Reversing His Field

Victor Valdovinos is 6 feet 3, 240 pounds, with a chiseled body and the spirit of a warrior.

But hidden behind the mask of granite is a teenager engaged in an internal struggle to keep his dreams intact.

As a football player at North Hollywood High, Valdovinos was earning mostly As and Bs until he suddenly stopped going to classes in December.

"He just disappeared," football Coach Brad Ratcliff said.

Six classes became six Fs.

"I never had one F in my life," Valdovinos said.

He had decided to drop out of school and get a job after his girlfriend became pregnant.

"I was scared," he said. "People used to tell me, 'Be careful, be careful.' I tried."

Earning money became his top priority. He first worked at a fast-food restaurant, then at a deli, where he'd see customers pay $9 for a sandwich, more money than he made in an hour.

He began to question his decision to leave school. He talked with Jason Camp, North Hollywood's new defensive coordinator, who pleaded with him, "You've got to stay in school."

Camp insisted that Valdovinos could take responsibility for his child without relinquishing his future.

"When I first talked to him, he just seemed lost," Camp said. "So many people had given him the worst advice. It appeared a lot of people had given up on him."

Valdovinos enrolled at Amelia Earhart continuation school in February, hoping to regain his academic and athletic standing.

At first, he missed classes and failed to meet his football commitment. Camp removed him from the team. Valdovinos showed up one day and the two went into the bleachers to talk. This time, Camp's message got through.

"Since then, he's made a complete turnaround," Camp said.

For months, Valdovinos has been scrambling to create a better future. Each day is like riding a seesaw, with highs and lows.

Valdovinos is in position to return to North Hollywood next month and join his senior class. This summer, he's catching up by taking classes at the continuation school and at Valley College.

In football, he has a chance to become an all-league middle linebacker and standout offensive tackle. He's already a team leader.

"If other team members pick on kids who aren't necessarily starters, he stands up for them," Ratcliff said. "He's like everyone's older brother."

Valdovinos celebrated his 17th birthday on Monday. His daughter, Athena Abigail, is 3 months. She lives with her mother. He tries to see Athena as often as possible and help financially.

Valdovinos took parenting classes and thinks he can become a good father. But he acknowledges he wasn't ready at 16.

"I think you're ready when you have your degree and your life set, not when you're in high school," he said.

Valdovinos has little time for a social life. He's a parent and a high school student fighting for his future. None of his three older siblings finished high school. Neither did his mother or father. If he fails to graduate, the consequences will be significant.

"I'm trying to get through school, to get a scholarship and make something out of myself," he said. "I want to become the first one in my family to graduate. I want to become a dentist."

Behind the scenes, coaches are almost surrogate parents, steering their athletes through the pitfalls of adolescence.

When football is over, just because you're a senior and the season's over doesn't mean we're not part of your life," Camp said. "You can't forget about the kid."

Lucky for Valdovinos there are adults willing to do whatever it takes to help him succeed. But it's ultimately up to Valdovinos to decide his future.

There are no guarantees of a happy ending, but Valdovinos is trying.

"He's kicked it into high gear," Camp said.

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Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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