walton also picked off a pass. In the win against Gar-Field a few weeks ago, he tied the game in overtime on a 10-yard run with Hylton trailing by six.
During the past two seasons, no player has been on the field for the unbeaten Bulldogs more than Walton, who also spent time on the varsity as a freshman.
"D.J.'s about the only one who doesn't get a break," Hylton Coach Bill Brown said of his two-way players. "I think he's the only player I never take off the field, and he's never asked me to take him off the field. I think he shows up the most when the going gets the toughest."
Brown gave Walton a break last year in the state championship after Hylton had taken a 21-7 lead in the closing minutes. But with Walton out, Varina scored in four plays.
"I knew D.J. was exhausted," Brown said. "I just pulled him because I wanted him to catch his breath, and I felt the people we had in could get the job done. He just looked me in the eye, and I could read his expression: Have you lost your mind? Why am I over here?"
Walton, who Brown thinks might receive Division I scholarship offers as early as the spring, was not always so reliable. When he was 4 1/2 years old and living in Georgia, Walton did not understand where the end zone was. He would pull up short when running toward it. Finally, his coach told him to "run to the dirt," which was beyond the back of the end zone.
"Now he always goes out of the end zone," David Walton said of his son's touchdown jaunts.
This fall, the 6-0, 190-pound Walton has established himself as the team's top running back (904 yards, 15 touchdowns), safety (80 tackles, three interceptions) and kick returner. When football season ends, he will play point guard on the basketball team. He averaged 10.6 points on the varsity last year as a sophomore.
But if the versatile Walton could play only one football position, which would it be?
"Running backs get the ball put in their hands in big situations," said Walton, who in his spare time works at a recreation center on Fort Belvoir. "Defensive backs rarely get to make the big play."
Walton, who is the "quarterback of the defense," as Brown puts it, made at least one major contribution from his safety spot last week in the 24-6 win over North Stafford in the Northwestern Region Division 6 championship. When senior Delondre Simpson slipped, leaving a receiver open, Walton raced over to bat the ball away. Without the deflection, the pass could have gone for a touchdown to break the scoreless tie in the second quarter. Later, Walton intercepted a pass.
Where would Brown play Walton, if state rules dictated he could pick just one position for him? Running back, safety or kick returner?
The coach's answer was immediate.
"I'd get three different numbers, and I'd cheat," Brown joked. "Or I'd be [at the Virginia High School League offices] lobbying to change that rule."