and one-time Steeler
relishes his ties to East Carolina
For a man who counts among
his friends the likes of Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Terry
Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier and Lynn Swann, Zack Valentine’s memories of his
days at East Carolina are anything but distant.
A super bowl ring and time
in as a member of the legendary Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh during the
late 1970s have not changed the player that wowed the Pirate faithful
during the days when coach Pat Dye roamed the ECU sidelines.
Valentine, gets a huge hug from former
Woodbury High School linebacker Chuck Adair
during the State Title Game. (Submitted Photo)
In fact, Valentine has
smoothly moved on to a new level and a new set of responsibilities. He's
adeptly fulfilling a role many thought he was destined for — coaching
football and turning
out some of the best college prospects in the nation as the head coach
of Woodbury High School in New Jersey.
“I am so proud of East
Carolina University,” Valentine said. “To be a graduate – an alumni. I
was recently reading an article not too long ago for one of my graduate
classes and it was written by an East Carolina researcher. That was
something, I was so proud when I read that. It’s not only sports. There
are television and movie stars, researchers, professors, doctors from
the med school. It makes me proud.”
As a prep coach now, he can’t
wait for the day that he gets to send one of his prospects to Greenville
to don the purple and the gold. One of his protégés, Bryant McKinnie
from the University of Miami, was the Outland Trophy winner.
“I would help East Carolina
recruit any of my kids,” he said. “I would love to see one of my guys
Valentine’s own recruitment
about a quarter of a century ago was
an odd story.
Valentine at ECU
“My junior year (at Edenton's John H.
Holmes High School), we had a senior named Percy Twine,” Valentine
explained. “He wore number 88 and I wore number 89. He started on the
left defensive end and I was on the right. We had similar builds. Early
in the season, Percy found himself on the bench, not playing. Well, one
game, North Carolina State sent a recruiter down to watch Percy play.
Well, they offered Percy a scholarship… Lou Holtz gave him a scholarship
based on my performance on the field. They thought they were watching
him and every time the announcer would say, ‘Valentine,’ the recruiter
“Percy never played football,
but he was a great wrestler and ended up wrestling for them.”
Of course, Holtz immediately
started recruiting Valentine after realizing the mistake. But the
process was so removed from Valentine, he wasn’t really aware of the
opportunities that were there for him.
“In high school, I didn’t
even know what a scholarship was,” he said. “I remember overhearing a
mom talking about a recruiter coming to the high school and talking to
her son and them giving him a scholarship. That was when I realized what
While State pushed hard, it
was another Atlantic Coast Conference school that was pushing even
courted by N.C. State and
Clemson — in addition to ECU. He had
even signed a letter of intent to play for the
Tigers before Coach Dye was able to
persuade him to come to East Carolina.
“I really almost went to
Clemson,” Valentine said. “I signed a Letter of Intent. East Carolina
got involved after that. The thing that really happened was that the
recruiting coordinator for the Edenton area, Ben Gribe, came around and
got to know me a little. Well, I had a friend up in Greenville, Thomas
Slade, and every time I went up to Greenville, Coach Dye would always
find a way to point (out) a certain play here and there during the game and
would say to me, ‘You could have helped us on that play, or he would make
a comment about how I would have helped on another play. Then, Dye
started to come after me.”
It was Coach Dye’s handling
of Valentine and his mother, Vergie, that helped sway the hard-hitting
linebacker to ECU.
“I believe everything that
man says,” Valentine said. “I trusted him then and I still do today. I
really believe in Coach Dye. With Clemson, I had played in the Shrine
Bowl in Charlotte, which is near Clemson, and they really put the
pressure on me. I visited and loved the campus, so I signed. When Coach
Dye found out that I had signed, he personally came to my house and
talked to me and my mom. These are the words he told us that night: ‘We
can’t promise you anything at East Carolina except a great education.
I’m not going to promise you that you will start as a freshman, but I
will tell you that with your talent and ability, I expect you will
After a recruiting
visit to his home, Zack
Valentine's mom indicated to her son
that she trusted Coach Dye — so he signed
to play for the Pirates that very night.
“And then he said, ‘Mrs.
Valentine, will you trust me with your son when he comes to play football
at East Carolina?’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘We can become what
Clemson is and much more.’ He went on to say, ‘I will make sure that he
gets an education and its up to him to play. But, Mrs. Valentine, you
will be able to see him play and later, you will watch him play on
Those words resonated within
Valentine's teen-aged head.
“When he told me this, he
stood up and then headed out to his car. He was pulling out of the
driveway, and I looked at my mom and she gave me that look, like, ‘Zack,
I really trust him.’ So I ran out of the front door and chased him down
the street behind his car. Fortunately, he saw me and stopped and I told
him that night I wanted to sign with East Carolina.”
Dye’s sales job worked, not
to the liking of the folks down at Clemson, but Valentine did become a
Pirate in spite of the .
“Clemson was not too happy
about it,” Valentine said. “Actually, they didn’t like it at all. But I
go by how people treat me and Coach Dye was the type of coach I wanted
to play for.”
Valentine said that his
initiation to East Carolina football was an interesting one.
Valentine (right), with former
then-assistant coach Cary Godette, during
Valentine's last year at East Carolina.
“I took my beatings as a
freshman,” he said. “Cary Godette was the starter at one end and a
senior named (Mike) Cruisie was the other end. After we lost the first
game at State, we went to Appalachian State and lost that game. I played
a whole lot that game and the following week was the starter opposite
“Well, teams just didn’t run
against Cary, so I got a lot of action. That suited me fine, especially
in that year in the game against North Carolina (38-17 ECU win). I
remember Bob Loomis (UNC fullback) kept hitting me over and over again.
But then, after awhile, I had to fight back and that is when I first
became a player.”
Even in high school, one of
the things that set Valentine apart from many players was impeccable
technique, which served him well through his professional career and has
etched him deeply in the East Carolina history books.
“I had very good technique
because I had to have it to make up for my weaknesses as a freshman,”
Valentine said. “I wasn’t strong at all. We didn’t have weights at my
high school. You know, it was like we had one of those Universal
machines my senior year. Otherwise, we basically had tire irons and
wheels to work out with… it was 1974.”
Valentine went into the ECU
program at just 198 pounds, though he was – and still is – in chiseled
shape. He had spent the summer after high school working hard to prepare
for his collegiate career, but it wasn’t until he hit the weight room at
ECU that he began to fully develop physically.
“I had this poster of Floyd
Little (Denver Broncos) on my wall because I really admired him. He was
a little guy who achieved against all the odds,” he said. “I got in the
weight room and found that if I continued to work hard and train hard
and continue to learn the game, that I could become a good player.”
The mentality he forged early
at ECU has continued today.
Valentine is still in top physical condition.
He works hard to
maintain his NFL weight, running five
days a week and practicing
arts. He's a second-
egree black belt in Oyama Karate.
(Photo - Linda Cherubini)
“I stay in shape and still
train,” he said. “My playing weight in the NFL was 230. Right now, I’m
232. I’m still 6-3 and I’m a second-degree black belt. Five days a week
I get up at 5:30 a.m. and lift and then run. It’s always been a big part
of my life.”
to a player.
(Photo - Linda Cherubini)
It is also one of those
things that, though they can’t exactly put a finger on it, allows his
players at Woodbury to connect with him. He’s not that former player who
barks directions at his kids while they scratch their heads wondering if
he really ever played. They see it every day. He is a tangible
example of what it takes to make it in college and, if they can dream,
Valentine’s contributions to
East Carolina as a player were significant. He was a leader on a defense
that consistently measured among the best in college football on a team
that went 34-11 over his four years, including an Independence Bowl
championship over Louisiana Tech in his final year.
Valentine was so good, he was
chosen in the second round of the NFL draft as the second pick for the
team of the decade in the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers. And, according
to Valentine, ECU was good to him right back.
“Even though I don’t get down
there as much as I’d like,” he said. “I think the last time I got down
there was six or seven years ago for homecoming. It was so great to see
so many old friends. The people in the ticket office, like Earline
Leggett, gee whizz… the football people… great. Just great people. I
remember Bobby Wallace got his first coaching job at ECU when I was a
freshman and now he is at Temple. We still see each other now.
“You know, when I was in
school, I had to learn things the hard way. How to hit the books. There
was a point when I was academically ineligible at ECU, but I got it
together and ended up a Dean’s List student. So many people there cared.
Nell Stallings – who just recently passed – Dr. Grimsley, Dr. Martinez,
Dr. Schwartz, they were all a tremendous influences on me. ECU always
stuck by me… everyone was always there for me.”
The school culture was
special to Valentine.
“I would love to live my life
over again,” he said. “And go back to East Carolina all over again. The
people, the weather, the food…”
As ECU history is told and
retold, Valentine’s name is never absent from the tales of Pirate
greatness, though to him, it’s difficult to believe that Pirate fans
judge him as one of the greats.
“Honestly, I’m not a
modest guy,” he said. “But I really don’t know what is good. What does
that mean? I have had people tell me that I was good, but to me, I was
always just doing what I was told and trying not to let the guy in front
of me beat me.”
Not many guys who matched up
with Valentine ever beat him and the professional ranks took great
notice. In particular, the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the time, former
Missouri head coach Woody Woodenhofer was the architect behind the 'Steel
Curtain' defense and was paying close attention to Valentine’s collegiate
Valentine with the
Steelers vs Buffalo
“At the time I was at East
Carolina, we didn’t have many players going to the pros,” Valentine
said. “There was Godette the year before and also Harold Randolph, who
went to the Cowboys, but there weren’t many. My senior year, I heard a
lot of people talking about the pros, but I just wanted to play
football. Coach Dye told me that I would probably get an opportunity.
You start to notice that you are doing more and more interviews and more
people start to come around spring practices wanting to talk to you. So,
I started thinking that maybe I would have a chance, but my
senior year was not focused on getting to the pros.”
One of those scouts that came
around a lot was Woodenhofer, and after Valentine’s senior year,
Woodenhofer visited to ask him a question.
“I remember Woody said,
‘Zack, what would you do if we drafted you with our number one pick?’”
Valentine recalled. “I honestly didn’t have an answer. Couldn’t really
say anything in response.
“Of course, they ended up
taking Red Hawthorne (running back) with the number one pick and they
took me with number two. The defensive coordinator for the Giants also
was in contact with me and said they may take me, but they passed and
picked some guy called ‘L.T’ the next year. He was a pretty good
linebacker, I guess.”
Valentine remembers the
process and how it was much different than college recruiting. And after
all of the different time tests, interviews, agility tests, he truly had
no real feel for what round he would go in, only that he was pretty
certain it would be on the first day of the draft.
“I never thought I would go
two,” he said. “I was happy, of course, but I was never a big Steelers’
fan. I was a Houston fan and really liked Earl Campbell. I liked the Oilers and didn’t really care much about the Steelers.”
Having little knowledge of
the Steelers defense led to some interesting moments for Valentine. Like
former ECU quarterback David Garrard’s post-draft comments about pushing
Jaguars star quarterback Mark Brunell for the starting job, Valentine’s
post-draft commentary left the linebacker with some explaining to do
Zack Valentine was
to make some great friends while in the
NFL. He counts among them fellow
Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw.
( Photo - 1980 Steelers Yearbook)
“After I was picked, I was on
a teleconference and a reporter asks, ‘Zack, how do you feel about
coming to Pittsburgh with the Steel Curtain?’” Valentine said. “Well, I
wasn’t real familiar with all of the players, so I replied, ‘Well, you
got Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and now you got Zack Valentine.’ Some of the
players and reporters took it as a joke, but others didn’t take that
comment very well. I didn’t really know who Dennis Winston, Loren Toews,
Robin Cole, and Andy Russell were. The team was loaded with great
linebackers and all I knew were Ham and Lambert.
“I remember sitting in my
hotel room in Pittsburgh the day before (he was to meet everyone) and I
pick up the Post-Gazette and there was an interview with Jack Lambert
where they asked him what he thought about this small, cocky linebacker
coming in from a small school who has heard of only two Pittsburgh
linebackers. And Lambert says, ‘Evidently, he must be a good one because
they drafted me number two also. Now he just has to show it.’ I read that
and was thinking to myself, ‘Oh no! What did you say Zack?’ I thought it
was kind of funny.”
It all worked out for
Valentine as the players let it go and he began to form relationships
with the names that have become legends in the NFL. Mean Joe Greene,
L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Lambert, Ham, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White… the
very fibers of the curtain. And there was Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann,
John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, all of them came to be
Valentine’s friends. And with them, came a Super Bowl ring.
When asked what he
Valentine as a new draft pick for the
Steelers, Jack Lambert said, "Evidently
he must be a good one, because they
drafted me number two also."
(Photo - 1980 Steelers Yearbook)
“I got one,” he said. “And,
it felt great because I know I earned it. During the opening game of my
rookie season against Kansas City, on the opening kickoff, I came off a
block and smacked this guy and dropped him right there. The guys on my
sideline were cheering like crazy and that play set the tempo for that
It was that season, 1979,
that made him part of the team of the decade in the 1970s.
“To be part of that era makes
me feel good,” he said. “I usually try not to look at accolades in
sports as a judgment of my life, but that felt good. I still have the
‘Team of the Decade’ T-shirt.”
Valentine was with the
Steelers until 1981, when a strange turn of events saw him leave
Pittsburgh. After the Steelers had gone to a 3-4 defensive alignment and
Valentine had secured a starting job at inside linebacker, he was traded
to Baltimore. It was a move that took him by surprise.
“I was shocked as were most
of my teammates in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I was shocked because I had
just won the starting inside job. The whole town was shocked.”
The shock turned to absolute
disbelief after he made the trek to Baltimore to the Colts’ facilities
“From the start, I really
wasn’t feeling good about the trade to Baltimore,” he said. “At the
time, Frank Kush was the coach there and he had kind of made an
assessment about me before I ever got there. My agent – Ken Hutchinson –
had told Baltimore that I would be there the next day and they said
‘fine.’ So, the next morning, I was on my way from Pittsburgh to
Baltimore. I got there just a little after 3 p.m. and the team had just
got on the field. I went to the main office and there were reporters
waiting there to interview me. There had been a luncheon where they
announced that they had traded for a starting linebacker – me – who was
coming in to lift the Colts’ defense.
“I walk in and ask the front
desk person where I should report. They go in the back and out comes the
Director of Operations and he asks me to come in the back. He tells me
that they didn’t know if I was going to show up or not and that they had
called Pittsburgh and that the Pittsburgh people had told them they
didn’t know if I was coming or not. So, he tells me, Baltimore waived
me. I thought he was kidding, but he told me it was a personal decision
by Coach Kush.”
Valentine repeatedly asked to
speak to Kush personally, but was denied. So, he called his agent to
tell him the news, to which Hutchinson could only reply, “You were what?”
Hutchinson told him that he had personally called the Baltimore people
to ensure that they knew Valentine was on his way.
“I stuck around to try and
talk to Kush and find out what was going on,” Valentine continued.
“After I hung up the phone with Ken, I turned around and there were some
reporters asking if they could talk to me. The reporter says, ‘Zack
Valentine, you are our new starting linebacker. Coach Kush has spoken so
highly of you, how do you feel to be in Baltimore?’
“So, I said, ‘Well… first of
all, I like being here. It’s close to my home and family in North
Carolina.’ Then I paused and said, ‘But, I just found out that I was
waived… you know… cut.’ They couldn’t believe it and they started asking a
bunch of questions and all I could say was that I didn’t know why I was
Valentine then called
Steelers’ owner Art Rooney and told him what had happened. Rooney told
him that something wasn’t right with this and set out to find out what
“You know, Kush never did
talk to me. He refused,” Valentine said. “That really upset me and then
the Baltimore folks said they would get me a hotel room for the night,
but they required me to pay a deposit for the phone, do you believe
that? I called my agent again and told him that I was going to drive to
North Carolina and get myself together”
Baltimore never explained
themselves to Valentine, who found out from Chris Berman via an ESPN
broadcast what had happened. The trade for Valentine had involved a high
draft pick going to Pittsburgh. At that time in the NFL, if a player was
waived, the lower team could claim the player and sign him for less,
thus reducing the value of the traded pick. In short, Baltimore wanted
to waive and then re-sign Valentine in order to stick Pittsburgh with a
much lower draft pick in the trade. But it never happened.
“On the ESPN report, the guy
comes on and says that if people wanted to know how tough a coach Frank
Kush is, they should ask Zack Valentine. The story said that I was late
getting to Baltimore and Kush waived me and then refused to talk to me.
“Within 20 minutes of that
report, my phone was ringing with calls from across the league. I don’t
even know how they found me down in North Carolina. I decided to sign
Veteran's Stadium the last
time he ever wore an NFL uniform- 1985.
Valentine spent two seasons
in Philadelphia before suffering a career-ending knee injury while
playing for Dick Vermiel. He was a vested NFL veteran, so he took the
Today, Valentine is prepping
his high school team for his second season as the head coach and his
seventh season overall with Woodbury. He is a physical education teacher
and he finds that his job now is everything he could want in a career.
“This part of my football
career is much different than (the NFL),” he said. “You have to have a
base in your life and mine is here. I’ve gone to the top (in football).
But even though I won a Super Bowl, I never won an NCAA title in college
and I never made the playoffs as a high school player. But, this has
allowed me to finally get those accomplishments — as a coach.”
Through one of his prodigies
at Woodbury, Bryant McKinnie, Valentine shared in the glory of Miami’s
national title last season and, through his hands on guidance, his
Woodbury club has gone to the championships three years running. And, it
is here that he also has re-discovered the camaraderie that he so
missed after retiring from the NFL.
“The players always come back
around and I stay connected with them,” he said. “The mark of a true
coach, to me, is when the players you have coached come back and want to
talk to you and reminisce about old games. Receiving e-mails from the
kids or when one is home on spring break or for the holidays and pops in
to say, ‘Hey, Coach Val.’ That’s rewarding. I chuckle because I just
hired an assistant who was one of the first kids I coached and he told
me that I had helped him fulfill a life dream by hiring him. That feels
Though Valentine finds a lot
reward in his work, there are moments, he says, that make him wonder.
“I played in the NFL and I’m
thinking that this might mean something to the kids,” he said. “But a
lot of the kids today really cannot relate to that. Even now, kids will
ask me if I played against Emmitt Smith or Deion Sanders. I am Mr.
Valentine to them or Coach Val. I don’t think they grasp the full
understanding of a Super Bowl ring. We won the state championship three
years ago. That, they can relate to.”
Although he does admit that
he got a kick out of one thing.
“The kids thought it was
great because on one of the Nintendo games, I am on the roster,” he
said. “They came in and thought that was really impressive.”
He does try to impress upon
his kids a few things he has learned on the way.
“I tell them, ‘I’ve been to
the next level,’” he said. “I tell them to work hard and get a piece of
what I got.”
His teams have responded. As
a defensive coordinator, his Woodbury squad gave up less than 10 points
per game over his five years and pitched 19 shutouts. And now, his club
is poised for yet another run at the title.
“Looking back, I thank God
for my accomplishments,” he said. “I could write a nice script. There is
not a whole lot I would do different.
With Dr. Richard
Eakin in 1996 at ECU
Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
“East Carolina has meant a
great deal to me. I am very proud of my education. I have great memories
of walking the streets of Greenville. I would never be ashamed to send a
kid there for an education. I would be so proud of one of my players
going there, more than any other university in the country. Being
inducted into the university’s hall of fame was a great honor. Believe
it or not, I still wear my East Carolina stuff around today.”
He also takes great pride in
where the university is today.
“Looking at the school now,
the athletes and the people there, I’m happy to be just a small part of
a great big, lovable family at ECU,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to
be part of that, and seeing how it has grown to what it is today is
amazing to me.”
Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.
Click here to dig into Ron
Cherubini's Bonesville archives.