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Valentine's day has arrived at Towson

Marcus Valentine wasn't a part of a prestigious football team in high school. Maybe that's what made it easier for the defensive tackle to leave New Jersey to play for Towson Unviersity — a team stuck in the depths of college football.

But for whatever reason, Valentine saw winning potential in the Tigers. He knew at some point the program would turn things around.

Four years later, after enduring 27 losses in his first three seasons, Valentine is a part of history.

With most of the attention this season focused on Coach Rob Ambrose for resurrecting the Towson football program, it is Valentine, a senior captain and leader of the defense, who is the "heart and soul" of the Tigers as they enter the FCS postseason for the first time.

Towson plays host to Lehigh Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Johnny Unitas Stadium.

"It's very rewarding," Valentine said. "It shows that hard work pays off and a lot of trust and perseverance and believing in our coaches and believing in our teammates."

The 6-foot-2, 274-pound defensive tackle is one of just three players to start every game on defense this year. He's racked up 32 tackles, three sacks and has forced a fumble. Valentine is not a star, Ambrose will tell you, but his contributions to the Tigers are maybe more important than any other player.

"Marcus is not the fastest guy. He's not the strongest guy. He's not the quickest guy. He's not super weak in any of those facets, but he's not Hercules," Ambrose said. "But he will lay everything he has out on every play for his team. That's a shining example for anyone at any position. They follow him. They believe in him."

At first Valentine had to believe in Ambrose. After a successful freshman season, in which he led all defensive lineman on the team with 40 tackles, the coach Valentine had committed to, Gordy Combs, was fired.

That brought in Ambrose, who made life miserable for Valentine and the rest of the Towson players right from the beginning.

"It might have bad before I got here, and I'll tell you what when I first got here I made it worse on those guys," Ambrose said. "I truly challenged their commitment both to the game and this institution."

Said Valentine: "It was hard."

And for all of the work they put in on the field, it was hard to see progress. In Ambrose's first two seasons, the Tigers went a combined 3-19. Valentine, though, started to emerge. He won a starting position during the preseason of his sophomore season. He has started all 33 games since. In his junior season, he had 40 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered one for a touchdown.

Still his production didn't necessarily equal wins, which he said all had to do with the team's mindset. That changed after last season's 1-10 finish.

"This offseason all we talked about was winning," Valentine said. "Our mindset was just to flat out win."

The Sicklersville, N.J. native has invested more time off the field, helping with community service projects alongside Ambrose, than any other player in the program. Ambrose said that commitment, which has slowly matriculated to other players, is a major reason why the Tigers have enjoyed success this season.

"He's one of the few guys in the beginning that really bought in and realized no matter how hard we went, there was more in them," Ambrose said. "As time grew, he started challenging other guys."

Through the losses, coaching changes and general disappointment, Valentine said he never once thought about giving up on what he started, or even consider that he made the wrong decision.

So gearing up for his first career collegiate playoff game, Valentine isn't surprised at how far this team has come. To him, it was always in the plans.

"I knew the struggles weren't going to be easy, but I wanted to be apart of something great," Valentine said. "I just wanted to make history, and that's what we're doing now."

Said Ambrose of Valentine and the entire senior class: "To have them vindicated at the end of their career, is truly one of the greatest life lessons ever. If you just stay the course, if you just continue to work, if you just trust in yourself and those around you, great things can happen."

xcxceckard@baltsun.com

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