”JOE THOMAS MEMORIAL” LINEMAN OF THE YEAR”
By Matt Diano
”Football is a game of inches; and we linemen fight for every single one of them.”
While the quote above is attributed to an unknown source, the spirit of the words truly captures the attitude/mentality needed to succeed in the trenches!!!
To possess the guts/courage it takes to put your hand in the dirt and endure what at its purest sense is an endless afternoon of “car crashes” is an art form, vocation, and/or responsibility that is not for the faint of heart and is the consummate barometer of grit! There is no such thing as a “WEAK” offensive or defensive lineman…Just showing up for the battle makes you a warrior in the eyes of genuine gridiron pundits/aficionados!
All three of our coveted beasts being products/core members of programs that either won Metro Catholic hardware or advanced to championship weekend last month, the trio of two juniors and a decorated senior tipped the scales at an average of 277 pounds and used every ounce of their size to manhandle any/all counterparts lined up opposite them!
Congratulations to the unsung heroes whose names don’t always show up in the box score, but whose worth this season were platinum quality…KAHMARI VALENTINE (AAA), AQIL MEREDITH-SMITH (AA-1), & ZAIRE CALDWELL (AA-2)!!!
Big #99 in jersey, but numero uno when it came to setting the tone for the Cardinal Hayes DL, the 315-pound Harlem resident [Valentine] commanded the respect of his peers, as well as all those in attendance to watch the Cardinals play by “busting his butt” on every single snap from his spot at DT for a C.H. defense that struggled at the onset of the fall, but inevitably found themselves and came on like gangbuster for the magical postseason run that delivered NYCHSFL AAA and CHSAA State glory to Grand Concourse!!!!….Making history by becoming the first Hayesman to have the Thomas trophy conferred upon him, the name Valentine may conjure up sweet images, but he played with “bad intentions”, as the carnage he left in his wake was generated/demonstrated by a stat line that boasted career-bests of 59 total tackles and 8 TFLs…Someone whose star shined brightest when the stakes are at a pinnacle, Valentine recorded 5 stops/2 tackles for a loss during the league title game victory over Iona Prep!…Relying on blue chip motor that enabled him to bring the same intensity to his 50th snap as he did his 1st of a game, during six different outings in 2023, Valentine collected 5 or more tackles!
In his final season as a Maverick before embarking on a bright future in Ohio at Bowling Green University, if wealth was calculated by one’s willingness to sacrifice his body in the name of a higher collective objective, then Meredith-Smith would be among the richest of the rich in Staten Island and beyond!!!!!…..The first of two “both sides of the line” ironmen chosen to take home the Thomas, whether it was at LT on offense or DT on “D”, fortune/prosperity ensued everywhere #70 happened to be…The heartbeat of respective units that ranked 1st (defense) and 2nd (Offense) in the AA-1 division this season, the 6’4, 285-pounder out of Elizabeth, NJ was a literally a massive reason why Moore Catholic was able to make a third straight trip to Championship weekend (runners-up in 2021-2023), as he’d rank in the top-5 among Mav personnel in four different defensive categories—Tackles (59; 5th), TFLs (7; 5th), sacks (2; 5th), and fumbles created (4; 1st)…His vitae as a defensive performer alone was argument enough for him to be a finalist for this award; but what vaulted his candidacy over the top was the fact that he also served as the lifeblood of an OL that paved the way for MC to chew up over 4,000 yards (4,041) of territory and register 26 touchdowns (19 on the ground; 7 in the air) …A protector/safety blanket for a freshman QB [Thomas Zeh], and a lead blocker for a potential All-State RB [RJ Pacheco], Meredith-Smith was a gift that kept on giving season-long!….Moore Catholic student-athletes have now gone back-to-back as LOY picks, as Meredith-Smith complements 2022 selection, Henry Tabansi!!!… Tedi Kushi (2018) is also a past winner!
Breaking a drought that dated back to 2008 (Caraun Reid), the 6’0, 230-pounder out of the Bronx [Caldwell] is just the second MSMA Mountaineer to take home Top Lineman prestige and the feat came with good reason as he too was an invaluable force on both offense and defense for a Mount brotherhood that achieved the mission of sending Coach Valentini out as a champion!!!….The high man on the Murdock Avenue sack leaderboard with 2, Caldwell also concluded his junior season among the top-3 tacklers on the battalion with 34 (14 of which came during the AA-2 playoffs)….Fulfilling his double-duty by occupying the LG spot on the OL, as a road grader, he did his part in aiding Mount Nation towards accumulations of 1,012 yards in the sky (7 touchdowns) and 1,506 yards (22 scores) on land!!!
With one year of eligibility remaining for each, both Valentine and Caldwell will enter 2024 in search of “Rushmore” acclaim as they attempt to become the only REPEAT/2x winners of the LOY!