Penn State Football

Walking tall: Jesse Della Valle goes from preferred walk-on to captain for Nittany Lions

Penn State’s Jesse Della Valle slips through the Northwestern defense during a return on Sept. 27.
Penn State’s Jesse Della Valle slips through the Northwestern defense during a return on Sept. 27. CDT photo

As their son’s career at Penn State nears its end, Phil and Cindy Della Valle can’t avoid the moments of reflection these days.

The bittersweet reality is starting to sink in for the parents as they remember Jesse Della Valle’s start in football in fifth grade and the beginning of what’s been a five-year journey at Penn State.

He arrived as a preferred walk-on, and coach Joe Paterno greeted his family outside the Lasch Building on his first day on campus. He learned how to get to the locker room, but he’d already seen his name placard and No. 39 in a picture texted by teammates a week earlier.

That was more than four years ago.

In the past, his parents could always look forward to next year or even the next game.

But there’s now just three games left in Della Valle’s career. Maybe four, if the Nittany Lions secure bowl eligibility, something they’ll try to do against Temple on Saturday in the second-to-last game at Beaver Stadium this season.

Della Valle earned a scholarship and a degree in advertising and public relations during his career. He became the team’s starting punt returner, carved out a role in the Penn State secondary and was named a special teams captain for his final season.

His parents find themselves going back to the beginning to put the imminent ending in perspective.

There was the picture of his locker, the first tangible evidence that Jesse would soon be playing for Penn State. There was the chance meeting with Paterno before he moved into his dorm.

There’s also high school football, the origin of one recent conversation about Jesse’s career.

The Della Valles still watch their share of high school games or listen on the radio. Every so often, they’ll go to a game. Phil Della Valle told his wife to look around at all the kids, consider all the powerhouse high schools and think about the star players you hear about.

Pick one player randomly and consider two questions:

What’s likelihood that kid would ever step on the field for Penn State? “Because it ain’t easy,” he said.

What’s the likelihood, if the kid does get on the field, that he becomes a captain?

“It’s got to be in the very minuscule,” Phil Della Valle said. “I’d think it’s got to be less than one percent. The odds of that happening the way it happened, we couldn’t be happier, but I wouldn’t have bet a lot of money on it.”

He said Jesse enjoys playing craps at Rivers Casino, but he doesn’t think his son would put much money on it, either.

“It was definitely a long shot,” Jesse Della Valle said. “For any walk-on, you’re taking a risk there.”

Still, five years ago, Della Valle wasn’t interested in accepting one of his Division I-AA offers. He was confident he could compete at the highest level of college football, and he decided walking on at Penn State was the best opportunity for him.

***

Jesse Della Valle was a superstar at Shaler Area High School.

He finished his senior year with 1,600 all-purpose yards and 28 touchdowns. He was a wide receiver who also rushed for 718 yards.

But John Ehrentraut, an assistant coach at the time, remembers Della Valle for coming through in the clutch.

“In the big time when it really mattered,” Ehrentraut said, “that was Jesse’s time.”

Ehrentraut rattles off Della Valle’s big games with ease.

With the team struggling against Seneca Valley, Della Valle returned a punt for a touchdown. “I think he broke nine tackles,” Ehrentraut said. Shaler won 33-7.

A week later, Della Valle’s efforts left an impression on Jack McCurry, the longtime North Hills coach. McCurry, who had coached for more than 30 years, told the Shaler staff Della Valle was one of the best high school players his teams ever faced. Shaler won 27-17.

And Della Valle lifted his team in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs.

It was a tight, back-and-forth game against Mount Lebanon, and Shaler went with Della Valle at running back in the second half. Della Valle took the ball in his hands and powered Shaler down the field for what proved to be the game-winning score.

“We just gave the ball to him off the left side like six, seven, eight times in a row just down the field,” Shaler teammate Craig Steedle said. “And I think he ended up flipping into the end zone to score the touchdown with a couple minutes left.”

Shaler blocked a field goal to seal the 23-21 win.

During his high school days, Della Valle also developed a skill that’s helped him get on the field at Penn State.

Ehrentraut coached the team on punt returns and tried to have the group catch 50 punts a day. They’d catch the ball with both hands and one-handed. They’d catch the ball on a bounce and over the shoulder.

And Ehrentraut provided some extra motivation for the punt returners by promising pizza if they could break a record of 52 straight catches in pregame warm-ups set during his stint coaching at Penn Hills.

“That’s kind of where I learned my fundamentals though,” Della Valle said. “Because I was like man, I got to catch this punt. Pizza’s on the line.”

Della Valle and his teammates got to 53 early in the season, and Ehrentraut honored his promise.

Della Valle showed a knack for hauling in punts during those sessions.

“We got to the point where he never fumbled a punt,” Ehrentraut said. “In the two years I was there he never fumbled a punt.”

But he was known as Shaler’s go-to guy.

Della Valle was a second-team Class AAAA all-state selection his senior year.

“His senior year, I think he was the best player in the (WPIAL) Quad-A,” Ehrentraut said.

***

The stopwatches weren’t as impressed by Della Valle.

The offers he and his family may have expected from Mid-American Conference schools never came. Coaches worried about his speed and didn’t think he was fast enough.

He was left to decide between scholarship offers from Robert Morris or New Hampshire and the option to be a preferred walk-on at Penn State or Pittsburgh.

Though a risk, the walk-on option was attractive.

“He always wanted to compete,” Phil Della Valle said. “He wanted to play with the best players that he could at the collegiate level and he wanted to play against the best players he could at the collegiate level.”

His high school coach, Neil Gordon, and Ehrentraut helped plenty of kids reach big-time programs, and they were confident Della Valle could play Division-I football. Della Valle liked what Penn State had to offer and chose the Nittany Lions.

“I looked into it and said this is an opportunity that I can’t pass up,” Della Valle said.

It helped that his parents supported his decision to chase a dream.

His father told him he had money saved to cover a year or two of college.

Della Valle may not have known how it would turn out, but he was going to give it his best shot.

The questions about his speed and the risk that came with being a walk-on only fueled his competitive nature.

“It was just kind of more motivation for me,” Della Valle said. “When I got my chance at Penn State, I knew I had a lot of work to do and there was going to be guys that are going to be bigger than me, that are going to be faster than me, that are going to be stronger than me.

“But I can’t let anyone outwork me, and I can’t let anyone be tougher than me and that goes back to the things that I learned growing up.”

***

Before his son’s journey at Penn State began, Phil Della Valle started to think about what he’d be facing soon.

“I know he thinks he’s been challenged before, but he’s going to have some challenges like he’s never seen in his life,” he said. “These guys are going to be a lot bigger, a lot stronger and a lot faster.”

So the father gave his son a folder of motivational handouts he saved throughout his sales career in the pharmaceutical industry. He used them at times for an extra push and never intended to do much else with the poems, quotes and stories.

But as his son worked out that summer and prepared to head to Penn State, he realized it may be a way to help him. He gave Jesse the folder and told him to look through the papers whenever he got the chance.

The same themes of staying the course and working hard run throughout the pieces. Della Valle still has them today.

Among the pieces in the folder, he said “The Man in the Glass” poem has stuck with him.

“It’s just about being able to look at yourself in the mirror and say I’m happy with myself and I’m happy with what I’m doing,” Della Valle said.

He’s been happy with time at Penn State.

He proved he could play at this level, earning three career starts in the secondary, including against Maryland this season. He’s been the Nittany Lions’ primary punt returner the last three seasons, and he’s a special teams captain.

His risky decision to try to play at Penn State proved to be worth it.

“I’ve had such a great experience here at Penn State,” Della Valle said. “And I know I’m going to miss it after these next couple games.”

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