If you want to know the size of one father’s heart, look inside his car. Abel Valdez, 46, has piled seven boys from the barrio into a Chrysler 300 to take them to basketball practice.
They are not his biological kids but might as well be. Every one of them leans on him like a dad. Valdez snaps a photo – four mashed in the back seat, two in the front, one on the floorboard – and posts to Facebook with classic Westside wit:
“What do you do when you need to get to a team workout and don't have a vehicle with a third row? Squeeze in!!!”
The overloaded Chrysler is a fitting metaphor. Valdez has room in his heart for every boy who wants to play ball. He’s been transporting kids to workouts and games for more than a quarter century. Though he’s never married, Valdez has taken in three boys over the past 17 years and raised them as his own.
What kind of single dad has he been? The oldest flunked every class in sixth grade except art. At the request of his mother, he moved in with Valdez and eventually graduated from Western Kentucky University. Before Valdez became his legal guardian, the boy lacked focus and discipline and ran with troubled kids. After earning his degree, he became a role model in the barrio and added the last name of the only father he’s ever known.
Orlando Mendez-Valdez, 31, plays pro basketball. Once a star in Mexico, he led eighth-seeded Maccabi Haifa to the championship game in the Israeli Basketball Premier League, where it lost 83-76 on Wednesday. He possesses gold, silver, and bronze medals from international competitions, lives with his wife and children in a gated San Antonio community, and owns multiple rental properties.
Valdez met his second son at an alternative school. Ajax Reyes had been sent there for fighting and poor grades. Valdez taught Reyes how to throw a football and introduced him to basketball. Sports opened a door to discipline, and a bond formed. When his mother moved to Mexico, Reyes moved in with Valdez. His grades rose along with his game. Reyes became an all-district forward at Lanier High School and played briefly at San Antonio College.
In sixth grade, Johnatan Reyes followed Ajax, his older brother, into the Valdez home. Valdez taught him to hoop. He put the boy on an AAU team and sold water bottles and enchilada plates to pay for travel to out-of-state tournaments. Six years later, Johnatan became an all-area point guard and earned a Division I scholarship to the University of Northern Colorado.
“My dad,” Johnatan said, “changed my life.”
The one-story house near Culebra Road and General McMullen Drive has an open door. Inside sits a man who cannot say “no” to a boy in need. If one walks in hungry, Valdez offers a meal and maybe a milkshake. If one enters heavy-hearted, Valdez offers hope with an uplifting word. Many years ago, a Lanier sophomore was in a bind. His baptismal papers from a parish in Brownsville had been lost when the family moved to San Antonio, and he needed someone to accompany him to classes to become re-baptized. Lou Martinez turned to the man who supervised his detention in sixth grade. Valdez not only attended classes with Martinez, he became his godfather.
There is no sacrifice Valdez won’t make for la familia. For an extended period, he held two jobs to provide for three sons. By day, he worked as a middle school basketball coach and teacher’s assistant in San Antonio Independent School District. By night, he worked at a call center.
“I remember him literally going from one job to the other and coming out at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” Mendez-Valdez said. “He worked 60-70 hours a week and then some. He did that for quite some time.”
Valdez modeled a work ethic for boys who needed one. Mendez-Valdez, for example, grew up with a single mother in a shanty on an unpaved road across from a cemetery. Railroad tracks cut through his backyard. As a boy, he saw a train run over a man, severing a leg. He saw another man fatally shot next door after a poker game, the body falling seven feet from where he stood. Once, Mendez-Valdez awoke in the night to a loud banging. He opened the front door to find a prostitute, bleeding from stab wounds.
Father and son met at Tafolla Middle School. Mendez-Valdez played on the A team in seventh grade. Valdez coached the B team. Valdez drove the boy home after practice and games and became a mentor. He helped the boy create new study habits. Taught him how to make better decisions with his time and friends. Eventually, the boy’s mother asked a favor. With one son in prison for manslaughter and a second headed there for dealing, would Valdez take in Orlando?
“I beat the odds,” Mendez-Valdez said.
Ajax and Johnatan beat them, too. Growing up without a father increases a child's risk of behavioral disorders, dropping out of school, and other problems.
Although Ajax left San Antonio College, he took a welding job in New Braunfels and aspires to attend welding school.
“Abel is the dad I never had,” he said. “I started playing sports and my grades went up – all because of him. He has a big heart.”
How big is that heart? Valdez missed his youngest son’s birthday and high school graduation. The reason: Johnatan decided he needed to leave for college early to get acclimated to the basketball team and campus in Greeley, Colo. That meant skipping a ceremony and a party. So Valdez drove Johnatan to the airport, hugged him tightly, then let him go.
He posted a photo of Johnatan on Facebook and wrote: “It's tough accepting that my boy is now a man capable of making adult decisions but it makes me proud to see you embracing the responsibility. I love you CHINGOS son!”
The drive home was long and hard and maybe his eyes were a bit wet. But after he pulled into the neighborhood, Valdez knew what he had to do: Pile some boys into his Chrysler and get them to practice.