Sullivan: Eric Valley’s wonderful life has Medina football back at the peak

Jerry Sullivan

“The man is a genius when it comes to offense,” said Nick Benedetti, who hired Eric Valley in the mid-’90s. Medina has won won consecutive Section VI Class C championships, but a state title is still within their grasp. (Image courtesy of Lydia Battaglia)

Christmas is coming soon, which means it’s almost time for Eric Valley to sit down and watch the movie again with the family. One or two steps into his house, you know it’s his favorite.

“You know, I make signs,” Valley said Thursday in his office at Medina High School. “When you walk in the house, there’s a sign that says ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Over my fireplace, there’s a sign that says, ‘No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends.’”

It has been a wonderful life for Valley, the head football coach at Medina. And this has been a wonderful, unforgettable year. The Mustangs have won consecutive Section VI Class C championships in the calendar year of 2021 — the first in last spring’s abbreviated pandemic season, and the latest a stunning 58-6 rout of Fredonia in last week’s sectional title game at Highmark Stadium.

Medina, competing in the state tournament for the first time, meets Section V champion East Rochester/Gananda at noon on Saturday in the Far West Regional at Williamsville South. A victory would propel the unbeaten Mustangs to the state semifinals next week at Cicero-North Syracuse.

Valley’s team has captured the imagination of the loyal citizens of Medina, a village of about 6,000 souls in Orleans County. Valley grew up there, starred on the football team and graduated in 1991, the year before they opened the new high school. He went on to Cortland State, where he played football and studied art.

Like George Bailey, he had an artist’s dreamy temperament, a longing to do big things out in the world. But he also had the heart and character of a small-town hero. He was more tied to his community than he realized.

(Image courtesy of Lydia Battaglia)

“It sounds kind of corny, but I think that was it,” Valley said. “I went to Cortland to be an artist, but they dropped the art education program after my first year. I wound up getting an art degree. I had an extra year of football eligibility, so I graduated in December.

“So, I had like six months,” he recalled. “I worked about six months back home, and I was ready to go in the Army, because I had nothing else to do. That’s when Nick Benedetti called and said, ‘Hey, do you want to coach football?’”

Benedetti was the Medina football coach at the time, the overseer of a proud tradition that reaches back to the great John “Pinky” Loughlin. Valley had played for him, and Benedetti felt Eric had the creative mind of a successful offensive football coach.

He offered Valley a job as an assistant.

“I was ready to take off because I wasn’t tied down to anything,” Valley said. “Then this opportunity came to teach and coach, and I fell in love with it. And I’ve been here ever since.”

He’s been there 25 years. Valley taught as a long-term sub when he began coaching in 1996. He got his teaching certificate from Buffalo State soon after. He spent 15 years teaching middle school art in Medina, then moved on to the high school.

(Image courtesy of Lydia Battaglia)

Valley is now in his 13th season as head football coach. He’s also the athletic director, though he recently modified the title to “coordinator” and shares the duties. He has coached other sports and last year was called on to coach the girls’ basketball team.

This football team is his masterpiece. Medina went through some down times after winning three sectional titles in the 1980s. But Valley has restored them as a power in Class C after a brief, regrettable stint in Class B as a combined football program with Lyndonville and Barker.

Medina moved back to Class C a couple of years ago and they’ve won 17 games in a row since, the longest active streak in the section. Valley has 34 players, about seven or eight of whom play both ways. He said many moved up from junior varsity because the numbers weren’t sufficient for a full JV schedule.

“I’d like to say our roster is the perfect size right now,” he said. “We’re getting the most out of what we have.”

The Mustangs surely did so a week ago, when they rushed for a Section VI championship-game record 590 yards against Fredonia. They shattered the previous record by more than 100 yards on a snowy day in Orchard Park, winning a second straight sectional crown.

Senior quarterback Xander Payne, who set a school record with 21 passing touchdowns this season and is better known for his arm, rushed for 174 yards and three TDs in the first half alone. Greg Thompson had 189 of his 262 rushing yards in the second half.

Benedetti, who still goes to the games and reviews all the Medina game films, said Valley’s artistic mind and structured approach combine to make him an ideal football coach.

“The man is a genius when it comes to offense,” Benedetti said. “He can make changes on the go. Last weekend at the stadium, you couldn’t throw the football. It was impossible. His best athletes were his wide receivers. So, in that game, he made his wide receivers running backs.”

Payne, a candidate for the Connolly Cup – awarded to Western New York’s high school football player of the year – said he was rarely asked to run this season. But Valley saw the possibilities in the snow last weekend and cut him loose behind a terrific offensive line.

“He’s thought out everything, every single little thing,” said Payne, who plans to play baseball in college. “The artist mentality, he makes sure everything is executed perfectly, everything is exactly how it needs to be. We’ve got a lot of misdirection, guys going this way and that way, really messing with a defense.

“It’s kind of magical when it all comes together. It’s beautiful, honestly.”

(Image courtesy of Lydia Battaglia)

People say the same thing about Valley’s artwork.

“I’ve got a few of his paintings hanging in my house,” Benedetti said, “and my wife is a little particular. He’s pretty good! He could make a living in the art world. He’s that good.”

Valley did a portrait of Dick Gallagher, the long-time devotee of local high school sports who died last year, and presented it at a recent sectional media day. He also painted a portrait of former Sweet Home football coach John Faller, who died in 2019.

Late last fall, Valley did a painting of Josh Allen’s grandmother, Patricia, after she died. On Dec. 22, his phone rang and he saw it was from the Bills. He figured it was about the portrait.

The portrait of Patricia Allen that Valley drew.

No, they were calling to tell Valley he had been honored as the Buffalo Bills/ADPRO coach of the year in Section VI. This, remember, was before his Mustangs won two sectional football titles in a span of six months.

That’s a wonderful year, by anyone’s estimation. Valley got a monogrammed football and $3,400 in grants for winning the award. That came in handy for a man who is renowned for raising money for other people in the Medina community.

Valley has organized numerous fundraisers in Medina. There was a mattress drive for needy families, and a coin drive to support the family of a player whose family lost its house in a fire. He also helped establish a unified sports program, which partners Medina athletes with district students who have disabilities.

Valley pointed to a photo in his office of him in his football uniform at Cortland. Holding his arm is a dear childhood friend, Andrea Lonnen. They were in the same graduating class at Medina and Andrea became an elementary teacher in the district.

“She passed away quite suddenly of a heart attack” in 2018, Valley said. “Her oldest daughter is my god-daughter and the same age as my son. She has two younger kids who are in high school now. We raised money and started college funds for her kids.”

The urge to help came from his mother, Kathie, who taught for 40-plus years in Medina and was a fundraising force in town. Over the years, she started a nursery and a child-care center, now housed in the same building. For years, she raised money so third- and fourth-graders could make trips to Albany. Kathie started Taking Our Youth Seriously (TOYS), which helped children write letters to adults they admired.

Tom Valley, his father, played three sports in Ogdensburg, in the North Country. He and his wife moved to Medina in 1969 and still live on Gravel Road, in the house where they raised three kids. Tom worked for years in quality control at the Fisher Price plant in Medina. Tom writes a weekly column for the Lockport Sun.

“It also runs in the Ogdensburg paper,” Eric said. “His twin brother, Tim, was the long-time JV coach at OFA (Ogdensburg Free Academy). My father’s older brother, Mike Valley, was the varsity coach at Ogdensburg for years.”

Eric’s sister is a teacher in the Medina district. His wife, Laura (an Orchard Park native and the team’s unofficial PR agent) taught at Medina and is now teaching at nearby Lyndonville. They have two children — Tyler, 24, and Lydia, 22, who is considering taking education at Brockport State.

(Image courtesy of Lydia Battaglia)

So, while Valley had the artistic ability and likely could have made a career in art, it’s clear that he had coaching and teaching in his blood. He gets great joy out of his artwork, especially in giving it away to people.

“I don’t do artwork as much as I’d like,” he said, “just because of the nature of the job. But I know I’m going to have an awesome hobby when I retire, something to really enjoy and possibly make some money off it on the side.”

For now, he has a team to coach. The Mustangs are two victories away from a berth in the state championship game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. There’s a chance they could meet OFA, his parents’ alma mater, in the title game. What a story that would be.

This is uncharted territory. There was no state football tournament when Medina won those three sectional titles in the Eighties. It wasn’t held last season because of the pandemic. The community waited a long time for a team like this one.

“In small communities like Medina, it’s a big deal,” Benedetti said. “That’s Friday Night Lights all over again. When you have a team like this, everybody rallies around it. It’s just amazing. This is truly a community team, and it’s not just football. They support all their athletes, even some that don’t do well.

When the Mustangs won the sectional title last May, they rode through the Town of Shelby, about four miles outside the village, and were met by a convoy of fire trucks, ambulances and police cars.

“We had an escort all the way in through town, down Main Street and around back,” Valley said. “There were people lined up in the streets, waving and taking pictures, coming out of their houses.”

Whatever happens on Saturday, the Valleys have given a lot to Medina. A grateful community honks and waves and says thank you for a wonderful ride, for the season of a lifetime.

You can’t put a value on such things, on the bond that exists between a good man and his community. If this were a movie, George Bailey’s brother would raise a glass and make a toast to the richest man in town.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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