By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
It’s not hard to spot San Gabriel High School’s Isaac Valdez.
If his kindness isn’t captivating enough, then his infectious smile will do the trick.
And Valdez has plenty of reasons to smile.
He’s the popular quarterback on the Matadors football team, he’s always flanked by coaches, teachers, teammates and friends and is showered with love and support from his large family.
“But don’t misunderstand,” San Gabriel coach Keith Jones said. “Behind that smile there’s still a competitive young man.”
After hanging up the soccer cleats – “I think that’s where I developed my footwork,” he said – Valdez convinced his mother, Rocio, to let him play Pop Warner football in the eighth grade.
“She didn’t want me to get hurt,” Valdez said. “But she got used to it.”
Rocio now is one of about 40 relatives who attend Valdez’s home games. There still are three games left in the season, but Valdez already knows what he’ll miss most – the high school football atmosphere unmatched by any other sport.
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“I’ll miss the band,” Valdez said. “I love the band. They play a lot of good tunes and they’re pretty much what gets me hyped up. That’s what I like about high school football, but sometimes we go to away games and because of budget cuts we don’t get to hear the band when we score.”
No need to worry. San Gabriel’s three remaining games are at home, beginning with rival Alhambra on Friday.
For four years, Valdez has been a fixture in Jones’ lineup, first as a freshman punter on varsity and now as a star quarterback.
He exploded onto the scene his sophomore year, when he passed for 2,345 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 457 yards. Jones knew he had something special in Valdez, and that was accentuated the following season when Valdez threw for 2,754 yards and 16 touchdowns. He again proved to be a double threat while rushing for 615 yards and six touchdowns. He was a unanimous Star-News first-team all-area quarterback last year.
This season, Valdez is making the most of his final season. When not many believed San Gabriel could defeat Bell Gardens last week – and on the road, no less – Valdez took it as a challenge. He completed 27 of 39 passes for 407 yards and three touchdowns.
So far, he’s passed for 1,709 yards and 13 touchdowns and has his sights set on an Almont League championship. The Matadors are in prime position after a 2-0 start in league but face a crucial test Friday.
Valdez would be ecstatic about beating the Moors and claiming his first league title, but there are bigger – and perhaps better – things he’s set out to do.
For one, getting into college.
Valdez, the oldest of four, will be the first in his family to graduate from high school and first in his extended family to go to a four-year university. His father, Rogelio, is one of 12 siblings and his mother is one of nine. Valdez estimated he has 60 to 70 cousins.
“Some of them I haven’t even met,” said Valdez with a laugh.
There’s a score of NAIA schools looking at Valdez as well as two Division III schools – Linfield College in McMinn- ville, Ore., and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. UC Davis, a Division I school, also is keeping an eye on him, but it’s one of the most prestigious universities in the nation that’s got Valdez most excited — Yale.
Harmonie Bassett is one of Valdez’s math teachers at San Gabriel. Her husband, Jeff, played football at Yale and made a call to Yale offensive coordinator Brian Stark to have them look at Valdez.
The process has just begun, but Valdez said Stark looked at his highlight film and came away impressed. There’s some concern, though, that because it’s late in the recruiting season no scholarship will be available.
“They will see what they can do,” said Valdez, who wants to be a firefighter or an athletic trainer. “But if I get into Yale, I’ll change to something different.”
Valdez feels his academic standing will help him through the rigorous process of applying to school. He holds an overall 3.8 GPA – “I got a 4.0 in my last report card” – and is applying to UC schools including UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and UC Irvine.
Valdez, a first-generation Mexican- American, realizes the significance behind getting accepted to Yale or, for that matter, any school that gives him a scholarship.
“I’m not being real picky about it,” he said. “I just want a chance to play, but if not, hopefully my academics alone will be enough. I just want to make the family proud.”
Valdez already has.
Whether it’s on the field or in the classroom, he’s set a blueprint for what a model student and athlete should be.
“He’s got a younger brother (Christopher) that looks up to him,” said Jones, who’s in his 12th year at the school. “He’s a great figure not only to his family but also here on campus.”
Jones, however, still hasn’t warmed to the idea that Valdez soon will be calling it a career as a Matador.
“I’m not thinking about losing him,” he said. “I’m gonna use him to the very last drop.”
Service with a smile, of course.