NORTHRIDGE — Soccer player Armando Valdivia savors his status as the nation's assist leader, but keeps his past close to him. The Cal State Northridge forward recently looked at a family photograph that served as a poignant reminder of his roots.
He was 5 when the photo was taken in 1976. His family had just moved to dusty, isolated Trona, Calif., from Guadalajara, Mexico, with not much lining their pockets but hope.
The Valdivias rented a two-bedroom brick house for $100 per month in the tiny town outside Ridgecrest. His family still has a picture of him in that house, lying in bed with his three siblings. Smiling.
"Back then we look so happy, and we were, " he said. "Always being with my big family and always sharing. Everything has always been for someone else, you know what I mean? And if you got something out of it, it's even better."
Valdivia grew up poor in Ridgecrest, his family scrimping and sacrificing to make do. By necessity, they lived a life of cooperation and selflessness--qualities he thinks explain his willingness to share the wealth on the soccer field.
"I think having a big family taught me the most about sharing," he said. "Now I'm the one passing the ball. I love assists. I wish my whole team, every single player, could score."
That attitude was ingrained in him early. How could he know another way?
How could he have been selfish when he looks at old pictures and realizes that in every photo he wore the same shirt--the one with Spiderman on the front--because it was his only shirt?
You have to be selfless, Valdivia said, like his father.
Armando Valdivia Sr. didn't speak English when he came to the United States with a wife and four children to support, and toiled as a maintenance helper for a chemical company for $9 per hour--before taking a 50% pay cut for three years to be an instrument repairman trainee.
Valdivia saw his father work to keep everyone around him happy, and views his soccer role in a similar light.
Sure, the 16 goals and 51 points he has scored this season (both rank fourth in NCAA Division I) focus the spotlight on him. And the 5-foot-8 senior forward could earn All-American honors.
But it's his passing that has the Matadors (10-7, 4-2) poised to advance to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs, if they can defeat UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.
And it's his school-record 19 assists that reflect a childhood of sharing and light up his teammates' faces.
"I know in my heart that my teammates can say that I've never, ever been a selfish person," he said. "I've had chances this year to score where I've laid it off.
"It's a whole different story, (rather) than Armando scoring eight goals in one game, if I have one goal and get six assists. If Raja (Hawa) scores, if Matt (Davis) scores, you should see their faces. They never get tired because they're happy. Everybody loves to score."
And the Matadors are scoring because Valdivia is creating opportunities for them, said Matador senior Teddy Davila.
"Everyone else's goals are because of 'Mando," he said. "It's kind of like Magic Johnson--everyone collapses on him and he just has to find the open man. Armando draws everyone to him and just has to touch the ball to someone else. You can see by the numbers everyone is putting up. He's definitely unselfish."
Thinking about others comes naturally for Valdivia.
"I remember always taking care of (his siblings), since I am the oldest," he said. "Always making sure they were OK, always making sure they were happy first."
It wasn't easy. Armando Sr., a watch repairman in Guadalajara, was 25 when he moved his wife, Rebecca, and young family to the United States, "so we can make ourselves a little better," he said.
"All we got is ourselves," Armando Sr. said. "We come to this country with just a few dollars in our pockets, but a lot of expectations."
He worked at a watchmaker's for the first three years, then took a job with a chemical company in 1979. "It was a tough time," he said.
But they endured. They had moved from Trona to a slightly larger Ridgecrest apartment in 1976, and then to a mobile home in 1980. Through it all, the Valdivia's eldest son played soccer, with a seriousness reserved for those who want to play at a higher level.
He specialized in scoring at Ridgecrest Burroughs High, where he tallied 98 goals, exactly twice as many as his 49 assists.
But soon after coming to Northridge, the virtues of selflessness he learned as a youth returned to him on the field.
Coach Marwan Ass'ad moved Valdivia to midfield before his sophomore season. Soccer would no longer revolve around receiving a pass and finding the net.
"Marwan taught me to pass, how to assist, how to give a ball that no one ever thought of," Valdivia said. "He told me how to read people and pick them apart with my players and myself. Now I'm setting up plays in my mind. I don't even have to see (other players). I see things that I wouldn't have seen two years ago."