Grayslake Central running back Joey Valdivia is a three year started and a big reason the Rams are having their bast season in years.
Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer
Grayslake Central running back Joey Valdivia is a three-year starter and a big reason the Rams are off to their best-ever start at 5-0.
Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer
Grayslake Central running back Joey Valdivia.
Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer
Instead of wishing they were elsewhere on a Friday night, grade school kids with football aspirations in the Grayslake district are now wishing for autographs.
And Grayslake Central running back Joey Valdivia is happy to oblige.
"Some kid actually asked me for my autograph the other day. He was probably 12," Valdivia said. "That made me feel pretty good."
It's remarkable how things have changed at Grayslake Central in the five to six years since Valdivia was that kid's age and in his shoes.
A promising player within the Grayslake Colts youth program, Valdivia used to go with his parents to Grayslake Central games on Friday nights to learn and dream.
But he often didn't last for long.
When Valdivia was in sixth grade, Grayslake Central went 0-9. In the two seasons after that, the Rams won a total of two games.
"I'd want to go to the games every year," said Valdivia, who once scored 5 touchdowns and ran for more than 300 yards in one of his youth football games. "But after they'd lose the first few games of the season, I couldn't watch anymore.
"I'd go watch other high school teams play, like Carmel and other schools around here."
Thanks to players like Valdivia, the local grade schoolers are no longer jumping ship. Grayslake Central is now a team that is getting cheered for game in and game out.
Valdivia and his steam-rolling runs have literally paved the way to a 5-0 record for the Rams. It's the best-known start in school history.
Grayslake Central will go for a 6-0 mark tonight when Crystal Lake Central comes in for a visit.
"We've definitely been getting treated differently around Grayslake," Valdivia said. "If you're in town with your jersey on, people are really nice and want to talk all about the team."
Valdivia has certainly been at the center of many of those conversations.
A shifty yet powerful runner, he leads the Daily Herald's Lake County coverage area in scoring with an autograph-worthy 96 points on 16 touchdowns. He ranks third in rushing yards with 609, but his stunning 11.9-yard average on 51 carries is the best in the area for backs with more than 50 attempts.
Valdivia can also catch the ball. He's rolled up 318 yards and 7 touchdowns on 11 catches. He averages 28.9 yards every time he hauls in a pass.
"Joey definitely makes life in the backfield a lot easier on me," Grayslake Central quarterback Ray Beckman said. "He can do so many things. He's always keeping defenses guessing and he's so strong and fast. When he's taking shots, he refusing to go down. And when he's in the open field, no one's going to catch him.
"Freshman year, he was our punt returner and I remember this one game the punt came his way and it was rolling on the ground and all the coaches were yelling at him to run away from it. But he ran to it, picked it up, ran to the other side of the field and wound up running for a touchdown. That's when we were all like, 'Wow, this kid is going to be really good.'"
In fact, Valdivia is poised to become Grayslake Central's all-time best.
Although Valdivia's career has been compromised and shortened by various injuries, he will graduate with just about every record imaginable for a running back.
"The record book is his," Grayslake Central coach Nick Goshe said with a laugh. "I mean, he is literally rewriting them. He doesn't have our career touchdown record right now, but everything else, he either already has or will have soon."
Valdivia was moved up to the varsity as a sophomore. But despite playing most of the season on a right knee that was still recovering from a meniscus ligament tear suffered just weeks before the start of the season, he rolled up the yardage.
One night, he set the school record for most yards in a single game with 221.
Last year, despite being hobbled with a torn meniscus ligament in his other knee, Valdivia carried on and played through the pain and wound up breaking the school record for most rushing yards in a career. He now has well over 2,500 yards to his name.
Immediately after last season, he underwent his second meniscus surgery.
"It's been tough going through all the injuries," Valdivia said. "But I think it's made me really thankful for what I do have and that I have still been able to play.
"It's made me a stronger person, too."
Not physically stronger, though. Valdivia has always had that covered.
Valdivia, also a state-qualifying wrestler and shot-putter, is a 5-foot-10 bundle of muscle.
"He is a weight room freak," Goshe said of Valdivia, who took third place in the state wrestling meet (189 pounds) and fourth in the state track meet for shot put last year. "He is by far the strongest kid in our school. He's got every weight room record there is here. What he does in the weight room is just ridiculous. I mean, he is really, really strong.
"I think his strength is a big part of his success, but I also think it's just because he's got a hybrid (of attributes). He's strong, he's fast, he's got good hands, he's a hard worker. To be at an elite level in three sports like he is, you've got to have all that going for you."
Valdivia hopes all of it is enough to get him a college scholarship of some sort. He's received interest for wrestling and is hoping that some football offers come in as the season progresses.
"My favorite is football but I haven't heard much because I think a lot of (coaches) haven't seen enough of me yet," Valdivia said. "I was hurt a lot my sophomore and junior years."
Goshe says not to worry.
He believes that once coaches see a full season of highlights, they'll fall in love with Valdivia, inside and out.
"People are finally getting a chance to see Joey totally healthy and he's impressing a lot of people. They're kind of just waking up to him," Goshe said. "I think he's going to have all kinds of opportunities not only with football but with wrestling and track.
"Whoever gets him is going to get a talented athlete and a great kid. Joey also happens to be one of the most coachable kids I've ever had. He's a coach's dream. I just can't gush enough about him."