Izayah Reyes didn’t need a reminder just how big last weekend’s gridiron showdown with Bayonne was.
But the words of wisdom came from Union City head football coach Wilber Valdez.
“Coach Valdez said told me and my fellow seniors that we had to put the rest of the team on our backs,” Reyes recalled. “We were going through a bit of a struggle, but it wasn’t anything that me or my teammates couldn’t handle.”
The 2017 season had come down to one game. If the Soaring Eagles wanted to maintain a winning tradition at the school and maintain a streak of consecutive appearances in the NJSIAA state playoffs, they needed a clutch win over Hudson County rival Bayonne.
“We knew coming into the game that it was a must win,” Valdez said. “But I believe that all the games are must win.”
If the Soaring Eagles were to defeat the Bees, then the senior leaders, like Reyes, had to step up. It was a role that Reyes was born to play.
After all, Reyes started playing competitive football at the tender age of 4 years old, playing for a team called the Union City Packers.
“I was an offensive lineman at first,” Reyes recalled. “After that, I was a quarterback all the way through Pop Warner [youth football].”
When Reyes enrolled at Union City High School, he didn’t know what position he was going to play.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to be,” Reyes said. “I always ran all over with the ball under my arm. It was nothing different. I already lived it.”
So Valdez turned the former lineman and one-time signal caller into a running back.
And last Friday night, Valdez turned to his senior running back and asked him to lead the team toward the postseason.
“I’ve been counting on Izayah a lot since January,” Valdez said. “I’m not a fan of the ‘leading by example’ idea. But Izayah had to step up. He’s a quiet guy who doesn’t say much. But he does things the right way. He’s a model citizen. I just hoped he would be more vocal and try to uplift someone every day. Izayah gets that. He sets the tone for our practices.”
Valdez said that Reyes’ approach reminds him of former Union City great Harrison Fernandez, the 2016 Hudson Reporter Defensive Player of the Year currently playing college football at Pace.
“As the game went on against Bayonne, we knew that we had a good chance to win,” Valdez said. “It was just a matter of time before we broke out.”
The Soaring Eagles had a flair for the dramatic Friday. They trailed, 28-21, with a little more than two minutes remaining, when Reyes decided to make his presence felt.
He broke free for two runs of 20 yards, then broke off another run that tied the score at 28-28. For all intents of purposes, the game seemed headed toward overtime.
“That’s what I thought,” Valdez said. “I thought, ‘Let’s go tie the game and take our chances in overtime.’”
But Reyes had something else in mind.
“I guess we were waiting for the right time,” Reyes said.
With 1:40 left, Reyes made a huge hit on the Bayonne quarterback and forced a fumble. Reyes alertly picked up the loose ball and returned it 40 yards for the touchdown that gave the Bees a thrilling 35-28 victory.
“I was at outside linebacker and it looked like a run/pass option,” Reyes said. “During the play, I looked at the quarterback and tried to match him. I tried to snatch the ball away from him and then we both let go. As soon as I did, the ball popped out. I picked it up and ran.”
And with the victory, the Soaring Eagles improved to 4-3 on the season and catapulted themselves to the top of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V power point standings. The win has clinched a playoff berth for Union City for the seventh straight year.
“We never wanted to be the team that ended it all, be that one year that didn’t make the state playoffs,” Reyes said. “Especially with the tradition that we now have.”
Reyes carried the ball 17 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns on offense and added the game-winning touchdown on defense.
For his efforts, Reyes has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Reyes feels good about his performance, but…
“I think I still have a lot of room for improvement,” Reyes said. “I think it helped that the coaches have prepared us well, what to see and how to read it and how to react.”
The running back Reyes rushed for almost exactly 1,000 yards last year and now has 556 yards this season.
“He’s come up big when we needed him,” Valdez said. “We faced a good team that was on a four-game winning streak before facing us. They were hot. We needed this one. Izayah is such a humble kid. Sometimes, he’s too humble. I’ve been trying to bring that edge out of him.”
After the game, Reyes approached Valdez with a surprised look on his face.
“His look said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I just did that,’” Valdez said. “I told him that he should be doing that every game. I tell him that he’s a good player. He doesn’t understand that part. He’s just an amazing kid that I’ve been very lucky to have had a chance to coach.”
Valdez believes that Reyes can play on the next level. He’s already getting interest from the University of New Haven and Pace, the school where his buddies and former teammates like Fernandez, Fernando Breton and Eliezer Oliviery are already playing.
“He’s quick and he can run,” Valdez said.
“I would love to be able to play college football,” said Reyes, who has a 3.0 grade point average and would like to study electrical engineering in college. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed about.”
The dream stayed alive with a clutch performance last weekend. – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.