The U.S. bobsledder who used to be Matt Barkley’s wide receiver
Matt Barkley always believed that Carlo Valdes could compete at an Olympics.
Maybe in track and field -- Valdes had one of the top-10 javelin throws in UCLA history. Possibly golf -- he plays obsessively in the offseason.
But Barkley never predicted that his Mater Dei High School football teammate would become an Olympic bobsled hopeful, especially having grown up in sunny Newport Beach, Calif.
“I think ‘Cool Runnings’ was about the extent of our knowledge of the sport,” said Barkley, a five-year NFL veteran who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers, in a phone interview. “I could probably quote every line in that movie, but I’ve never been close to a bobsled.”
Barkley and Valdes first met in preschool. They teamed up in every sport, and often continued playing at Barkley’s house. Barkley remembers losing in “Guitar Hero” to Valdes, whose vision was limited because he was still wearing his football helmet from practice earlier that day.
“He always found a way to make a competition out of everything,” Barkley said. “He was ‘Mr. Athlete.’”
In middle school, they won the 2003 Orange County Junior All-American Super Bowl, an accomplishment Valdes still identifies as his proudest athletic moment.
“You could see at a young age what Matt was capable of,” Valdes said. “He was making throws as a seventh grader that you don’t normally see seventh graders making.”
Valdes remained one of Barkley’s favorite wide receiver targets in high school. Valdes caught six touchdown passes in 2007, when Barkley became the first junior to be named the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. Valdes ended his high school career with the eighth-most receiving yards in Mater Dei history (HIGHLIGHTS).
“He had an interesting build,” Barkley said about Valdes, who is now 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. “You didn’t see a lot of guys who were that big and physical, and still as fast and explosive as he was.”
In the offseason, Valdes often trained with NFL wide receivers including Chad Johnson (formerly Chad Ochocinco) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. They taught Valdes how to create separation from defenders.
“I don’t think I’m as quick as Chad Johnson,” Valdes said, “but if I had to pick a receiver I emulated my game after, it would be him.”
Valdes played football for one season at UCLA, earning the nickname “Crazy Carl” by aggressively moshing in the locker room to heavy-metal music, before deciding to focus on track and field. Barkley attended crosstown rival USC, leading the Trojans to victories over the Bruins in three of his four seasons as starting quarterback.
“He tried to talk trash, but there wasn’t much he could say,” Barkley said, laughing.
When Valdes graduated, UCLA’s Director of Track and Field, Mike Maynard, encouraged him to try bobsled.
“Carlo was such an outstanding power athlete that I felt he would be perfect for bobsled,” Maynard said. “He was not only one of the strongest athletes on [UCLA’s track and field] team, but he was also one of the fastest.”
Valdes had gained 30 pounds of muscle at UCLA while still managing to increase his running speed.
“Throwing turned me into a different athlete,” Valdes said. “I do miss football, but I don’t think I would be where I am today as a bobsledder if I continued playing football.”
Valdes took to the sport quickly, and was named the 2015 USA Men’s Bobsled Rookie of the Year.
“He proved to be one of the best rookies we’ve seen,” said U.S. bobsled head coach Brian Shimer, pointing out that Valdes has since started practicing yoga to increase his flexibility. “He continues to get even better.”
Before the untimely death of U.S. bobsledder Steven Holcomb at age 37 in May 2017, Valdes regularly partnered with the three-time Olympic medalist, helping Holcomb finish top-three in the World Cup standings for both two-man and four-man during the 2016-17 season. Holcomb left a strong impression on his former sledding partner.
“He grew to be a close friend and a brother of mine,” said Valdes, who plans on competing with a sticker on his helmet and sled to honor Holcomb. “I feel fortunate to have slid with him and learned from him.”
Barkley has played for the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears and 49ers. He started six games for the Bears in 2016, throwing eight touchdowns.
The Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics will take place on Feb. 9, five days after the Super Bowl. Barkley has talked to friends from high school about watching the bobsled competition on television, or possibly even traveling to PyeongChang, South Korea.
“It seems like whatever Carlo does, he excels at,” Barkley said. “I am excited to see what he does at the Olympic level.”