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Big-hitting Wisconsin Badgers safety Jay Valai faces Florida State Seminoles in Champs Bowl

Wisconsin strong safety Jay Valai saw the option pitch to Minnesota running back Shady Salamon on the left edge and raced toward him with one simple thought:

"You've just got to come with it," he said.

Apparently, Salamon figured to be just as aggressive. At the last moment, he lowered his head. Valai did the same as the players collided like charging rams.

"At that point, let the best man win," Valai said. "If I get run over, so be it. Like in (the movie) 300: If you get run over, it's an honorable death. You just can't go in soft and get pushed out of the way."

Not on that play.

Not on any play.

The force of the helmet-to-helmet hit crackled like thunder. The golden M on the right side of Salamon's helmet came unglued and sailed a few yards behind him. (The first-quarter play has been immortalized on YouTube.com.)

Salamon had to be helped off the field, although he was able to return. Valai twisted an ankle and eventually left the game with just the one tackle.

That hit didn't draw a penalty. Though he also has knocked out a pair of Ohio State players — backup tailback Dan Herron and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher — and Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell this season, Valai isn't seen as a dirty player.

Folks realize he has one simple thought.

And no one knows that better than the opposing quarterback in Saturday's Champs Sports Bowl, Florida State redshirt sophomore Christian Ponder. He and Valai are boyhood friends from Texas and were high school teammates at Colleyville Heritage.

"Jay hits hard; he'll bring it harder than anybody else," Ponder said, adding how the two have been excited about this matchup since it was announced this month. "I think he definitely plays with a chip on his shoulder because people have always given him a hard time about how short he was."

Valai, also a redshirt sophomore, is listed at 197 pounds on a 5-foot-9 frame.

"I'm 5-8 and three-fourths, to be truthful," he said, laughing gently. "It is what it is."

That explains why many of college football's big boys didn't recruit Valai heavily, despite his stellar prep career. As a senior in high school, Valai was his team's co-defensive MVP and its special teams MVP.

"But we all put our pants on the same way," Valai said. "There's no Superman … running around the field. You just have to play football.

"If you don't respect me, I've got to earn it somehow, right?"

His way is to, well, make an impression. Like Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders, a former standout at Iowa who's all of 5-8 but is a renowned big-time hitter.

"Jay's always been one of those guys who really has no regard for his own body, so he's going to throw it around," said his and Ponder's high school coach, Chris Cunningham.

Valai confessed he was a bit woozy after one of the shots against the Buckeyes, but he nonchalantly said that a player just has to deal "with the blows" as part of the game.

"He has no fear, I can you that," Cunningham said. "That's what makes him the kind of football player he is."

"Fortunately for me, I haven't taken a shot from him in practice," said Wisconsin star receiver David Gilreath, who was born in Fort Lauderdale. "I try to stay away from that. You have to try to do something, a juke, I don't know. Something."

But there's more for an opponent to fear than Valai's fearlessness.

A tireless worker, he knows how to play the game, something he has shown since he took over for struggling Aubrey Pleasant in the first half of last year's Outback Bowl in Tampa against Tennessee.

In his first year as a starter, Valai has 52 tackles (fifth on the team), three tackles for a loss, one sack and a team-best three forced fumbles. The Big Ten coaches named him to their all-conference second team. Talk about being, well, a big hit.

And after his now-signature hit, an ABC announcer calling the game wondered if a high school running back at home watching might still want to play college football. How would Valai, who wants to be a sportscaster one day, have called that play?

"Whew. Better pray for him."

One simple thought, indeed.

Big-hitting Wisconsin Badgers safety Jay Valai faces Florida State Seminoles in Champs Bowl 12/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 25, 2008 10:54pm]
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