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Florence native Valdamar Brower built Central football to state title contender

  • Central football coach Valdamar Brower shouts instructions to his team during an overtime drill at practice Wednesday in Springfield. The Golden Eagles are playing in the Division 3 Super Bowl on Saturday at Gillette. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Central football coach Valdamar Brower delivers instructions to defensive back Trey Caavan at practice Wednesday in Springfield. Brower is a Florence native and UMass graduate. He has the Golden Eagles in the state title game for the first time. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Central football coach Valdamar Brower demonstrates a blocking pad drill at practice Wednesday in Springfield. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Central football coach Valdamar Brower carries pads to be used in a practice drill Wednesday in Springfield. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Central football coach Valdamar Brower begins practice Wednesday in Springfield. Brower is a Florence native and UMass graduate. He has the Golden Eagles in the state title game for the first time. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Central football coach Valdamar Brower shouts instructions to his team during an overtime drill at practice Wednesday in Springfield. The Golden Eagles are playing in the Division 3 Super Bowl on Saturday at Gillette. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI



Staff writer
Friday, November 30, 2018

SPRINGFIELD — Valdamar Brower cried when he became Central’s head football coach – tears of pure joy at the realization of a dream.

The Florence native and UMass graduate affectionately known as “T” spent three years with the program as an assistant under Darby McLaughlin. McLaughlin decided to step away from football and focus on wrestling before the 2008 season.

“I used to tell T, maybe after our second year, ‘you’re gonna be the head football coach,’” McLaughlin said. “It was apparent to everyone it was going to be in good hands.”

Being hired at Central fulfilled one of Brower’s longtime aspirations to coach high school football. He turned down graduate assistant positions at colleges after graduating from UMass to chase just such an opportunity.

“I’ve known him since he was 8 years old,” said Ken O’Brien, Brower’s high school coach at Northampton. “Coaching high school football is what he always wanted to do.”

A decade into coaching the Golden Eagles, Brower has led them to the precipice of a state championship. Central (10-1) will face North sectional champion Tewksbury in the Division 3 Super Bowl at 6 p.m. Saturday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. No Central team has ever reached this point under the MIAA’s current format.

“It makes us feel like our hard work wasn’t for nothing,” Central senior Myles Bradley said. “Now it’s paying off, but we know we’re not done with it.”

Brower built the program in his image. The Golden Eagles play with passion, and they play for each other. They call it playing “Central football.”

“We’re going to go after it, be prepared for everything and leave it out here,” Central senior Andrew Carroll said. “It’s a brotherhood and a culture over here. It’s something that makes us different from everyone else. We all love this game, so we’re all putting everything we have into it.”

Just like their coach.

All-American effort

Brower showed his talent, passion and commitment to football even in high school. He played defensive line his first three years under O’Brien, but the Blue Devils switched him to linebacker his senior year. Brower offered no complaints and devoured his new assignment.

“He was a good-sized kid and could move. The thing that’s always stuck in my mind is how competitive he was and how driven he was to be successful,” O’Brien said. “He was not a good loser.”

Northampton played an important game against Chicopee that year. The Pacers ran the triple option and boasted a strong fullback. On fourth down with a yard to go, Brower knifed in from his linebacker position and brought the fullback down for a loss.

“Which is very difficult to do, especially when you don’t have a lot of experience at it,” O’Brien said.

After graduating from Northampton in 1999, Brower became an All-American at UMass. He played for the Minutemen from 2000-03 and is the program’s all-time leader in tackles for loss (63), quarterback hurries (40) and blocked kicks (six). Brower was named a Division I-AA first-team All-American in 2001 and to the second team in 2002. He was first-team all-conference twice and earned a spot on the second team once.

“He was a player that left everything on the field,” former UMass teammate David Thompson said. “I can see (Central’s) style of play is the way he played. I could see bits and pieces of him throughout the team.”

Thompson played offensive line for the Minutemen from 2002-06 after redshirting his freshman season. He regularly faced Brower in practice as a member of the scout team his freshman year and in drills.

“I thought it was a great competition. I thought it was iron on iron,” Thompson said. “We didn’t shy away from going against each other. It only made us better.”

Once his UMass career ended with a degree in African-American studies, Brower quickly tried to break into the education and football fields. He applied to be a substitute teacher in Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield. Northampton and Springfield hired him as a substitute teacher. Holyoke hired him to be a freshman football coach. Since there were more opportunities in Springfield, Brower began subbing there.

Central’s football staff used to attend UMass football games as a group. McLaughlin was shocked to see Brower walking through the halls at Central when one of the school’s tutors recognized him.

“I’d have been crazy to not want him to be part of the program,” McLaughlin said.

Brower coached Central’s freshman team for a year then the junior varsity the next. During that time he was hired on a waiver as a special education teacher and eventually earned his master’s from Cambridge College. He worked his way up to McLaughlin’s defensive coordinator in his third year with the program. One day, after a tense pre-practice meeting, the rest of the staff didn’t know where Brower was. They found him out on the opposite end of the practice field, working swim moves on the goalpost like it was an offensive lineman.

“That was his way of clearing his head getting ready for practice. As we’re watching him he swipes the thing, and there goes the crossbar off the goal post,” McLaughlin said. “He kind of stares at the thing and he shrugs his shoulders and walks away.

“Just a tremendous amount of passion. Nobody was going to outwork him.”

Rough start buffed to shine

Brower didn’t find immediate success as a head coach. The Golden Eagles went 5-6 in his first season after winning eight games the year prior.

“Ideally, he would’ve taken a few more years as an assistant,” McLaughlin said. “His growing pains came in the first couple years. He showed a ton of guts from the beginning.”

Brower switched from Central’s traditional run game to a spread scheme.

“That was a big change,” Brower said. “We got booed a lot, lotta pushback. They were some rough times.”

Central’s administration had his back, though. Thaddeus Tokarz, then an assistant principal but now Central’s principal, stood behind Brower.

“He understood the vision and understood the process,” Brower said.

The Golden Eagles regressed to a 4-6 record in 2009 but started rolling the next season. They won nine games in 2010 and at least seven every year since.

“Every day starts at zero. Every day you want to get as close to 100 as possible, eating breakfast, coming to school on time, taking care of your academics, being good school citizens,” Brower said. “Everything’s a competition and everything starts at zero. Whatever you did yesterday, try to repeat that or get better.”

Central captured a Western Massachusetts Super Bowl title in 2012 and sectional championships in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018 under the statewide playoff format. The Golden Eagles lost in the state semifinals those previous three years before breaking through against Saint John’s Shrewsbury on Nov. 17.

Playing regular season games against competition outside of western Mass. has been a hallmark of Central’s program under Brower. The Golden Eagles have faced the likes of Lincoln-Sudbury, Bishop Sullivan, Everett and Boston College High School annually since Brower took over.

“Being from western Mass., I’ve got a lot of pride in the area. We’ve got good football players, I know it,” Brower said. “The only way to prove that is to get outside of your area and your comfort zone. The kids get jazzed up.”

Brower’s approach resonates with the athletes at Central, even if he appeared intimidating at first.

“I remember freshman year, he was a big guy so I was a little bit scared of him,” Bradley said. “I trust him. We’ve gotten really close over these four years. If something’s going on with me, I’ll go to him.”

Many of Central’s seniors echo that sentiment. Brower runs camps for them in the offseason and helps them in the weight room.

“He’s definitely players first. He puts himself after everyone else,” Carroll said. “He’s a great leader and mentor.”

Brower loves the kids he works with. He sees part of himself in them.

“The kids and football helped me stay out of trouble when I was a younger adult. I always wanted to work with them and be a role model for them and make them believe and have the opportunities like I did to be able to go to college,” Brower said. “I wanted as many kids to have that experience as possible.”