When Jay Valai’s playing career ended following a decorated four-year stint at Wisconsin, he wasn’t sure what his future might look like or where football would take him — or even if he would be in football.
But now, just 10 years later — after detours to Rutgers, Georgia, Texas, Houston, Alabama and two quick stops in the NFL — Valai is coaching cornerbacks at the University of Oklahoma.
“God led me here for a specific reason,” Valai said, “with coach (Brent) Venables and Oklahoma and close to home.”
Valai, 34, was hired by Venables in January even though they’d never worked together.
“We actually met recruiting in Miami,” Valai said. “And we start talking ball.”
Valai characterized Venables as “taking me under his wing” and “pouring into me as a man.” There was an instant mutual attraction.
“It was just really random,” Valai said, “and then we just start talking ball and ideology and just some intricacies I was talking about as well, too, from from coverage multiples and different looks and disguises. You know, we just started geeking and feeling each other is passionate about the game.
“You could tell what's real is real. So, being around him and seeing how he's done it and how he's carried himself and what kind of man he is, you know, it attracts you to people like that."
But their connection went deeper because not all of their conversations involved football.
“We all go through our trials and tribulations and our families and, you know, just like a real connection,” Valai said. “Coach V, he's always been real like that.”
Meanwhile, Valai had built quite the football resume.
During an All-American high school career at Colleyville Heritage in Texas, Valai played football and basketball and ran track.
He went to Wisconsin, was voted captain and became a four-year letterman. Valai helped lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl and was a two-time second-team All-Big Ten performer.
Then, a minor step away from football: from 2011 to 2016, Valai ran a sports performance training facility. His clientele included NBA and NFL players as well as high school and youth athletes. But it took a while to get his career back into football.
“As soon I got through playing, I thought I was gonna be the next Bob Sanders,” Valai said of the former Indianapolis Colts safety who was famously undersized but became a Pro Bowler. “Then I got hurt and it was all taken away from me. I hated football — for about a week. I was like, ‘I’ll never watch football again.’ Then, by Sunday, I was watching a game.”
Valai said former Dallas defensive back and current Jackson State cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis — “one of my mentors and one of my closest friends,” he said — convinced him he needed to go into performance training.
“From then on, I poured myself into the training aspect,” Valai said. “Seeing guys grow and develop and pointing to them as young men with the daily grind and what they were doing when nobody is watching, the extras they were doing. I love the game and love being a geek about the game. My passion grew from that.”
Valai is from Euless, TX, and has a wife (Courtney), two daughters (Jayla and Kenzli) and a son (Jaxon). But since leaving performance training, he’s been highly mobile.
He joined the Georgia staff in 2016 as a defensive quality control coach. He even helped the Bulldogs beat OU in the Rose Bowl and get to the national title game in 2017.
“I had a couple opportunities I thought would happen that didn’t happen,” Valai said. “God opens doors when they need to open. Chris Ballard (the Colts’ general manager) is a guy that got me into the business, which is awesome. He called (then-Georgia defensive coordinator) Mel Tucker and he brought me in for an interview. He and Kirby Smart. And there I was. God opens up doors.”
In 2018, Valai was a defensive quality control and assistant defensive backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In 2019, he worked at Rutgers as cornerbacks coach.
In 2020, he coached cornerbacks at Texas under Tom Herman.
And in 2021, he was hired by Dana Holgorsen at Houston for a few days, then quickly took a job with the Philadelphia Eagles, then was soon hired by Nick Saban at Alabama — four jobs in a little over a month.
‘The biggest thing,” Valai said, “was keep your head down and work and grind. Stay late and get there earlier. Be a geek about what you do. And I grew fast in the business because of that.”
When Venables called, Valai was ready — for two reasons.
One, he wanted to be closer to Euless, so he could spend more time with his mother. Two, he knew it might be coming.
“I guessed it,” he clarified. “When I saw those immortal words (from Lincoln Riley), ‘I will not be the coach at LSU,’ I went, ‘Well’ … I starting telling guys on the (Alabama) team, ‘I bet they hit coach Venables up.’ When I heard it could it happen, I was like, ‘It’s time to make a life decision if it does happen.’
“When he hit me up, instantaneously, I told my wife. My mom has some back issues and this is a chance to be around family. Working with this guy who is important to me and that I believe in and I will run through a wall for is something I had to think about and pray about. It all came together.”
When Valai talks about Venables, he invokes the word “passion” frequently — as in, Venables lives with passion, works with passion, even chews gum with passion.
It’s a character trait that Valai knows all too well — and openly shares. Among the tattoos Valai wears, the word “PASSION” is inked on his right biceps.
“Man, that’s everything to me,” Valai said. “When I see my Lord and Savior in Heaven, I’m gonna die on E. I’m not going to have anything left in me. No air, no nothing. So once again, God gives you the opportunity to be on this earth, you know, I'm not gonna slap him in the face with the opportunities given me. I'm gonna pour it all out because of him. And that's who I am. I'll be able to look at myself in a mirror years from now without that work I’ll regret because of that. So pour it out. Pour it out, die on E.”