There’s more to Eureka’s Zach Valentine than catching touchdown passes and or making tackles. The 5-foot-11 and 185-pound senior receiver and defensive back is also a Best Buddy.
“In our school, [Best Buddies] is a big deal and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Valentine said. “It helps build one-on-one relationships with kids with special abilities. I’m on the board. I help out with whatever I can do.”
Valentine is the chapter secretary for the extracurricular program. A fact that impresses Coach Jake Sumner. But Valentine’s involvement is personal.
“I have a younger brother [Aiden] who has special abilities,” Valentine said. “I’m very supportive of him. I coached his Special Olympics flag football team.
“I was glad to help him do that. I see how much fun he has. I see the other kids enjoying it, too. It’s really incredible.”
John Deavers, a special education teacher and the sponsor of Best Buddies at Eurek, said Valentine is committed to the program.
“He really believes in the Best Buddies mission and works hard to make sure that all students are positively included as visible members of our school,” Deavers said. “Zach participates in all of our activities. He has helped coach players for ‘Friday Night Lights,’ collect coats for our coat drive, cook food for ‘Breakfast with Buddies,’ and helped with our year-end party where we played kickball.”
Deavers said it’s great to see a student get so involved with the program.
“Zach has a passion to make sure all students have a friend, regardless of any physical or intellectual disabilities they may have,” Deavers said.
Valentine had to overcome the challenge of terrible knee injury to get to the level he is playing at this season for the Wildcats.
“He started as freshman,” Sumner said. “He did a great job that year at cornerback for us.”
His sophomore season began with a bang. In three games, he only caught five passes but he turned those into 231 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged just more than 46 yards per catch. Then, halfway through his fifth game, it all fell apart. Valentine suffered a debilitating knee injury, one that robbed him of the rest of his sophomore year. As he rehabilitated, a second knee surgery was required, this one on his other knee.
“I was happy with how I was performing,” Valentine said. “My freshman year I started at corner. I had a broken hand. In practice heading into the third week, I broke a metacarpal bone in my right hand. That kept me out that week. I didn’t have my cast on that week. Then the following week with a cast, I wrapped it up and played the rest of the year. So I played in 10 of the 11 games.”
Valentine was named to the second team all conference.
“I had a lot of confidence going into the next year. I was excited.”
In the fifth game while playing Lafayette, Valentine got hurt. The day before the game was his birthday.
“I was 16 and got my license and then the next day we played Lafayette,” Valentine said. “I caught a screen pass for a touchdown. Then, late in the game, I was on the right side and came in motion and took the handoff and went up the sideline. A linebacker was out there. He was trying to make a play; I had my foot planted in the ground and he hit me. He spun and my foot was on the ground and it twisted my knee when I went down.
“I knew something was up right away. It was my left knee. The next day I got X-rays. Then, I had an MRI the following week. Then, two weeks after the injury, I learned what was wrong.”
It was not good. Valentine tore his anterior cruciate ligament [ACL], medial collateral ligament [MCL], lateral meniscus, patellofemoral tendon and partially tore his patellar tendon.
Valentine has surgery that October. It was successful. He began rehabilitation.
Sumner knew he would be back.
“Absolutely. When that happens and the type of football player he is and he’s a wonderful young man, it’s demoralizing. It’s tough to have happened to a sophomore. But he attacks everything the same way he does on the field. He pushed hard. He did all the things you hope a young man would do. We’re happy he’s back out there playing now.”
The first surgery repaired everything in his knee except for the ACL, Valentine said. He pushed through the punishment as he worked in physical therapy to break up the scar tissue.
“I was working to get my range of motion back,” Valentine said. “Once I did that, I was able to get the second surgery. I had to wait to get the motion back. Then, they repaired the ACL. They had to go into my right knee to get part patellar tendon to graft in there. The right knee was the hardest to rehab. It was so stiff. That was harder than the other one. It was a pain.
“Every day was a mental battle. It motivated me because I knew where I stood. I knew I had a good idea of what I needed to do. I’m hoping to play in college and that motivated me. My teammates and coaches were all there and very supportive all the time. They wished the best.”
Last season, his junior year was an up and down year for Valentine. He was cleared to play.
“Begin back to full ability and cleared to play are two separate things,” Valentine said. “I was cleared but I was not as fast as I was. I couldn’t move and cut as well as I did as a freshman and sophomore. It was a get back in the groove year for me.”
Valentine saw limited time on junior varsity as a junior.
This season, Valentine is back.
“He’s having a fantastic season, Sumner said. “A great year.”
Through the first seven weeks of the season, Valentine leads the team in receiving with 29 catches for 549 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s averaging 18.9 yards per catch. He has an interception on defense and has returned two punts for 78 yards.
“He’s been pretty impressive,” Sumner said. “It’s wonderful to see him becoming such a contributor to our success. He can do a little bit of everything for us. He’s had some big catches. He’s had some little ones that he’s turned into explosive plays.
“It’s wonderful to see him playing again. He’s such a hard worker. Nobody wanted it more than him. It’s put a big smile on my face to see him doing so well. He does everything we’ve asked of him. He’s a team kid, a team-first guy.”
Valentine, who is a team captain, is glad to be back and playing.
“I’m on the field a lot,” Valentine said. “I like that. I worked crazy hard to get back.”
He also worked hard in school. Valentine has a 3.9 grade point average.
“Academics are important to me,” said Valentine, who is in the National Honor Society.
Valentine believes the Wildcats can go deep in the postseason.
“The goal is a state championship,” Valentine said. “We set our goals high here at Eureka. I’m having an awesome time. It’s my senior year.”
That means is the last season for him. Sumner is aware Valentine will not be here next season.
“The kid is there for everything. He embraces every little thing about Eureka football,” Sumner said. “Everything you’d want in a son he is.”