By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
Sometime after next weekend's NFL Draft coverage switches from ESPN to ESPN2, after Mel Kiper, Jr., adds his sixth layer of hair gel and Joe Theisman gets into his 53rd argument, an NFL executive will stand atop a podium, read the name of a Syracuse running back and Walter Reyes' life will change forever.
"I pretty much did everything I could do to get ready for this day," Reyes said. "Now it's up to the football gods."
This is the story of what happens when a young kid from Struthers combines talent with opportunity, fulfilling his childhood dream to play on football's biggest stage.
It's also the story of how.
"I remember when he was 8-9-10 years old," said Reyes' mother, Mary Lou. "He used to love to watch football and he'd come up to me and say, 'I want to play, I want to play.' And I was like, 'Oh, no, I'm not going to let you play football. You'll get hurt.' "
"Finally, he ganged up on me and called his father and his uncle and they all told me to let him play," she said. "He kept talking about his dream and how he was going to play in the NFL someday.
"I guess I had to let him play."
There was just one rule.
"I told him that if he messed up with his grades, it's over," she said. "He didn't disappoint me there."
Mary Lou Reyes was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Ohio when she was a little girl. She ran track, played a little basketball and dabbled in gymnastics before graduating from The Rayen School.
After high school, she was attending a conference in Canton when she met Walter Henderson, a former football and track standout from Canton McKinley. They hit it off immediately.
Reyes was born on May 22, 1981 in Youngstown. His parents never married, but they've stayed close through the years.
"We're still good friends," Mary Lou said.
Reyes started playing football in seventh grade. By the time he was a freshman, he'd already caught the eye of Struthers High football coach Gary Zetts.
"His speed was unbelievable," said Zetts, who coached at Struthers from 1992-2003. "We'd never had anyone at Struthers with that kind of ability."
Also in that freshman class was a promising quarterback named Rick McFadden. They were both young, but Zetts knew he had something special.
"I started telling the coaches, you guys have gotta start looking at these kids because these are Division I kids," Zetts said. "You could tell even then."
Coming of age
Reyes played mostly defensive end as a sophomore, although he saw a little time at running back. His junior year was his first as a starter at running back and he responded with a school-record 1,450 yards.
As the recruiting letters piled up, Mary Lou got worried.
"He was looking at all these schools and I was thinking, 'You're gonna have to go to YSU; I can't afford this,' " she said. "And he was like, 'It's OK, I'm going to get a full ride.'
"I was just so blessed. It's tough. Tuition is so high, but he did it. He was determined."
Reyes struggled with injuries his senior year -- "He had a good year, it just wasn't a year that someone with his athletic ability should have had," Zetts said -- but still managed to graduate with the school's all-time rushing record with 3,005 yards and 40 touchdowns.
He chose Syracuse University, a dome team that would help him utilize his speed. He played in 12 games as a freshman, gaining 139 yards while adjusting to nuances of the college game.
He started all 12 games as a sophomore, rushing for 1,135 yards -- the fourth-best total in school history -- and had his breakout year as a junior, running for 1,347 yards and a school-record 21 touchdowns.
"Walter could always run, but he became a better blocker and a better pass receiver in college," Zetts said. "When you move up, you have to do exactly what the coaches tell you.
"Most of the time in high school you're a lot better than the other guys, but at the college level, if you don't do exactly what they tell you, there's always someone else who will."
His career highlight came on Dec. 6, 2003, when he ran for 189 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-12 win against Notre Dame at the Carrier Dome.
"That would probably be my best game," Reyes said. "When you think about the magnitude of the game, my old coach's [Paul Pasqualoni] job was on the line, it was the only game on in America in prime time, the whole world was watching basically.
"And to play America's team, a team I grew up watching and a program I have the utmost respect for, and to be able to do what we did and get a win was very, very special."
Mary Lou was in the stands for that game -- she's missed just two home games in his career -- and Zetts was watching at home.
"That game showed he was a little better than most people," Zetts said.
As a senior last fall, Reyes ran for 803 yards and seven touchdowns, but missed the last two games after tearing two muscles in his shoulder.
He came back for the Champs Sports Bowl, re-injured his shoulder and shut it down for two months to make sure he was ready for February's NFL combine and Syracuse's two pro days in March.
"It was rough, believe me," Reyes said of the injury. "I was healthy my whole [college] career but this injury messed up my season. I wasn't able to finish what I started at Syracuse.
"But I knew I would come back. I just had to be patient."
He was a first-team All-Big East selection as a senior and finished as the second-leading rusher in Syracuse history with 3,424 yards. He holds the school record for rushing touchdowns (45), total touchdowns (46) and rushing yards in the Carrier Dome (2,239).
There are thousands of players eligible for the draft every year, but only 340 get an invitation to the four-day combine in Indianapolis.
And it's no vacation.
Players wake up at 5 a.m. and usually don't get to bed until 12:30 a.m. The first three days are mentally taxing -- players attend team interviews and take standardized tests. The last day is physical, when players are tested for their size, speed and strength through a variety of drills.
"You're busy all day; they don't give you a minute to relax," Reyes said. "But that's why they set it up that way. They want to see how you handle it physically and mentally."
Reyes' best time in the 40 this spring was a 4.4 -- very good for a running back -- and he's had no problems with his shoulder. In a running back-heavy draft, Reyes is projected to be a second day pick (fourth round or later), which means he may have to wait until Sunday to hear his name called.
"I'm not someone who gets caught up in all that," Reyes said. "I'd like to be a first day pick, obviously, but if I'm not, it's not the end of the world. I just want a shot.
"It doesn't really matter where you're picked, it's what you do after that."
Reyes, who will spend draft day at his mom's house in Girard, said he doesn't care where he goes, although he'd prefer playing with a dome team. Mary Lou, on the other hand, has always been partial to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And if Reyes' new team happens to be playing Pittsburgh?
"I'll be committed to my son, but he's a grown man," she said, chuckling. "And mommy's gotta cheer for whoever she likes."