University of Miami running back Mark Walton was 7 when his father died. On March 2, his mother was pronounced dead after a stroke that put her in the hospital in late February.
But through the tragedy came an unlikely gift.
Walton’s first child, whose due date was Feb. 27, was born prematurely on Feb. 9, more than two weeks before his mom was incapacitated.
Thus, Walton’s mother, Kimberly Rogers, was able to meet 4-pound, 2-ounce granddaughter Ma’Lani Nicole Walton.
“It was meant for my daughter to be here with me when my mom was about to leave,” Walton, 20, a Maxwell Award candidate out of Miami Booker T. Washington High, told the Miami Herald on Friday. “My mom got to see my first born. I miss her, but she’s still spiritually with me.
“I’m ready to go back to work and dedicate the season to my mother.’’
Practice begins Aug. 1 for the Hurricanes, and Walton, a powerfully built 5-9, 206-pound junior whose internal GPS directs him to the shortest football route — down the middle and through the defense — has taken over for departed quarterback Brad Kaaya as the leader and cornerstone of the offense.
Walton was named UM’s Most Valuable Player after a 9-4 season in which he rushed for 1,117 yards, added 240 aerial yards and scored 15 touchdowns — not to mention playing on just about every special teams unit. He needs 13 more rushing touchdowns to break former Cane Stephen McGuire’s career record of 35 (1989-92), and is expected to be a Doak Walker Award candidate when the initial list is released Thursday.
“That was an accomplishment, to be honest, I didn’t expect,’’ he said of being MVP.
Walton chose not to reveal all his goals for 2017, but said he hopes to be a more vocal leader — and rush for at least 1,500 yards. He might need every one of them for the Hurricanes to reach their first Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
The Canes were faced with major running back woes after Gus Edwards transferred and Joe Yearby left after last season.
Redshirt junior Trayone Gray will compete in the fall for the first time since missing last season with a torn ACL. And true freshman Robert Burns underwent shoulder surgery after getting injured on the first day of spring contact drills.
That leaves talented, though inexperienced, sophomore special teams standout Travis Homer (seven carries for 44 yards in 2016) as his backup.
“God forbid if anything happens, he’s the next guy in line,’’ said Walton. “He’s got to be ready to go. That’s why I step on him. He’s starting to realize he’s really got to pick his game up.”
One possibility for relief: true freshman receiver DeeJay Dallas being converted to tailback. Dallas has been practicing with the running backs for two weeks, Walton said, and would “loosen the load.’’
UM coach Mark Richt said Dallas has not officially changed positions — though others have said it seems likely to happen. For the foreseeable future, there’s only one go-to tailback for Richt.
“He loves the game,” Richt said of Walton to UM broadcaster Joe Zagacki. “He loves his teammates, he loves the grind of practice, he loves the grind of the strength and conditioning. He just embraces every bit of football.
“He’s a super fun guy to coach.”
All-American linebacker Shaq Quarterman said Walton is his best test on defense.
“He pushes me to my limits and I try to push him,’’ Quarterman said. “But I don’t know if I do a good enough job. He catches out of the backfield, does the long wheels, outside runs, inside runs, great balance, has enough wiggle to prevent you from just pinning your ears back and going right at him.
“I know that for him to be here after bringing a little girl into this world and all he’s been through, he’s the guy.”
These days, Walton, the second-to-youngest of six children ages 29 to 14, said he heads directly home after school and practice to see his baby and her mother, an FIU senior. Now he has his own family.
“It’s been tough, mainly for me and my younger sister Viola. I’m just making sure she stays straight and her head is above water. When she hurts I hurt. I don’t want to see her in pain. I don’t want to see her suffering.
“I’m a tough person, so I know how to deal with things. I’m used to death. I miss my mom, but I try not to let it dwell on me so it won’t bring me down.”
Walton told the Herald in early 2015 that after his father died, his “motivation in life’’ was to make his mother happy.
“She broke her back for me,” he said.
Now he’s doing the same for baby Ma’Lani.
“It helps a lot seeing my daughter every morning,’’ he said. “Seeing her smile, cry, play. It gives me energy.
“I know my mother is with me. And that strengthens me.’’