It was when Tarik Walker was hurt that Baltimore Bays coach Kevin Healey saw the true nature of his hobbled star. Healey liked what he saw.
"He was the one grabbing balls and uniforms and loading them on the bus after a road game," Healey said. "He was the star, but he was eager to share the dirty work. He showed he cared about the team and didn't have to slam lockers after a loss to do it."
All the while Walker tried to play with a hamstring injury that he brought with him from the final throes of the Spirit's season.
At last, the injury is healing. The Bays (4-9) will go into tomorrow night's game against the Washington Mustangs at UMBC Stadium with Walker as their leading scorer with four goals -- all in the past five games.
"Now that he appears to be over the hamstring," said teammate Billy Ronson, "Tarik is playing out of his skin."
Walker suffered the injury in the Spirit's final home game, April 1 against the Harrisburg Heat. After sitting out the opening game of the playoffs a week later against Harrisburg, Walker tried to play the next night and aggravated the injury in a defeat that proved to be the Spirit's final game of the season.
Walker was named the National Professional Soccer League's Rookie of the Year after amassing 73 points. That was high among NPSL rookies and good enough on the Spirit for a tie for third with Clark Brisson and Rusty Troy behind Paul Wright and Goran Hunjak.
When the Spirit's season ended, Walker began rehab under trainer Marty McGinty. He played in the Bays' opener a week later, reinjured his leg in the first half and sat out the next two games.
"We decided to limit his practice to save him for games," said Healey. "That way, there was less chance of a strain. He did his best to perform, but his fitness went down because he wasn't practicing.
"In recent weeks, he's been able to train full time with the team and his fitness is coming back. His performance is improving, too. And so is ours."
Walker first joined the Bays last year in midseason after a career at Virginia Tech where he was the school's second leading all-time scorer. Despite his abbreviated season, he led the Bays in scoring, then was on loan to the Spirit for the NPSL season.
One way or another, hurt or limited to a half season, Walker manages to lead the Bays.
Opponent: Washington Mustangs
Site: UMBC Stadium
Outlook: The Bays, 4-9 and seventh in the U.S. Interregional Soccer League's Atlantic Division with six games remaining, still have a chance to qualify for the four-team playoffs. Tonight's game and the game tomorrow night (vs. Columbia Heat), are critical because both teams are ahead of the Bays in the standings. Washington, 7-4 and fifth in the division, is coming off a 3-2 win over the Charlotte Eagles. The Mustangs lost to the Bays in overtime in May. Washington is led by Leonel Suazo, No. 7 in the 72-team league with 13 goals. Two former Bays, Steve Powers and John Stroud, play for the Mustangs. The first 400 youngsters 16 and under will receive free World Cup pins. All fans will be eligible for the raffle of a ball autographed by soccer's legendary Pele.