Watching #59 Fight
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
On November 10, 1992, Manny Valdes played the final football game of his high-school career. That afternoon the Palmetto Panthers beat the Killian Cougars 12-0 to win the Cat Trophy, a symbolic prize awarded to the winner of this annual game between two district rivals with feline nicknames. It rained that day at Miami’s Tropical Stadium, a driving rain that bred a misty haze when it married the afternoon humidity. The wet and muddy conditions produced the kind of defensive slug-fest that would have made Vince Lombardi proud. When the game concluded, the losing Cougars retreated to the locker room. The winning Panthers danced in the rain to the delight of more than one thousand drenched fans who remained in the stands to celebrate. I was one of those dancing Panthers, a fifteen-year-old sophomore linebacker who’d contributed a few solo tackles to the winning effort that day. Manny Valdes stood at the fifty yard line, taking in the scene. The senior’s uniform was soaked with sweat and rain. It was caked in mud to the point where his number 59 was barely visible. He looked like a warrior who’d just played his heart out. For four quarters he’d fought to neutralize the Cougar rushing attack from his defensive tackle position and helped the Panther defense end its season with a shutout—their third of the previous four games. Manny had fought in line-of-scrimmage trenches on fields in every corner of Miami during his high school football career. Now it was over. He would eventually take time to romp and enjoy the win with his teammates. But in that moment, he wanted to reflect on a chapter of his young life that had ended on a high note, but had ended all the same. I remember seeing Manny stand alone at midfield. He bent down and ran his fingers through the grass like a soldier collecting a keepsake after a hard-fought battle. Then he flashed his signature smile. In those days, the Palmetto football season ended in the locker room with a tradition known as senior speeches. Each senior stood alone before the team and spoke from the heart about what playing football at Palmetto meant to him. At the conclusion of each speech, the senior would toss his jersey into the laundry hamper for the final time. Senior speeches were always an emotional affair. Many otherwise tough young men caught off-guard in the weight of the moment would often breakdown and cry. Manny was no different. His speech was an outpouring whose sentimentality was contagious. I don’t remember exactly what he said during his tear-soaked address, but I recall his last line as though he spoke it yesterday. He looked directly at me and smiled a knowing grin those who know Manny understand well. “I pass my #59 jersey to sophomore Fred Smith, because he embodies everything about the game I believe in. I know he’ll do it proud.” The room erupted. I stood and accepted the game-worn jersey, which was still heavy with sweat and mud. Then I accepted Manny’s hug. We both cried. Bequeathing jerseys to younger teammates wasn’t a Palmetto tradition in 1992. As far as I know, it still isn’t today. But on that day, Manny began a ritual that involved passing down #59 from senior to sophomore. I wore #59 during my junior and senior football seasons. Each time I put the jersey on, I thought about Manny. I made it my goal to play in a way that would leave me as wet and muddy when the game ended as Manny had been that day after beating Killian. I don’t think I ever got as dirty as Manny, but I’m sure I soaked up enough mud and sweat in my career to make him proud. I don’t remember crying during my senior speech in 1994, but I remember bequeathing #59 to a deserving sophomore just as Manny had to me. With my final gesture as a Panther, I tossed my game-worn jersey to Mike Manasco. Then I gave the fifteen-year-old a hug and told him to wear it with pride. He did. (In fact, more than 20 years later Mike would become the head football coach at Palmetto. I guess I picked a good one.)
A week ago, I learned that Manny had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. As I write this, he is undergoing chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic.
Manny is a husband now and father of two. Like a lot of us old Panthers, he’s got a few more pounds and a lot less hair than he did in his playing days. But he still has that smile. It’s the same smile I saw on the fifty yard line after his final high-school game, the smile I saw all year on the sidelines when everything in the game was going wrong but he knew could turn around with a little more heart and sweat. It's the smile of a leader who knows he's in a fight, the smile of a warrior who will never give up. Ever. Fight on, #59. We’re with you. Always. To learn more about Manny’s battle with leukemia or to help him with his fight, please visit his generosity.com page: HERE.
From 1992-94 Fred Smith played with and against some of the greatest football players in history as a member of the Palmetto Panthers. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is loosely based on his experience as a teenager in South Dade County in the early 1990s.