‘I just knew my time was coming’
LAS VEGAS, Nev., -- On his first recruiting visit to Laramie, Xazavian Valladay remembers seeing plenty of mountains, a random camel by the highway and a whole lot of vast, empty land.
That was just in his two-plus hour drive from Denver International Airport.
The lightly recruited running back from Chicago didn't panic or think to himself "no way," though the bumpy, rocky roads and lack of cell service was admittedly a tad concerning.
"I thought I was going someplace other than Wyoming," Valladay laughed, adding that he still thinks the team's graduate assistant-turned-chauffeur must have taken the long way. "I was just thinking, if I was going to drive here by myself, I don't know how the heck I was going to get back, because I'm never driving in nighttime through those mountains in Wyoming. That's just something I feel like is dangerous. I don't know if any animals are going to pop out.
"I know a lot of that doesn't happen in Chicago, so when you see a yellow sign that says deer is about to jump out on the road, you know, I drive 30 miles per hour."
Valladay features a bright, inviting smile and light brown eyes you can't help but take notice of. His calm demeanor can be deceiving. The man is quiet and unassuming. His results on the field aren't.
Humble. That's the word that is often attached to every story you read about the Cowboys running back. A night of Top Golf in Sin City humbled him even more. Middle linebacker Chad Muma chuckled when asked about Valladay's golf game.
"Actually, he was not very good," Muma joked. "There's a little pole sticking out and he hit it and it came back into the bay."
But does anyone really care if Valladay can golf?
Jamese Valladay said when it comes to her son, what you see is what you get. He's mild-mannered, rarely excitable and private. His focus and determination were bred into him.
Losing? That's not an option.
"Both sides of his family are quiet to a certain extent," his mother said. "But his upbringing has a lot to do with his drive."
FINDING A NEW HOME
The official roster lists Matteson, Illinois, as Valladay's hometown though he will be the first to tell you he grew up in different sections of the Windy City. Matteson is home to more than 20,000 people -- roughly 80% of which are African-American -- though you can't tell where the city begins and ends in this southside suburb.
Valladay can't lie, adapting to Laramie didn't come quickly.
"I knew a lot of things were going to take time," he said. "... I knew I was going to keep growing into this, but I had to get accustomed to it. When you leave a city that you are accustomed to growing up in as a little kid, and then you go somewhere that you aren't used to, it's definitely going to throw you off a little bit. But, you just keep doing you and be patient with it."
He credits his father, Xazavian Valladay Sr., with teaching him poise and time management. That helped. So did engaging with his fellow teammates from the inner-city.
Plus, the reality of the situation is Wyoming was one of Valladay's only suitors out of high school though Purdue and Southern Illinois did kick the tires.
"We saw potential," UW head coach Craig Bohl said. "We probably did not see his ability to catch as he can. He's got really good hands. Then, he's continued to get better. I mean, he redshirted and he wasn't anything special. He's gotten pretty damn good."
That's a massive understatement.
Over the last two seasons, Valladay has established himself as one of the top running backs in the country. He led the Mountain West in rushing in both of those seasons, combining for 1,611 yards and 10 touchdowns. Despite his slender 6-foot, 198-pound frame, the junior has become the Cowboys' workhorse out of the backfield, racking up 320 carries in that time frame.
Valladay followed Nico Evans, who claimed the league's rushing crown in 2018. There was also a mass exodus of backs in the UW program: Jevon Bigelow, Theo Dawson, Reow Jackson, Garrett Gardner, Mike Green, Milo Hall, Trey Woods and Kellen Overstreet all moved on.
Valladay was the only running back left on the roster with a carry at the college level.
"I just knew my time was coming," he said. "Unfortunately, for some of the guys who left, it didn't work out for them and I wish it would have. At the same time, God has a plan for everybody and I'm very appreciative of what's going on.
"... Even though I thought I was ready, I knew I wasn't."
Could've fooled us.
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MAN ON A MISSION
In Valladay's first game as a starter in 2019, he gashed Missouri for 118 rushing yards on just 15 carries. His 61-yard untouched jaunt to the end zone in the second quarter gave Wyoming a three-point lead over its visitors from the Southeastern Conference.
The Cowboys' would eventually pull off the 37-31 upset.
Jamese Valladay tries to make it to as many games in person as she can. That's not always an easy task, especially when she lives more than 1,000 miles away.
She was in attendance that evening in Laramie though. She wasn't about to miss that.
"I love it. As a mom, it gives you such a great and awesome feeling," she said. "... To see that, that's an example for all the other young people. You really can have what you say."
Jamese said she had many phone conversations with her son the week leading up to that Missouri game. Nerves were becoming real. So, naturally, they prayed together.
"I told him, 'just go out do your thing,'" she said. "'Don't be afraid. Get on that field and ask God to open up the Red Sea for you. Take it by force.'"
The Tigers certainly obliged with the sea parting.
The then-sophomore bookended that special season with a 204-yard rushing day in a 38-17 Arizona Bowl victory over Georgia State. Valladay also added 91 receiving yards and was named the game's Most Valuable Player on offense.
"It's been heartwarming," Bohl said of Valladay's progression. "He's really owned his work and he's gotten better ... He's modest. He's not tooting his own horn and he gives credit to the other people around him. He's been a really good team player, and he's a really good running back."
Valladay doesn't need to do much self-promotion these days, everyone else seems to be doing that for him.
For the last two seasons, Valladay has been named to the All-Mountain West First Team. Already this preseason, he has been named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List, which is an honor given to the nation's top running back. For the second consecutive year, Valladay was added to the Maxwell Award Watch List, too. That goes to the Most Outstanding Player in College Football.
"I'm definitely grateful for the recognition I'm getting just because there are a lot of people that go to a big Power-Five school that have had a lot of recognition since they were a little kid," Valladay said. "Coming from where I'm from and the story that I have, just being able to do the things that a lot of kids don't have a chance to do, it's something I'm very grateful for."
MAKING A SACRIFICE
About that story, one many Wyoming fans haven't been privy to. That's no surprise either. Valladay isn't exactly an open book. What we know about the junior we see on Saturdays. His press conferences often consist of thanking his offensive line and praising the Cowboys' defense.
At the annual Mountain West Media Days in Las Vegas, Valladay discussed what it took to get to this point in his life.
His parents were young, around his age when they had him. He helped raise his four younger sisters while his parents worked two and three jobs and his mother completed her master's degree.
Then, there's Chicago, one of the nation's most violent places.
"I've just kind of seen it all," he said. "... You're kind of picking your poison of where you want to live at."
Valladay spared many of the details, but this isn't your typical tale about a scary big-city upbringing. Jamese and Xazavian Sr. wouldn't allow that. No matter how busy life got, there was always a watchful eye over the only son. Running the streets wasn't an option.
"As far as city life in Chicago, as a mom, you always have that in the back of your mind," Jamese said. "It's how you raise them. I was always in his business. I was still worried who he may meet and get connected with though."
Were there struggles? Absolutely.
Valladay's average day began before the sun came up, rushing across town to be at morning workouts at 6 a.m. at Brother Rice High School, a 40-mile round trip from his home.
In Wyoming, that might not seem crazy.
Chicago isn't Wyoming.
Then there was school, practice, games, showcases, homework, chores and church. That sounds like a stable routine, but oftentimes, Valladay was forced to stay with his grandparents and hitch rides to school with his uncle. For a high school student, Valladay said, the pattern was often anything but.
Arrangements had to be made. Tuition had to be paid. Whatever it would take to get Valladay a quality education and hopefully one day a college scholarship.
"I did what I needed to do," Jamese said.
The sacrifices from her -- and her son -- are paying off as we speak.
"It made me into a man sooner than I thought I was," Valladay said. "... There was always a situation to work around."
The scholarship offer from Bohl came back in 2017.
That takes us back to the initial car ride from Denver to Laramie, one that still creases a smile across Jamese's face.
She laughed when she talked about her son's eyes growing wider as the excursion grew longer and more desolate. Admittedly, guns -- of all things -- was the first thing that came to mind when she thought about Wyoming, a place she had never been to before. Those and mountains.
But it didn't take her long to realize her son was in the right place.
"You're exactly where I want you to be," she recalls telling him. 'I'll never forget that. He's a very smart guy. He picks his wars, and he does listen. I think he just took everything in and weighed everything. He trusted the advice given to him. I told him, 'you have to make the best out of a situation. We did what we could do -- I did what I could -- now the ball is in your court.'"
Valladay has rushed for 2,211 yards in just 26 career games. He is currently ranked eighth in school history in that category, less than 800 yards away from taking over second place.
This might not shock you, but Valladay isn't worried about individual accolades.
"Those are made to be broken anyway," he said. "If it's not me, someone else will break those records. As long as I just get to play the game I love and play with the people that I love playing with every day, those records are just records."
Theoretically, Valladay could be in the Wyoming backfield for two more seasons due to the NCAA granting an additional year to all players because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Would Valladay stick around for 2022 or enter the NFL Draft a year early like the school's all-time leading rusher, Brian Hill, did back in 2016?
"It hasn't crossed my mind because I'm trying to focus on the task at hand here at Wyoming," he said. "But, you know, if I'm doing the right things as far as what coach Bohl asks of me and my teammates ask of me, as far as being focused, if the NFL stuff comes later on I'd definitely consider taking my talents to that next level.
"But right now, I'm always a guy that lives in the moment."
This moment includes championship aspirations, but reflection is never far behind for Valladay.
He never expected to call a place like this home. Leaving the city behind was always a hope. But was it realistic? That's a question he often asks himself. Setting records and earning honors is just an added bonus.
He is embracing the blessings in his life. He's doing that in Laramie, his self-proclaimed "safe place."
"Being able to know today that I don't have to look over my shoulder for anything that's in Laramie is a big plus," he said with a smile. "Besides getting hit on a football field.
"I'm very happy with where I'm at."