ANTIOCH -- Malik Hutchings used to spend his Friday nights in the stands at De La Salle High, watching his older brother Michael play a starring role for one of the country's premier high school football programs and earn a scholarship to USC.
Malik never intended to follow in his brother's enormous footsteps. He liked basketball and baseball. He was adamant that football wasn't for him.
But a chance encounter with a college football recruiter last spring made Hutchings reconsider.
Later, an emotional conversation with his uncle ultimately persuaded Hutchings to strap on pads for the first time since seventh grade.
"My dad got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer," Hutchings said. "I talked to my uncle about (playing football) and he said, 'I know your dad wants you to play, you really should because we might not know how much longer he's going to be on this earth.'
"That motivated me. ... I started digging deep in my soul and decided to play."
Hutchings, who transferred to Deer Valley from De La Salle last winter, has had no regrets. Playing alongside his childhood friends at his neighborhood school, the senior middle linebacker has helped the Wolverines to a 5-0 start.
Last week, Hutchings broke out for 19 tackles, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in a 45-34 win over Sac-Joaquin Section power Vacaville.
"It's been the best experience of my life," Hutchings said about playing football. "I feel like a little kid out there running around."
"Team leader, great in the classroom, works hard every day, runs hard every sprint," Deer Valley coach Rich Woods said about Hutchings. "He's been a real inspiration to the kids."
Hutchings does owe an assist to the University of Texas-El Paso recruiter who helped lure him into football with talk of college scholarships. The coach spotted Hutchings sitting in the weight room while on a trip to see other Deer Valley prospects and couldn't believe that a guy with a 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame and obvious athleticism didn't play football.
The recruiter's message to Hutchings?
"He said, 'I travel all over the country looking for guys like you, and I find one and you're not going to play football? What's up with that?' " Woods recalled. "He said to Malik if you play football I'm going to offer you a scholarship."
The coach made good on the promise, offering Hutchings before he even played a down of high school football. UC Davis and Hawaii have followed suit with offers. Hutchings also is drawing interest from Washington State, UNLV, Colorado and Cal.
Right now, he's just relishing the experience of playing in front of his dad, Michael Hutchings Sr., a former high school football player at Lincoln-San Francisco and a longtime police sergeant in the city.
Michael Sr.'s February diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease, came as a complete surprise to the family. He's currently undergoing chemotherapy but wraps himself in blankets every Friday night so he can attend all of Malik's games that are within a reasonable driving distance.
"I'm just trying to find the joy in each day," Michael Sr. said. "Malik is certainly making it a lot easier by enjoying what he's doing. It makes getting through those chemo days easier."
Deer Valley football players are honoring Michael Sr. by wearing emblems with his initials on their helmets. Michael Sr., once a junior varsity football coach, and Malik also dissect game film together.
It's an activity neither father nor son imagined they'd be doing a year ago.
"It's very exciting, I don't even have words to explain it," Michael Sr. said. "It was a little shocking at first, because he was so reluctant to play all these years. I wanted to make sure he was playing for himself."
Malik, who was blessed with size, speed and natural instincts, is getting better by the week. Deer Valley will be counting on him to help slow down five-star running back recruit Joe Mixon in Friday's Bay Valley Athletic League opener against Freedom.
Malik is also getting pointers from his brother, Michael, who never pressured Malik to play but has been one of his biggest supporters since he took up football. Michael is seeing playing time as a true freshman at USC this year after his decorated prep career at De La Salle ended with state player of the year accolades.
But Michael still finds time to watch film of his younger brother and offer him pointers.
"A lot of people expect me to live up to my brother, but I'm my own person," Malik said. "I'm playing football because that's what I want to do. I'm not doing it to follow in his footsteps, I'm doing it because I'm having fun and happen to be pretty good at it."
Follow Stephanie Hammon on Twitter at twitter.com/stephhammon.