La PORTE — Despite being a crucial cog on La Porte's football team, Justin Forker maybe doesn't get the recognition he always deserves.
He's not in the top five on the squad for tackles. He doesn't rank high for the Slicers in rushing or receiving yards.
The senior outside linebacker and running back is simply solid in every area he plays.
Most importantly, Forker has started all year for La Porte both offensively and defensively and he's been a reliable contributor.
“The first thing that stands out is he's a fun kid to be around,” Slicers coach Jeremy Lowery said. “He's a nice, polite kid, always got a smile on his face. He's one of those kids that you can tell just truly enjoys being a part of our football team. You can't have enough of those guys. The other thing is he's a really good football player. He's not the strongest kid on our team and he's not the fastest kid on our team, but he's got a little bit of both. That combination puts us in a situation where he can't leave the field very often.”
So far this campaign, Forker is sixth on the team with 25 tackles to go along with 19 assists. He's recorded three tackles for loss, caused a pair of fumbles and added an interception.
Offensively, he's been used sparingly, rushing for 58 yards on 19 carries with a touchdown. He's caught four passes for 75 yards with a touchdown.
His impact goes well beyond his numbers, however.
At the same time, he relishes the chance to play on each side of the ball.
“I like playing defense, I like playing offense,” Forker said. “It's great playing with a team that has your back and I have their back. Playing on both sides of the field is really fun.”
In La Porte’s gritty, 14-10 sectional semifinal victory at Michigan City last week, Forker was fundamental defensively. He made some significant tackles and helped spearhead that unit.
In addition, Forker caught the game-winning, 18-yard touchdown pass from Robbie Kiner with just under four minutes left.
That helped the Slicers (3-7) prevail and punch their ticket to the sectional championship tonight against undefeated Valparaiso (10-0).
Forker's defensive performance versus the Wolves didn't go unnoticed.
“Those guys have to be able to come up and be good run stoppers,” Lowery said. “But they've also got to be able to hold up in the pass game. He's a kid who's always very tuned into the game plan and what his responsibilities are. Then you combine that with some athletic ability and a nose for the football. And he's been able to get some really nice results for us.”
Forker feels like he fits in on defense more similar to a free safety 'robber' hybrid, though technically listed as an outside linebacker.
"I've just got to learn every week a new offense and learn how to adjust and make the plays," he said.
On the other side of the ball, he believes he's acclimated well to the team's flex-bone offense, which is predominantly a run-first approach.
“There's a lot of new blocks and a lot of new runs we've got to put in each week,” Forker said. “And they're difficult sometimes. It takes a lot of work to get used to them.”
Forker's early beginnings in the sport were traditional.
He followed in the footsteps of his brother Brenton Forker, who also played football at La Porte. The younger Forker started playing Pop Warner when he was 4 or 5 years old. Justin then quit the sport for a few years during sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th grades as his passion for the game wavered. But he returned prior to last season after missing it so much.
"I love it now," he said. "I'm so glad I came back."
When Forker returned, it was admittedly grueling at first. Once he got back into a groove, though, he was fine.
"It was a lot of pressure," he said. "I had to get back into the game. I had to get into shape again. I had to push harder. There were a lot of struggles, but I got through it and I'm here now."
Brenton missed his senior year after tearing his ACL, so Justin regrets not playing that season, his freshman campaign. Even though Brenton wasn't playing, the Forker brothers could have been on La Porte's team together, something they never did in high school.
"I should have played that year," Justin said. "I wish I would have."
Off the field, Forker is congenial and he's a fairly solid student, receiving mostly 'A', 'B' and 'C' grades.
After high school, he wants to be an electrician like his father, something he's aspired to since he was little. To prepare for that profession, Forker is currently in a Building Trades class and is helping build a pavilion at Luhr County Park.
In the end, Forker knows that unity and focus will be critical if the underdog Slicers want to hoist the sectional trophy tonight versus Valpo.
"We've got to stick to our keys, play as a team," he said. "If we play as a whole, we're so much better. We've got to get bodies to the ball on defense. We've got to key our blocks on offense. Just be a team."