TAMPA ― In a vast sea of famished college kids pursuing the next free pizza slice, UCF undergrad Anthony Montalvo struggled staying afloat.
Walk-on defensive linemen require more than Ramen noodles and Red Bull to get by. Montalvo’s mom back in Tampa was a trained chef who had taught him how to prepare quick, nutritious meals in the dorm room he shared with three others, but even white rice and cod fillets bear a price tag.
“You have to like, really be careful with your money,” said Montalvo, a 2016 Sickles High graduate who had ditched UCF’s pricey student meal plan after a year. “Campus is very convenient; they have places around. But obviously going there for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it gets expensive.”
For 2½ years, this was Montalvo’s existence: taking classes, studying, doing laundry and trying to form square meals out of round currency, all while brandishing a completely different type of hunger to Knights coaches and teammates.
“Mentally, he was all in there,” said his mom, Liza. “What his toughest spot was, knowing there was only one income in the house and…”
With that, Liza’s voice, betraying a robust Long Island accent, quivers and cracks.
“He was worried that he was putting too much pressure on us to help him succeed in his dreams.”
Today, the dorm-cooked meals have been shoved to the back burner.
At the conclusion of UCF’s practice on Oct. 10, roughly a month after Montalvo had cracked UCF’s starting lineup, coach Josh Heupel announced he was placing the 22-year-old tackle on scholarship.
“He absolutely earned it,” Heupel said. “And people have been able to see that on the field.”
Today, the Twitter video capturing the moment has nearly 59,000 views.
”We both cried,” said Anthony Sr., a shop technician for Pepsi the last 14 years. “But I hid in the bathroom.”
Anthony Sr., Liza, their younger son Marcus and roughly a half-dozen other relatives will convene Monday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, where they’ll radiate and root for the 6-foot-2, 278-pound redshirt sophomore attempting to become the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college.
One of UCF’s strongest and most agile players, Montalvo enters the Gasparilla Bowl against Marshall with 24 tackles, including five for loss and two sacks. The double-teams he attracts up front have helped enable weakside linebacker Nate Evans to record a 100-tackle season.
“I love that kid,” Knights left tackle Samuel Jackson said. “What he’s done to put himself where he’s at right now…it’s inspiring just to watch.”
Three years ago, Montalvo could barely capture attention, much less hearts. Though a solid student with burgeoning football potential at Sickles, major colleges barely gave him a second look.
Modest SAT scores didn’t help. By his graduation, Montalvo had only a handful of Division II and NAIA offers, most from out of state.
But he had a UCF connection. Longtime bay area prep coach Ed Schenk, a Knights offensive utility player in the early 1980s, was running a Bible study and “boot camp” at a facility near Montalvo’s home in Citrus Park.
Montalvo began participating regularly and, with the help of a tutor arranged by Schenk, improved his SAT score. He then joined Schenk and several other prospects for an unofficial visit to UCF, where he came away with an offer to join the Knights as a preferred walk-on.
“We first applied for it, and he got accepted,” Liza said. “But there was a little bit of drama going on…because we didn’t have the financial aid at the time when they said they accepted him.
“Then we had to re-apply and he got accepted. He said, ‘Mom, I’m not giving up. This is the school, this is where I want to be at.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m with you, let’s fight for your dream.’”
It wasn’t the first time the family had taken a risk for its betterment.
Anthony Sr. was working in construction on the other side of Manhattan when the Twin Towers crumbled on 9/11. By Thanksgiving weekend 2001, he, Liza and 4-year-old Anthony Jr. had departed their Long Island home in search of a new life in Florida.
“We got in the car and we left,” Anthony Sr. said.
Sixteen years later, in the spring of 2017, they packed Anthony Jr.’s belongings and this time headed east. That fall, Montalvo participated on the scout team as UCF stunned the college football world by finishing 13-0 and topping Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
In the ’18 opener against Connecticut, he made his collegiate debut, recording a tackle. Disillusionment had mildly infringed on his determination by the time he notched his first career sack, in the fourth quarter of the regular season finale at USF.
“It wasn’t the actual walk-on, it was (changing) my mental state of thinking that I deserved something to I have to earn it,” Montalvo said.
“I think that’s the biggest thing with many people now, and especially me when I first got here. I was like, ‘Oh I deserve this.’ It was just my mentality, and I had to switch it to, ‘I have to earn it, I have to do this.’”
He cracked the starting lineup for the first time on Sept. 14 against Stanford, and started the next six contests. Amid that stretch came his practice-field promotion.
Montalvo no longer had to worry about meals, only about staying hungry.
“It’s amazing, it’s a blessing,” Liza said.
“Since I’ve been on campus (and) our coaching staff came in, just great consistency in who he is, how he approaches everything that he does ― academically, socially, on the football field,” Heupel said. ”He pours it into his teammates every single day.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls