“I should have played the Powerball. I was lucky that day. I should have bought a Powerball ticket.”
Robert Valdez may have missed out on a big monetary payout, but might have come up with something much more valuable to his St. James Wildcats football program.
Valdez was referring to a chance meeting with Austin Howard.
“We ran across each other at a graduation party,” Valdez said. “I don’t think he thought I was serious. He thought I was playing. I told him, ‘if you don’t have anything, you might as well come over here with me and we can do some things.’”
“I knew I wanted to be around football. I would have liked to have played longer but God works in mysterious ways, so I’m here now and not worrying about it,” said Howard.
Those “things” Valdez and Howard want to do together on the football field began Monday with Howard’s first day on the job as the Wildcats’ new quarterbacks coach.
The union reunites Valdez and Howard. Valdez was coach at West St. John while Howard was a player for the Rams from 2010-2013. After leaving West St. John, Howard became the starting quarterback at Southern as a freshman – something that didn’t happen at WSJ.
“One of the first mistakes I made as a coach was not starting him as a freshman. We played him at wide receiver,” Valdez recalled. “I went with experience with a senior and all that. From the beginning, you could see how quickly (Howard) picks up on things and how quickly he understands what you are trying to do.”
“He never missed one day of practice and I tried my best to make hell,” Valdez continued. “I had an ‘Austin chart.’ On my chart, every other week, I had ‘upset him. Piss him off.’ Every other week, I had to try and do something to get under his skin, just to see how he would handle that. He handled it well.”
So, it was old hat for Howard when he went through a similar experience at Southern.
“Playing under him,” said Howard, motioning toward Valdez, “I learned how to deal with adversity. He put me through it Monday through Thursday so Friday came easy to me. Coach (Chennis) Berry (the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator) did a good job of that at Southern, too. That’s why I was able to handle so much at Southern as a freshman.
“He prepared me for life. He prepared me for girls. He prepared me for time management. He prepared me for getting good grades. That was the main thing – you don’t pass the class, you’re not playing. So, I always made sure I was on top of my grades and made sure that the people around me were on top of everything.”
Valdez and Howard are of a similar mind when it comes to the complexities of football.
“We like to keep it simple,” said Valdez.
“My quarterback coach at Southern, Coach (Matt) Leone, when he came to Southern my junior year, he asked me, ‘how do you spell gymnasium?’ He said, ‘G-Y-M.’ Keep it simple. That’s what really stuck with me,” Howard said.
The relationship between Valdez and Howard has gone from teacher and pupil to coaching staff colleagues. It’s a transition neither figures to be difficult.
“I won’t say it really feels different because basically my high school life, he has known me. He treated me with respect and treated me like a son. He always wanted the best for me. Basically, he never went back on his word,” said Howard.
“There has always been a level of respect,” Valdez said.
Valdez has had success wherever he has coached, be it West St. John, Scotlandville or St. James, so why bring in Howard at this point in time?
“You can’t get comfortable,” the St. James head coach said. “We’ve won some games, but we haven’t been able to win enough big games. Sometimes you have to be honest with yourself and evaluate things and see what can be done a little bit better, what can be beneficial.”
“I think I bring recent experience. The game changed. I’ve been in a ‘new era,’ so I bring that to the table. At 22 years of age, I’m not that elderly, so I can relate to young guys even more,” said Howard.
The reuniting, Valdez said, can be a learning experience for everyone involved.
“I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. If I’m the smartest person in the room, then we have a problem,” said Valdez. “I need guys that will make me better and will bring in new things that will make us better. That’s the challenge.
“I still feel like I can learn. I’m an old offensive lineman. Offensive line play, I think I’ve got it down pretty well. I get to learn more about the quarterback and more about running the ball. If you’ve coached against me, you know the main objective is to run the ball. But now, we have skilled guys we have to get the ball to more. Does that mean will be totally ‘Air Raid?’ Probably not, but we will take our chances and be a little bit more proficient. To get a guy that’s done that, especially in the SWAC, that’s what they do – you can get whiplash watching all the back and forth – that’s even better.”
When the duo coach their first game together when it really counts, it will be against West St. John – in Edgard.
Valdez already has experienced the ‘return to Edgard’ feeling of going back to West St. John as an opposing coach. That’s something, the SJH head coach said, the new assistant has to learn on his own.
“You try to plan everything, but you can’t plan the handshakes and well wishes walking into the gate. You can’t plan for the comments, sarcasm and criticism, even after the game. That game, from kickoff to ‘0:00,’ can’t come fast enough, just so you can move on.”
“From playing on one sideline to coaching on the other sideline, I finally get to see the field both ways. I can get a good view of a packed stadium at West St. John. I always saw the visitors’ bleachers. It will just be bittersweet,” said Howard.