BELDING — His heart racing quickly, sweat dripping from his brow, Gio Vanni Delgado suddenly found himself at the center of the world standing on the turf of Rudness Field.
With his family watching in the stands, the Belding High School varsity football team had just scored its first touchdown against the Greenville Yellow Jackets, and it was time for the extra point kick.
Nervously, Delgado trotted out onto the field with his teammates.
Waiting patiently, in a moment that felt like an eternity, the ball was finally hiked.
Delgado punched the ball forward with a strong kick, only to watch the ball sail wide of the uprights.
He had missed.
Suddenly, everything he had worked so hard for appeared to dissipate before his eyes.
He jogged back to the sideline, ashamed of his poor performance.
With tears welling up in Delgado’s eyes in disappointment, coach Joe Schwander wouldn’t have any of it.
“So you shanked it. You know what, you’ve got the next one,” the coach told Delgado. “It’s one of those moments where you just say, ‘Come on, you will make the next one.’”
Delgado composed himself, shook off the miss, and put his mind on his next kick.
And when that attempt came minutes later into the game, he didn’t miss again.
Delgado had found his way, and he will be forever grateful of the path he took to get there.
A rough start
Delgado, 18, will graduate with his fellow Belding seniors on Thursday as he walks across the stage to accept his diploma. But that action, dressed from head to toe in cap and gown, was not always something that was of major concern.
During his first two years of high school, Delgado is the first to admit that education was the least of his worries when it came to everyday life.
“I didn’t think it was necessary to do well in school, and that affected me poorly,” he said. “That came with my parents being disappointed in me, telling me that this is not what they expected out of me. That hurt me inside.”
Delgado said he entered his freshman year feeling invincible. There was no urgency to focus on academics, no desire to prepare for tests or place any level of commitment toward schoolwork.
The result was a grade point average that hovered just above a 2.0.
He didn’t want to learn. He simply didn’t care.
But Delgado came to a realization toward the beginning of his junior year.
Suddenly, the idea of college, of a successful life after high school, appeared nonexistent.
That realization was awoken thanks to the outreach of a teacher who was beginning his first year at Belding High School, math teacher and football coach Schwander.
“I have to give coach Schwander credit, because I think it all started with him,” Delgado said. “Once I made the football team, once I committed, it was all about discipline. That’s when I started focusing and realized what was important in life. Not only did football make me a better athlete, but it made me a better person down the road.”
Turning it around
Schwander approached Delgado in November of his junior year, asking him if, as a soccer player, he might want to try kicking for the team.
Delgado tried, despite poor results.
“I wasn’t very good at the beginning, I couldn’t even make a 15-yard kick,” he said. “But we really went over the basics of kicking, and after two practices, I fell in love. It felt like it was meant to be.”
Schwander said he saw more in Delgado than what was on the surface, and knew that the discipline of his football program might be able to bring out the adult hiding within.
“He lacked confidence, he didn’t quite know what it took to work hard,” Schwander said. “Through athletics, through our football program, and the relationships he formed with players, coaches, it clicked for him. He took responsibility for what’s going to happen the next 10 years of his life.”
Delgado began practicing not just on the field, but in the classroom as well.
Schwander made sure Delgado put a renewed focus on his education, to make sure academics were higher on the list than anything related to football.
“I knew that for me to even be on the team, to have what it takes, I had to grow up,” Delgado said. “I had to find a way to get on the right path. It was then that I realized I needed to focus on academics.”
Delgado said he began staying after school to retake quizzes and tests, putting in extra hours to study, doing everything he could to improve himself as a student.
Slowly, he saw his grades begin to rise.
By the time he began his senior year, once he took the field for that first football game against Greenville, he could see the difference his renewed focus has made.
Boasting number 22 on his back, Delgado solidified himself as the official “point after touchdown” kicker for the team, and also solidified himself as one of the more dedicated students at the school.
Principal Brett Zuver said it’s no secret that Delgado has transformed into a leader.
“Gio has really emerged as a leader, ironically enough,” he said. “He’s involved in a lot of extracurricular things and has really blossomed.”
Zuver said Delgado has always been a friendly, funny student, but he managed to focus those traits into becoming a leader of his class for other students.
“He’s really expanded on it and become a student leader,” he said. “Other students gravitate toward him and he has a way to make others feel comfortable around him. He’s just a very good, caring person. It’s always a proud moment to see a student step up like he has.”
Becoming a leader
Delgado has always managed to stay busy, playing four years of soccer, football his senior year, and also participating in four years of band.
When it came to music, Band Director Laura Hyler said Delgado emerged as a leader and grew unlike any student she has had previously.
“I have never seen such growth of a man in my life,” she said. “He’s such a great example of what it takes to have an amazing spirit no matter what happens.”
On Wednesday evening, during Delgado’s final band concert of his high school career, Hyler presented him with the Most Dedicated Senior award.
“This person is an individual who exemplifies the best attitude a student should have in and out of band,” she said. “This person is always giving 100 percent in being willing to do what it takes to make themselves and the band better.”
With his new attitude toward academics instilled by Schwander, Delgado said the leadership role in band just developed along with it.
“I was never known as a leader, but being known as a section leader within the band, it helped me grow my leadership skills,” he said. “It was an experience that was really meaningful to me, it was the first time I was given the chance to lead.”
Delgado said he entered high school unable to read music and lacked a passion to learn, but thanks to Hyler, he found himself a much different student upon gradating.
“She created an environment for me to grow, much like coach Schwander did,” he said.
First to graduate
Perhaps the most important element of graduating on Thursday, is that Delgado will be the first member of his family to do so.
According to Delgado, his parents, Saul and Francisca Delgado, migrated from Mexico when they were only 17 and 19.
Delgado said his parents couldn’t afford to graduate high school, as in Mexico the cost of education falls upon the students and their families.
His father worked labor and his mother babysat to raise what they could to attend school, but it wasn’t enough to finish their education.
Delgado’s parents came to the United States to find a better opportunity, and Delgado was born not long after, followed by his three younger siblings. The family decided to make Belding its permanent residence.
“By staying in Michigan, by not migrating back and forth between here and Florida, that was my parents’ way of showing they cared about our education. They stayed so we could be in one community and be in one school system.”
Delgado said that heritage, knowing where he comes from, will make graduating all the more important for him.
“They came here to the United States to look for a better life, for better opportunities, to start a family,” he said. “It’s going to be a great feeling walking across that stage. I didn’t just do it for myself, I did it for my family. I want my siblings to continue their education as well, to graduate, to be successful in life.”
The thought brings tears to Delgado’s eyes, as coming from a family of immigrants, there isn’t much family nearby for him to connect to.
“Graduation itself has been inspiring to my entire family, it really excites them,” he said. “I don’t have very much family here, and now I’m going to be one of the first to graduate high school.”
Lessons for others
Delgado will now finish with a 2.7 GPA. Though it’s not nearly as high as he would like, he knows how low it could have been had he not course-corrected and began to focus in his junior year.
“Obviously, it’s not above a 3.0, where I wish it was, and I regret not trying those first two years, because had I done what I’ve been doing now, academically, who knows where I’d be,” he said. “Just knowing that I stepped it up big time means a lot to me personally”
Delgado says he plans to attend Grand Rapids Community College for two years before hopefully transferring to Grand Valley State University.
“I want to major in modern languages,” he said. “I want to be an interpreter, possibly at a hospital, so I can help those such as my parents’ who may not speak English.”
Looking back, Delgado said he is grateful he was able to wake up and realize his dream of education beyond high school.
“You only get to do high school once, so you better make the best of it,” he said. “You have to wake up, you have to realize what is on the line. Colleges do look at your first two years of high school, and that’s where I failed. Just keep dreaming and make that dream a reality.”
Belding High School
What: Belding High School commencement
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Belding High School gymnasium
Speakers: Alumni Gerald Hopkins is keynote speaker; several students will also be chosen to address their classmates
Number of Graduates: 155
Class Colors: Black and white
Class Flower: Orange day lily
Class Song: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds
Class Motto: “A journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” by Lao Tzu