Former Hoboken and Miami standout returns to coach struggling program
When Wilbur Valdez was a football player at the University of Miami, the former Hoboken High School All-State performer made a memorable gesture to a Hurricane teammate that will last a lifetime.
Valdez wore the uniform number 34 during his days as a linebacker and a fullback for the nation's premier college football program and 1999 National Champion. It was a number shared by the immortal Chicago Bears Hall of Fame runningback Walter Payton, whose son, Jarrett, was a running back at Miami.
"Walter Payton came up to me once during a spring game and he made a joke, saying that I looked like him in that jersey," Valdez said. "He was a stud. I wasn't close to that. I mean, he was Walter Payton. But Jarrett and I became friends."
In November of 1999, when Walter Payton was losing his battle to liver cancer, Valdez made the move that was far more memorable than anything else he did during his playing career with the Hurricanes.
Valdez gave up his jersey in order that his friend and teammate could honor his late and great father.
"My career was winding down and I wasn't playing much because of a bad shoulder," Valdez said. "But after Jarrett's father died, we were getting ready to play Virginia Tech. I asked him if he would take my number to honor his dad. I told him it was his. He was real happy about it and thanked me for it. It was an unfortunate situation. I just figured I would give JP No. 34. Even Butch (Davis, the former Miami head coach, now with the Cleveland Browns) said it was a nice thing to do. No one asked me to do it. I just did it for JP."
When Valdez was playing for the University of Miami, he never dreamed he would be back in his old stomping grounds, serving as a high school football coach.
"My plans coming out of Hoboken High School and then Miami were to go straight to the NFL," Valdez said. "But then I had injuries and a lack of playing time, so that killed that dream. I never thought I would be coaching, but when I came back home and became a teacher, coaching just sort of followed. And once I got into coaching, I knew I was in the right phase of my life."
Valdez first helped out as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater, and last year, he made the move to become an assistant at Ferris High School in Jersey City. It was only natural, considering Valdez was already a seventh grade mathematics teacher at P.S. No. 9 in Jersey City.
When former coach Mike Rivera resigned to become an assistant principal at the district, it left an opening for a head coach. Wilbur Valdez, although just 26 years old, was ready to make the step up and take over a floundering Ferris football program.
"Coach (Ed) Stinson (Valdez' high school coach at Hoboken) told me that I had all the right tools to become a head coach," Valdez said. "I show my enthusiasm and kids seem to feed off of it."
Valdez had a sense that he would be eventually elevated to replace Rivera, so he took it upon himself to implement an off-season weight training regimen, much like the one he became accustomed to while playing for Stinson and the Red Wings.
"You can't go all winter and spring without weight training and then expect to strap it up and play right away in August," Valdez said. "I just took a page out of the Hoboken book and started lifting with them. I put in my time and I hoped that the kids would give of their time."
When it came time to begin practice in earnest in July, Valdez had a very interesting approach. To see how many kids were truly interested in playing for him, Valdez had a special request - to clean up the Ferris locker room and shower area.
"I wanted them to show a concern for where they lived," Valdez said. "It wasn't for me and the coaching staff. We're not going to take showers there. It was for them. They had to clean it up."
So the Bulldogs - Valdez included - got out the soap, the sponges, the mops and brushes and spruced up the shower area and locker rooms.
"We all got down and dirty," Valdez said. "We became a team."
Valdez said that it was another trait he learned from Stinson.
"I used to see him in the locker room, vacuuming and cleaning," Valdez said. "He showed us all to treat the locker room with respect."
A day after the cleanup patrol, Valdez took a look at the Ferris locker room.
"I peeked in and saw that it was spotless," Valdez said. "That meant a lot to me. That was a positive sign."
Valdez said that he has been implementing a lot of different things to make sure the Bulldogs appreciate the little intricacies of high school football.
"I want them to have a good time," Valdez said. "I don't mind them smiling. I want them to have a place that they want to come to. But it's also football and there's tough love. I have to stress discipline. I'm trying to make them learn how to live the right way first. We started with the little things like scrubbing the locker rooms and showers. Once you set down the discipline, then everything else follows on the field."
Valdez knows he didn't inherit a gold mine. The Bulldogs were 1-9 last year.
"They're lining up right and hustling," Valdez said. "I want them to get off the ball quickly and do what's right. I want them to play. I think they're beginning to understand that. What I'm teaching them, I've learned from some of the best coaches in the country. Little by little, they're getting there. They're really not used to it."
Last week, Valdez took his team to Rutgers University, to watch the Scarlet Knights practice. Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano was the defensive coordinator at Miami when Valdez was there.
"I gave Coach Schiano a call and he told me to bring the kids," Valdez said. "I wanted our kids to see the tempo Rutgers works at, how they go from one drill to another and waste no time."
It has also helped that Valdez wears a national championship ring he earned four years ago. He's not far removed from playing under the national spotlight, which gives him instant respect from the players.
"I think they appreciate the fact that they're getting it from someone who was recently there," Valdez said. "I only know one way. There are no excuses. It's the way I was brought up since I played Pop Warner in Hoboken. I knew when I had to be on time. I knew I had to take care of business, of school work. I want them to understand that football is more than just playing. It's the way you live as well."
Valdez is going to learn how the other side lives - and in a hurry. The Bulldogs open their season against his alma mater and his former coach.
"I have a lot of respect for Coach Stinson and what's he's done for me," Valdez said. "I owe the man a lot. I know that we're going to field a team that is disciplined and is tough. Right now, the kids are in a little bit of shock, because it's all taking a bit of an attitude adjustment. But it will work. As this team learns everything, how to play, how to live, they'll get better. I want to develop a special program here."
Spoken like someone who has lived through and been a part of special programs in the past.