September 07, 2011
When guard Eric Valentin failed to complete five suicides drills in five minutes during Tuesday's inaugural conditioning session of the season, Green Bay basketball coach Brian Wardle feigned anger at the senior for allowing a summer job to prevent him from staying in shape.
"That's a problem," a straight-faced Wardle told Valentin at the end of practice. "You need to make sure you're dedicated to this program, not worried about money and getting yourself in shape."
The payoff to Wardle's mock lecture was a surprise Valentin never saw coming. Wardle ensured paying for school would never weigh on Valentin's mind the rest of his career by presenting the 5-foot-4 walk-on with a full scholarship, a joyous moment that the coach had a member of his staff capture on film in the above video.
"Honestly, he got me pretty good," Valentin said by phone Wednesday. "I actually didn't know what was coming. Then he handed me a piece of paper, I saw 'grant in aid' at the top and I knew it was a scholarship. I saw a bunch of money fly back into my pocket, all the money I spent on tuition and books. That was a great feeling."
The bear hug Valentin shared with Wardle represented his joy at achieving his unlikely dream of earning a Division I basketball scholarship despite his diminutive stature.
Even though he stood just 4-foot-3 in sixth grade and didn't surpass 5 feet until well into his high school career, Valentin's passion for basketball was too strong for him to quit and focus on another sport better suited to someone his size. The Florida native played his final two years of high school basketball at Orlando Christian, averaging 13 points and eight assists as a senior and earning first-team all-conference honors.
Opportunities to play in college were scant since coaches were hesitant to take a chance on someone so short, so Valentin enrolled at Daytona State Community College. A handful of Division II, Division III and NAIA schools expressed interest after he averaged 4.1 points and 2.3 assists per game there, but Valentin still dreamed of playing Division I basketball.
At the advice of his Wisconsin-born girlfriend, Valentin contacted the staff at Green Bay and asked for the opportunity to walk on to the team. Wardle said he came away impressed with Valentin after their first meeting.
"I'll never forget that conversation with Eric," Wardle said. "I was blown away. I didn't know who he was, but I did my background checks and found out everything he said was the truth and that he was even more humble than what he told me that day in the office. To be able to give him a full scholarship for one year, it's probably one of the better feelings of my coaching career."
Valentin appeared in only five games last season for Green Bay and scored just six total points, but he found other ways to contribute to the team.
He ingratiated himself to his coaches and teammates with his selflessness and work ethic. He set an example for younger players by focusing on academics and expending 100 percent of his energy in practice each day. And he even brought some publicity to the Green Bay program when he broke the Guinness World Record for half-court shots in one minute, landing him on "SportsCenter" and on the front of Yahoo.com.
Valentin's job this summer was a paid internship for the United States Department of Agriculture. Instead of using that money to pay for books and out-of-state tuition for his senior year, Valentin says he'll save it or use it to pay off previous student loans.
"I'm a big coupon guy, penny pincher," he said. "I've always appreciated the free food we get on the road and I'm going to try not to change. I'm going to try not to go on any shopping sprees and buy a bunch of shoes. I'm a big saver so I'm sure that's going to get saved away."
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