Before burrowing into the backstory of the rangy Chiefs downfield threat, we must first create separation, between myth and reality.
The opening chapter of the inspiring narrative woven by Marquez Valdes-Scantling — from being cut as a Lakewood High freshman to reaching pro football’s pinnacle — is disputed by Spartans coaches and peers. Lakewood coach Cory Moore says he never has cut a player in his 15 seasons at the St. Petersburg school.
“But I do know that he was super small,” Moore said. “We couldn’t even find a helmet to kind of fit him. He was really, really, really small. But no, he was never cut. He may have just meant that he didn’t get a lot of playing time or something like that.”
Longtime friend Tracy Johnson, Valdes-Scantling’s quarterback and fellow member of Lakewood’s Class of 2013, corroborates Moore’s account.
“He wasn’t technically cut, he just didn’t play,” Johnson recalled. “It felt like he probably got cut because we gave him No. 97 at receiver, I think. ... He didn’t play, he had to buy his own helmet and shoulder pads. I mean, yeah, that feels like you got cut.”
The rest of this stirring tale checks out: Valdes-Scantling did, in fact, grow and grind and grimace his way to a starting role with the Spartans, a college scholarship and an NFL opportunity. On Sunday, the 6-foot-4 former USF standout and fifth-round pick (by the Packers in 2018) enters Super Bowl 57 in Glendale, Arizona, as one of Patrick Mahomes’ primary targets.
In the AFC title game two weekends ago, he had six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 triumph against the Bengals.
“From not making my team as a freshman to playing in a Super Bowl, it’s a dream come true,” Valdes-Scantling, 28, told reporters Monday evening at the Super Bowl Opening Night in Phoenix. “And I want it to motivate kids out there who were in the same position as me, who were not making it or not good enough or being doubted.”
Discrepancies aside, Valdes-Scantling’s ascension remains the consummate motivational memoir. Exactly no one disputes he showed up at Lakewood raw, thin and mostly bereft of the fleetness he’d brandish in later years.
Former Spartans defensive back Jevaris Little, a 2012 Lakewood graduate who signed with Illinois, recalls observing Valdes-Scantling during the amoebic stage of his career, in a junior varsity game at St. Petersburg High.
“He was lined up at tight end but flexed out,” Little said. “They said ‘Down, set,’ and he got into three-point position — at wide receiver. That was probably one of the funniest moments, looking back.”
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Johnson, who now coaches quarterbacks at Lakewood and has partnered with Valdes-Scantling on a couple of business ventures, recalls his boyhood friend being “the slowest kid on the team.” Even with steady improvement, Valdes-Scantling initially struggled to distinguish himself on a Spartans roster that included future NFL players Rodney Adams and twins Shaquill and Shaquem Griffin.
“But yeah, he balled and he worked his butt off,” Moore said. “He spent a lot of time with Tracy and those guys, just doing more than other people, just being the best that he could be.”
That commitment included arduous sessions with St. Petersburg-based personal trainer Andre Hudson, whose summer camp focused on speed, quickness, agility and reaction. For roughly eight weeks each summer (three days per week), Valdes-Scantling and other athletes from various sports dragged tires, pushed cars and winced their way through outside-the-box workouts that increased fleetness and fortitude.
“I’m not aware of him getting cut from his team,” Hudson said. “But I can tell you when he came out, if that’s what happened to him, he came out with an agenda of pure determination to make the cut. He lined up against those that were faster than him and did all he could to out-perform them.”
By Valdes-Scantling’s junior year, the onetime afterthought was displaying afterburners, evolving into a key cog for a Spartans team that won its first six games before fading.
“This was our 11th-grade year, and we used to tell the (defensive backs) — whoever they were — we would tell them the route,” Johnson recalled.
“I’d be like, ‘V, run a post,’ or ‘V, run a comeback,’ or ‘Run a dig.’ So we’d say it out loud, and the (defensive back) would know what the route is. We’d bet money on the route, and we’d still win. ... Nobody could touch him, it was just the simple fact of just being able to put it together.”
But the real breakthrough, for the player and team, occurred the autumn of 2012.
Moore said Valdes-Scantling’s eliteness manifested itself in a mid-October game at Jesuit, when he finished with eight catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-17 triumph that essentially clinched a Class 5A playoff berth for Lakewood.
“Something just, I don’t know, everything changed and he was like, ‘I’m the man,’” Moore recalled.
Less than four months later, Valdes-Scantling made his commitment to North Carolina State official, highlighting a banner Spartans signing day that also featured the Griffin twins (UCF), Adams (Toledo) and Johnson (Texas Southern).
The rest of the odyssey is well-chronicled.
Receiver becomes a giver
After totaling 44 catches in two seasons with the Wolfpack, Valdes-Scantling transferred to USF, where as a senior in 2017 he established a Bulls single-season receiving yardage record (879) that still stands. In the 2017 Birmingham Bowl, he had three catches for 133 yards — including a 64-yard scoring catch in the fourth quarter — in a 38-34 win.
As a professional, he has earned the trust of Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes, respectively. After four seasons in Green Bay (123 catches, 2,153 yards, 13 touchdowns), Valdes-Scantling signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Chiefs (including $15 million guaranteed) last March.
Moore said some of that money has funneled into the Spartans program, paying for food, equipment, travel expenses and even warmup gear.
All so that no Lakewood kid ever has to get cut.
“He consistently gives back, all the time,” Moore said.
“Money, yes, but there has been times where Marquez has paid for the food and still worked the concession stand. ... He’ll work the concession stand, he’ll come work the chains, but he has really, really, really given back. He has really been a blessing to our program, big-time.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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