As children, many young boys dream of making it to the big leagues, playing for the best with the best. Unfortunately, very few dreams become reality. But, for Shaler Area graduate Jesse Della Valle, those childhood dreams came true.
Playing football since the fifth grade, Della Valle always dreamed of playing Division I football.
“It was always kind of a dream of mine; something I set out to do and had a goal in mind,” said Della Valle.
Once Della Valle reached high school, he was a superstar. During his senior year he had 1,600 all purpose yards, and was named to second team AAAA all-state, named to Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Fabulous 22, and to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review Terrific 25.
Being such a powerhouse player, Della Valle left big impressions on coaches from other high schools as well. Jack McCurry, North Hills coach of 30 years, told the Shaler Area football coaching staff that Jesse Della Valle was one of the best high school players he had ever faced.
“When I talk about my football career and memories, I always want to talk about my Shaler days. That’s just what I find myself talking about because it’s like those are some of the best days, when you’re playing with your buddies that you grew up with, your best friends for Shaler,” said Della Valle.
Della Valle’s old assistant coach at Shaler Area, John Ehrentraut, spoke to the Centre Daily Times and spoke very highly of Della Valle.
“His senior year, I think he was the best player in the [WPIAL] Quad-A,” Ehrentraut said.
But even with a long list of achievements and a solid reputation as one of the best players in western Pennsylvania, Division I college coaches were wary to recruit Della Valle. Worried about his speed, many Division I schools did not offer scholarships to Della Valle.
“I had some scholarship offers from [Division] 1 AA schools, some smaller schools like Robert Morris, then I had the chance to walk on at Penn State,” said Della Valle.
Being a preferred walk-on at Penn State, Della Valle decided to give it a shot.
“I just said I’m going to give it my best shot and see how it plays out, and I think it worked out for me,” said Della Valle.
Once he made the Penn State football team, Della Valle started playing in his second academic year as a red-shirt freshman.
But before Della Valle could play in his first college game, there was a major setback to all of Penn State football. In November 2011, Jerry Sandusky, former assistant coach at Penn State, was accused of sexually assaulting 26 young men.
Sandusky coached at Penn State from 1969-1999, with the alleged abuse starting in 1994, while he was a coach at Penn State. Penn State officials and staff were have said to have known about the abuse. Those who knew about the scandal were soon fired, including coaching legend Joe Paterno.
With the whole university coming under intense media pressure, no one was safe, not even the players.
“They would knock on our apartment doors and try and get in and I don’t know anything about it. The only thing I know is what I’m seeing on the TV,” said Della Valle.
Not only was the media trying to contact the players, but since players had the opportunity to leave, many colleges were contacting players offering scholarships to transfer schools. Many players contemplated leaving anyways to escape the harsh sanctions put in place by the NCAA.
“When the sanctions hit, schools started coming in and just throw the offers out to pretty much everyone on the team because you were allowed to leave if you wanted to leave, so I got offers from different schools at the time and at the time I was still a walk-on, but I really didn’t want to leave this place,” said Della Valle.
In addition to the social and academic points that made Della Valle stay, he also says his teammates were what kept him anchored to the Penn State football program.
“We all had that ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality. I had a lot of really close friends and teammates that, even if we weren’t playing for a bowl game or Big Ten championship, those are the guys that I was best friends with,” said Della Valle.
That same commitment and dedication to his team helped Della Valle solidify his reputation on the Penn State football team as one of the hardest, and toughest workers; proving himself to be a playmaker.
From the end of his sophomore season, Della Valle was the primary punt returner as well as getting several career starts in the secondary.
In his junior season, in which he played every game, Della Valle led the team, averaging 7.6 yards per return and was in third place in the Big Ten. He also led his team in average kick return, averaging 25.2 yards. He received Academic All-Big Ten honors.
Senior season, Della Valle played his second consecutive season playing every game. He averaged 8.7 yards per return, and made 21 tackles. He played a large role in many important games. In the Ohio State game he had a career high nine tackles.
Before his fifth season, Della Valle was honored with being named special teams captain.
“To start your career as a walk-on and end as a captain… it was something that really hit home for me. It’s just kind of saying my work paid off. To be voted special teams captain by my coaches and teammates was just something really special and something I will cherish forever,” said Della Valle.
Della Valle’s fifth-year senior season was one that was not short of extraordinary. Once again, he was the primary punt returner for Penn State, and got several starts in the Nittany Lions’ secondary, making what is considered one of the best interceptions of 2014.
With Penn State winning 30-13 in the fourth quarter against Temple, Temple’s QB PJ Walker lobs a pass downfield. Della Valle jumped, caught the ball, was hit in mid-air, and somehow managed to get a hand in bounds.
Not only was the catch hailed as one of the best interceptions, but Della Valle found his way on to SportsCenter Top 10 Best Plays.
“It was my first time getting on SportsCenter, so needless to say it was pretty cool,” said Della Valle.
As his final season was coming to an end, Penn State qualified to play in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in New York, their first bowl game since the sanctions were dropped. A game, which at one point could have been against state rival, Pitt Panthers, was to be a fitting end for such a storied career for a hometown hero from Shaler Area.
“It was kind of a storybook ending for me; it was kind of like ‘go out on the right note.’ It was an awesome game. We got a good win, so it was a good ending to my career,” said Della Valle.
But with his football career coming to an end, Della Valle reflects on his days at Penn State.
“I was able to do some really special things while I was at Penn State, as well as making a name for myself. I was able to help with the Special Olympics and other stuff through the community. I really wasn’t even a big name up there either, but just being a Penn State football player, you just put such a smile on those kids’ faces,” said Della Valle.
Della Valle and the other Penn State football players also helps out with THON, which benefits kids with pediatric cancer.
“Just to see the smile on the kids’ face is so rewarding. It doesn’t matter who you are, the kids just love that,” said Della Valle.
With such success in college Della Valle takes time to look back on his high school days, and has some advice for other high school athletes.
“I always said I wish I would have played more sports. I wish I would have played baseball or lacrosse or anything I could have. Because when I got to college I realized it was more of a job. I was doing stuff for football 30+ hours a week, almost a full time job, but in high school it was fun. Just don’t be scared to play a new sport or try something different, just try it, just go out and have fun. Like I said I wish I would have done more, but I was blessed to play football and basketball here,” said Della Valle.
After years of playing football, Jesse Della Valle says it’s time to hang it up:
“I just think it’s time for me to move on and maybe get into coaching. Just go on with my life. I’m really happy with the things I accomplished, but I think everything has just got to come to an end eventually and my college career is something I’m really proud of and something I will always cherish.”