By John Grayson, football/linebackers coach, Glenbard South HS
Over the years, I have been part of all sorts of football programs. State Champions, public, private, Illinois, Wisconsin and everything in between. When you’re a player or a coach in, after counting, 8 different football programs, and a track program you meet a lot of coaches. When you meet a lot of coaches, you learn a lot of different ways to do things. I’ve found a way of doing things I like that joins two sports together I wasn’t expecting.
This article isn’t about football, well kind of? It’s about the marriage between football and track. Five years ago, I took a job coaching track not knowing it would shape my outlook on football. I didn’t know much about track, threw shot in 8th grade (2nd in conference… not to brag). My spring sport was baseball. Hands back on a curve ball, but track to make you a better football player? Hold on, this I’ll have to see for myself. Slowly but surely, I met more and more coaches that started to change my outlook. I worked for Chris Korfist and Eric Brechtel. I met a guy by the name of Tony Holler. I went to the Track and Football Consortiums and then I started to see it for myself. This was working. I saw it work on Montini’s 2015 State Title Team with my own eyes. A relay with 2 defensive backs and 2 running backs that went down state. A county high jump champion that was the quarterback. A 220-pound linebacker that was a 4×1 alternate… no really, he ran 11.77! This theory of track in the off season had legs (get it? Track? running? legs? Never mind).
I think my favorite point is that Elven explains that he was able to get ALL that he could from his high school career. He MAXIMIZED his talent.This brings me to my case study for this article. Recently I was hired at my alma mater Glenbard South High School where there is no better example of the football and track marriage than Elven Walker. Elven just finished his football career at Eastern Illinois University. After football, he recently competed in his team’s indoor track season (They won the Conference) and is anticipating a great outdoor season for the Panthers track team. Elven was a state champion hurdler at Glenbard South High School. He was a two-way starter on the football team as well. I reached out to Elven to talk about how his relationship with football and track has helped him excel at the highest level.
Some of the highlights of his Q & A are Elven thinks track is more helpful for football than football is for track. He goes on to add that his track workouts are harder than his football workouts, and gives a nod to his track guys at EIU over his football guys for strength and speed (gasp!). Elven also couldn’t answer my special bonus question about “Blue Track” vs. a big football game, the debate continues! I think my favorite point is that Elven explains that he was able to get ALL that he could from his high school career. He MAXIMIZED his talent. Thank you to Elven for doing this, and giving some major insights into track and football. Enjoy reading!
Coach Grayson: Two-part question: how has track helped you excel in football and football in track?
Elven: Track and Field has helped me excel in football in many different ways. First off track has helped me get adjusted to the speed of the game of football. Secondly track and field has helped enhance my mental focus and mental capacity for pain. In my opinion football helps with track but not as much as track helps with football.
Coach Grayson: Follow up, what specific skills carry over from football to track, and track to football?
Elven: Specific skills that I have noticed that carryover from track and field to football are the ability to run someone down from a distance as well as the ability to run for a longer distance than others. Being that football is a game of speed as well as inches track and field goes hand-in-hand with it. Also in my opinion a track and field work out is a bit harder to do than a football workout so a specific skill I have developed is the ability to endure large amounts of pain for an extended period of time during my track and field workouts and that has in turn made me a better football player.
Coach Grayson: Explain to a high school student, why being a multi-sport athlete is important?
Elven: Being a multi-sport athlete is extremely important in my opinion. One thing that I am proud of is that I got all that I could get out of my sports career as I was growing up and in high school. Fitness is something we all tend to take for granted and being a multi-sport athlete where you are in season year-round was my solution and could be yours too.
Coach Grayson: How do you deal with the time commitment?
Elven: The time commitment was the hardest part to deal with and its definitely something you have to get adjusted to. I wasn’t good at it my first, second, or third try, but I had a lot of support from my people back home and eventually it worked out. I think the best way I got adjusted to the time commitment was time itself and getting into a routine. Once you get past the mental hurdle of physically being tired ALL DAY EVERY DAY and not having any time to mess around during the week, everything else becomes a habit and the time commitment isn’t so bad.
Coach Grayson: Do you think you would’ve been a DIVISION 1 football player or sprinter without being a multi-sport athlete? How does it help with recruiting?
Elven: I think it could have been possible to become a Division 1 athlete participating in just one sport because the time I put into my second sport could have been used to perfect my craft in the other sport. That works for certain people and some coaches have told me that they think if I just focused on football only I would have been much better than I ended up being.
Coach Grayson: Another follow up, did college coaches want to know about your track times?
Elven: Yes, some did want to know about my times to determine if I would be competitive in both sports, and all were very understanding when I said I want to be a two-sport athlete and I will only come if you allow me to run track. There are some coaches that feel like if they bring you there for football you should give ALL of your time to football.
Coach Grayson: Does playing multiple sports give you a more competitive edge? What would you say to coaches encouraging specialization or to “just lift?”
Elven: I am a firm believer that playing multiple sports gave me a competitive advantage. Not only did I feel I had a competitive advantage on the football field, I felt as if I had the advantage in LIFE. I knew what it was like to be tired and very uncomfortable every day of my spring semester, and as a result I became extremely comfortable being uncomfortable. That changed the way I thought about things and my overall perspective on life. Finding comfort in being uncomfortable is the most valuable thing I learned how to do and is my most proud accomplishment as well as my biggest competitive advantage.
Any coach encouraging specialization or to just lift is discouraging mental growth and they do not have the best interest of the athlete in mind in my opinion. How do we grow as people? Experience. Elven WalkerAny coach encouraging specialization or to just lift is discouraging mental growth and they do not have the best interest of the athlete in mind in my opinion. How do we grow as people? Experience. How are you going to grow as much as the 2-sport athlete who is doing multiple things in a day when you are only doing one repetitive thing in a day? Also, I am extremely confident that the throwers on the track and field team will out squat and out run all of the linemen on the football team at EIU and our fastest sprinters and best jumpers will out run and out squat our skill players. Running is a universal workout. Running works out all the major muscles in the body including the MIND.
Coach Grayson: Did you use any competitive 7 on 7 teams or private training on your own?
Elven: I was not on any travel 7 on 7 teams in my high school days but If given the opportunity I definitely would have taken advantage of that form of offseason training. I think that is one of the best ways to stay in football shape, both mentally and physically. One of the things I use as an offseason workout tool is my agility ladder. A lot of people talk bad about the ladder and say it’s a waste of time but I think otherwise. First off, using an agility ladder is a full body workout. Its great cardio. I lost about 25 pounds doing agility ladders after breaking my leg during my sophomore season and ballooning up to 203lbs. I like to think of the agility ladders as more of a MENTAL workout nowadays. The agility ladder is a muscle memory workout and once you wrap your mind around the ladder and the sequences you do with the ladder you will be a better athlete for it. Example: the most important things in football is your eyes and feet. The agility ladder trains your feet to go in and out of a sequence of unorthodox movements, rhythms, and patters in a smooth unbothered manner. With that being said, anybody who has played football knows that THINGS HAPPEN in a football game and you are going to be put in some tough situations and unorthodox positions. Almost nobody prepares for the unorthodox and it hurts a lot of athletes because when the crap hits the fan they aren’t mentally prepared to handle it. The agility ladder solves the problem of “THINGS HAPPEN” at least for your feet and body. It is the perfect way to prepare for the unorthodox.
Coach Grayson: Do you find a lot of your teammates at Eastern Illinois University were multi-sport athletes as well?
Elven: I tried to start a trend at EIU and get my football teammates to run track as well and vice versa. Some have tried it and couldn’t get over the mental barrier of being tired all the time. There are many high-profile athletes that are successful in both sports. For example, Devon Allen of Oregon is the US Champion in the 110 hurdles and competed in the 2016 Olympics and is a starting Receiver on the University of Oregon’s football team. RGIII Is the Starting Quarterback for the Browns and was the BIG XXII Champion in the 400IM Hurdles in College. Adoree Jackson was all conference in the Long Jump at USC and is a potential first rounder in this year’s NFL Draft. Russel Wilson was a pitcher at NC State and the starting Quarterback before transferring to Wisconsin to focus on football. Tim Tebow plays baseball now in the minors. The list goes on and on.
Coach Grayson: Who were some of your inspirations, coaches or otherwise to be a multi-sport athlete?
Elven: Some of My biggest inspirations and reasons why I do what I do in regards to sports are my Mother who raised a whole family by herself without having a high school diploma. She showed me that it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish. She also showed me how to not become a victim of my circumstances, because she could have easily given up many times but she worked hard no matter the case and made a way always. Also, my coaches growing up have all had a major impact on my life. Coach Cordell is one of the coaches that I think changed my life when I needed it the most. I’ve always worked hard on my own but Coach Cordell pushed me to a level I had never been to. I think any athlete that has been coached by him and really took heed to what he was teaching and promoting should be mentally ready to take on a lot of the challenges life throws at you. The one thing I will never forget about is EFFORTS. After a grueling workout in which you gave it everything you had and are dog tired, and just want to go home you have to get under that bar one more time and empty the tank so to speak. That small 5-minute session at the end of those workouts we did at Glenbard South called EFFORTS changed my life. It helped me realize that a lot of what you do is about WANT TO and about WILL and when you think you don’t have anything left you have your EFFORT. Effort has taken me places I never thought I’d be. It can do the same for anybody. Effort and Hard work beats Talent EVERY SINGLE DAY in my book. Glenbard South helped me realize that.
Coach Grayson: The track community thinks that the state track meet aka the “blue track” is better than a big football game (state championship, rivalry game, etc.) … so what’s your answer, state track meet (where you were a champion) or a big football game? What gets you more hyped?
Elven: Honestly, I just love competition so that’s something I can’t really choose between. There’s nothing like the state track meet but there is also nothing like stepping onto a football field and you can’t even hear yourself think because the fans are screaming their heads off and you know this is battle and its either you or me. I have been in big games and honestly at the college level, the conference track meet feels like a big football game. The tension, the fans, the excitement, the speed. It’s insane! I recommend anybody who has never seen a track and field team turn up, come to a conference track meet at the collegiate level.