Wartman makes up for late start with big hits

CDT photo

ARCHBALD — A short three-mile drive from Valley View High School, John F. Henzes/Veterans Memorial Football Stadium sits just off Main Street in Peckville.

The Valley View Elementary Center is on one side of the stadium, and the Blakely Borough Recreation Complex, a park with basketball courts, is on the other. Houses line the other side of Main Street along with Snyder Granite Co., a business in operation since 1925, and an old brick Town Hall building.

On Friday nights, this quiet part of the small town just outside of Scranton floods with people coming out to support the Cougars’ football team. By kickoff, one former player said, the stadium is packed.

When a student from Philadelphia named Nyeem Wartman took a tour of Valley View, it included a stop at the stadium. Wartman was in eighth grade and had never played organized football before. The field represented an opportunity he didn’t have in Philadelphia, but he was still leaning toward staying with his uncle in the city rather than moving to the small town with his mother.

At the last minute, he changed his mind.

“Something clicked,” Wartman said. “I don’t know if it was just being with my mom or going up there.

“But I knew once I was going to Valley View, I was going to go play football regardless because I always wanted to.”

Wartman turned out to be a natural who became a “rock star” by his senior year. He left Valley View as the school’s all-time leader in tackles and led the Cougars to the District 2 Class AAA championship in 2011. His elite athletic talent and high football IQ landed him a scholarship to Penn State, where he’s trying to carve out his spot among the greats at a program known as Linebacker U.

He’s started all seven games he’s played in this season. Wartman has played through a broken hand and ranks second on the team in tackles, earning the respect of his teammates and coaches for his smart and effective play.

Wartman’s career was made possible by his move to Valley View, where the community sees him as one of their own.

“You wouldn’t know that he didn’t grow up here,” said Eileen Howanitz, the wife of Valley View football coach George Howanitz. “He was nice to everybody. He never cared what anybody else was doing. He instantly liked everybody and gave everybody a shot. There was no wall to break down. He instantly was your friend from day one when you met him.”

New beginning

The feeling of being left out was there during Wartman’s walk home every day.

He had to pass Piccoli Playground, located off Castor Avenue in Philadelphia, where children his age gathered for football practice. Neighborhood leagues were the only option at his age in middle school, but it never worked out for Wartman to join a team.

He’d always wanted to play, but his experience was limited to street football growing up.

Then he moved to Valley View in the middle of eighth grade.

“I always wanted to play football so that was my opportunity,” Wartman said. “As soon as I got there, everyone welcomed me with open arms.”

His coaches, classmates and teachers all recall his smile when they talk about Wartman. He had an upbeat personality to go with it and was quickly well-liked by his peers.

“You could bring him around anybody and automatically the tension was leaving the room,” said Brian Lalli, a Valley View teammate who became Wartman’s best friend. “It would just instantly be lighthearted and fun.”

Lalli remembers Wartman drawing the attention of the school’s coaches, hoping the new, tall and athletic kid would join their teams. When Wartman arrived, it was basketball season, the one sport he did play back in Philadelphia.

After a practice, Lalli’s father figured Wartman was a new coach.

“That’s our newest player, Nyeem,” Lalli told his father. “He’s 14 years old. My dad was just astounded by it because at the time, at 14 years old, this kid was already 6-2, he had a fully grown mustache, his voice was deeper than any 14-year-old in the country and he was just leaps and bounds beyond anybody else on our team as far as development goes.”

His advanced build and athleticism immediately translated to the football field for the freshman team the following fall.

“Once I started playing football, it was all football,” Wartman said. “I always liked football more than basketball anyways, I just never had the chance to play it.”

A natural

The coaches were laughing on the bus home from Old Forge after Wartman’s first freshman game.

The rookie football player unleashed a hit on one play that still leaves assistant coach Christian Reese in awe.

“We couldn’t wait to see it on film because you saw it in the game and you thought — not to sound terrible, but we thought the kid was dead,” Reese said. “He just unleashed and that was the first time you were like, ‘Holy cow, look at this kid.’”

Wartman, who started as a defensive end, read a screen pass and hammered the receiver immediately.

They got back that Monday, a lifting and film day for the varsity team, and immediately found Howanitz in his office. You got to watch this, they told him. Howanitz wasn’t interested until they played the video.

“Oh, he kept watching it,” Reese said, pointing to Howanitz at the front of his classroom. “And he couldn’t believe it and he was laughing and kept watching and rewinding, back and forth watching. It was a huge hit. And in freshmen (competition), you don’t get a lot of that.”

“From what I remember, it’s one of the hardest hits I’ve seen in freshman football,” said Brian Kearney, the head coach of the freshman team that season.

Wartman understood the game from watching the Philadelphia Eagles and playing Madden videogames with his older brothers.

Kearney and Reese saw his athleticism immediately, and he picked up techniques with ease.

“Once I started playing football, I was just natural,” Wartman said. “It was like I played it before.”

After one year of playing the game, Howanitz knew Wartman was special. He was making “hellacious hits” that would have knocked varsity players out of games.

“Probably middle to end of his freshman year was when we started to get the goosebumps, thinking we’d get to have him the next year,” Howanitz said.

Brains and brawn

His highlight film was littered with hits worthy of ESPN, according to his coach.

But those close to Wartman were just as impressed by his football smarts. Lalli mentions Wartman’s film study habits and ability to read offenses before any of his big hits. Wartman made every call on defense and had the freedom to make checks based on the opponent’s formation.

If there was a unique formation, Wartman often knew exactly what was coming.

“He is definitely a defensive genius,” Lalli said. “If I ever coach a football team one day, he’d be the first person I’d go to coach my defense.”

It was also the product of a dedication to his craft. Howanitz said Wartman probably watched film through Hudl about two hours a night.

Reese, who ran the scout team Wartman’s junior and senior years, said he often felt bad for those players.

Even when Valley View’s defensive coordinator tried to put the defense in the worst position possible against a certain formation, Wartman would be screaming out the play once the team was lined up.

Wartman’s unique ability to process information and see the game has impressed coaches and teammates at Penn State.

“Sometimes maybe I’ll be lined up wrong or someone else will be lined up wrong and he’ll get it right,” star middle linebacker Mike Hull said.

Linebackers coach Brent Pry has noticed Wartman bail Penn State out of a number of those situations, saying he’s a strong complement to Hull.

“If Mike Hull’s an A-plus on football intelligence, Nyeem Wartman is an A,” Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “He brings a maturity, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic, doesn’t miss tackles, he has a great grasp of the defense.”

Taking the lead

When Wartman started playing as a freshman, he didn’t feel the emotion of the game and didn’t say much.

But by his senior year, he was a leader who took great pride in representing Valley View.

And Howanitz saw a difference in Wartman before games. His trademark smile disappeared, and he swayed back and forth.

“Sharks have a certain body language, their tails tend to wiggle a certain way and Nyeem kind of does the same thing,” Howanitz said. “I always tell people he’s like that great white getting ready to hit something.”

It was that focus and determination that led to tackle after tackle, a scholarship to Penn State and all-America, all-state, all-region and All-Lackawanna Conference honors as a senior.

But Wartman hasn’t forgotten his humble start.

“I used to close my eyes when I was tackling,” Wartman said. “You’re talking about a kid who plays linebacker at Penn State used to close his eyes his junior year of high school to tackle someone.”

He chose Penn State because he wanted to be a part of Linebacker U.

He learned the history, partly from the football strength coach Phil Cappellini, a lifelong Penn State fan.

“I kept on saying Nyeem: Linebacker U. Linebacker U,” Cappellini said. “He said, ‘Geez, coach Cap, you’re more excited than I am about it.’”

But Wartman ultimately chose to become a part of that history, something that drives him today.

Wartman is brutally honest in his assessment of his play last season. He said he wasn’t ready for the physical demand and felt he didn’t live up to the legacy of Linebacker U.

After an offseason of work, he’s become a dependable member of the linebacking corps.

“I would just say he’s more physical this year at the point of attack, doing a really good job of getting off blocks and not many missed tackles,” Hull said.

Making converts

Valley View is located in “Penn State country.”

But Reese is a diehard Notre Dame fan who joked with Wartman about the Fighting Irish’s lack of interest in the star player. Whenever Notre Dame loses, Reese can expect a text from Wartman: How ‘bout them Irish?

Still, the Notre Dame fan now owns Penn State season tickets.

“In my mind, I would have never in my life thought I would have been a season-ticket holder for Penn State,” Reese said. “He’s just a good kid. He’s a good kid.”

Howanitz wasn’t a Penn State fan, either.

“We’re huge Nyeem fans and Penn State fans, absolutely,” Eileen Howanitz said. “I think we’ve become that way because of Nyeem. Were we always Penn State fans? No.”

She laughs.

“But through Nyeem,” she said, “we’ve become great Penn State fans.”

Wartman’s coaches and former teammates have all followed his time at Penn State proudly. They say he remains the same kid he was in high school, unchanged by the attention that comes with playing at a program like Penn State.

But his “rock star” status at Valley View is restored whenever he comes back for a game. He’s surrounded by a crowd as fans ask for pictures. Young kids, including the coach’s children, look up to Wartman.

But those close to Wartman say it has nothing to do with football.

It’s about his smile and that magnetic personality they first saw when he moved from Philadelphia.

But Valley View gave him his start in football, a sport he loves to play and hopes to coach in the future.

“It worked out in my favor,” Wartman said, “moving out of Philly and going there.”