McEachern FB survived Oklahoma City bombing

Knee injuries don't faze Desmond Vallean, who inspires Indians teammates

Two knee surgeries weren't about to hold back McEachern fullback Desmond Vallean from playing the game he loves.

They were nothing compared with the life-threatening adversity that Vallean faced as a toddler -- surviving the Oklahoma City bombing. With relation to that horrific experience, a couple of knee operations were no big deal.

"I just have so much fun with football," said Vallean, who moved with his family to Marietta three years ago. "I'd never give up anything I love, and I never quit at anything I do."

Vallean is an inspiration for McEachern (10-0), which is ranked No. 6 in Class AAAAA and has a rematch with Brookwood (5-5) in Friday's first round of the state playoffs. McEachern won a 42-32 shootout over Brookwood in the season opener at the Corky Kell Classic in August.

"Desmond has a great passion for football," McEachern coach Kyle Hockman said. "He is a very determined young man, after having gone through some of the things early in life, like the Oklahoma City thing and all that.

"He has a great family, and they are very, very tough and very strong. I think Desmond has a sense of sticking to it, no matter what. It's like ‘I'm going to give it my all despite the circumstances in life, and everything is going to be fine.' "

The 5-foot-9, 178-pound Vallean has a scar on his right eyelid that serves as a visible reminder to his connection to one of the worst acts of terrorism on U.S. soil -- the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building that killed 168 people and injured more than 680, including Desmond and his little brother, Brandon.

At the time of the explosion, both brothers were enrolled in the YMCA day care directly across the street. Desmond was 2 years old and still has scattered flashbacks.

"One of my day-care teachers was reading a book, and I blacked out," Valleann recalled. "I just remember waking up from the rubble, and my dad taking me to the hospital."

His mother, Michele, was in a meeting in a neighboring building 60 yards away, and the bomb's impact blew the group into another room. She suffered a concussion. After realizing what had happened, Michele ran as fast as she could to the day care and found both children.

Desmond suffered a cut above his eye and had tiny bits of glass shrapnel stuck into his skin. He had been sitting in the YMCA's front room, which had a big window facing the bombed site. Brandon, who was only 4 months old, escaped injury because the nursery was surrounded by four brick walls.

It took their father, Michael Vallean, a frantic 40 minutes to locate the rest of the family. He worked as a sheriff's deputy at the courthouse about five blocks away. He arrived at the YMCA from the opposite direction, amid heavy smoke and mass chaos with screaming people, police cars and ambulances.

"Your adrenaline is moving, and I'm worried sick because I'm seeing this building from behind that you could see clean through the front of it -- that was the federal building," Michael said. "I'm running in that direction, I'm dodging glass and bricks .... everything that explodes into the air has to fall down."

As a toddler, Desmond's favorite toy was a semi-truck that made the noise of an engine. When Michael searched the YMCA, he could vaguely hear that particular noise from deep within the rubble. He dug out the truck, but his baby boy was nowhere to be found.

Next, Michael ran to his wife's office and had to climb a rope to get to the second floor. After learning that everyone had left, Michael ran back to the YMCA and "heard the greatest noise of my life" that helped him locate the rest of his family -- Desmond's signature crying.

"That was a dreadful day, but the thing that encourages me is that I have two sons that are still alive," said Michael, who later joined the search-and-rescue team that scoured the federal building for survivors.

"It could've been my family blown to pieces in this bombing. I had a lot of friends and neighbors killed ... people I think about all the time. For some reason, God kept us all alive and safe as family. We thank God every day for those blessings."

Since the bombing incident, things have gone much smoother for the family. They moved from Oklahoma City in 1999 to start anew, ending up in Marietta for job opportunities three years ago. Michael is an IT manager at AT&T, while Michele is a senior buyer for a chain of clothing stores.

Desmond quickly made a lot of friends by joining McEachern's football team and was having a promising sophomore season before tweaking his right ACL in practice and tearing it apart in the following game. After extensive rehabilitation, Vallean torn his left ACL nearly a year later.

"After the bombing and everything else, this was devastating," Michele said. "But he never gave up on football. He has the best attitude about everything. I joke and call him ‘The Million Dollar Man' after those knee surgeries."

Vallean never missed a football practice during either recovery. Standing with crutches on the sidelines, he would yell words of encouragement to his teammates. This year as a senior, Vallen has stayed injury-free. He hasn't made quite the impact he had hoped on the field, but his attitude toward adversity invigorates the team.

"After that second knee injury, I told his dad that 'maybe it is just not meant for Desmond to play football,' " Hockman said. "The next day, Desmond was here rehabbing -- two weeks before surgery. He never had any doubt he would play again, and the other players have a lot of respect for what he has gone through."

Against Etowah, Vallean had a bone-jarring block on special teams that sprang teammate Demarius Matthews for a 75-yard touchdown return. Last week against Cherokee, Vallean ran 20 yards for a first down in the game's final minutes, clinching McEachern's first undefeated regular season since 1999.

"I'm just making the most out of any opportunities," Vallean said. "It's special being part of team trying to win a state championship."