Family lessons move Valpo's Vashil Fernandez through school, fatherhood
Vashil Fernandez was told he’d died when he was 12. Then he was told he’d moved to the U.S. Over time, the truth became as elusive as the man himself.
“I just heard a bunch of stories,” Valparaiso’s senior center said. “I heard so many stories, I just stopped asking. I tried to live my life.”
So he does. Dancing like no one’s watching, singing like no one’s listening, and loving like he’s never been hurt. Even though he has. Which makes the time, the bond between Fernandez, one of the nastiest shot-blockers in college basketball, and his 18-month-old daughter Maia, all the more precious.
“Just in terms of taking care of a child, for me, I’d say growing up with all my siblings, I learned a thing or two I felt that helped prepare me for this role,” said Fernandez, whose Crusaders (26-5), Horizon League regular-season champions, open play at the conference tournament in Monday night’s semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.
“Thankfully, I have an understanding wife. She knows when I get home, I give (the baby) as much attention as I can.”
Raising a child takes a village. Raising a child while working on your second graduate degree (international economics and finance, to go along with the one bestowed last year in international commerce and policy) takes a special handle, a special focus, a special drive.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of courses to take,” Fernandez said. “But I have a very understanding wife who will help me out and make sure I stay on top of things and will help take care of the baby. And then I have really good professors, too, who are able to help me when I miss class and spend extra time with me to make sure I know what I’m doing.”
His first choice is to smell every petal on every last rose, even if time doesn’t allow him the luxury to stop. On the court, the 6-foot-10 forward is the enforcer’s enforcer, leading the NCAA in blocked shots (94), block percentage (13.7), and ranked No. 2 nationally in Sports-Reference.com’s Defensive Rating (82.9), which calculates opponent points surrendered per 100 possessions.
The game is graceful, powerful; the mentality, pure lunch pail. Fernandez credits that grindy approach to his grandma back in his native Jamaica, who drove home the idea that if you really wanted something, you’d have to work your tail off for it. That world view was seconded by his mom, Sophia Green, who burned candle after candle, end after end, working multiple jobs to help support a family.
The three brothers and two sisters wound up living with grandma, aunts and cousins on a farm in the country, 15 kids in a three-room house with an outside bathroom. While space was limited — “The room that was supposed to be the inside bathroom ended up being a bedroom, the living room was a bedroom,” Vashil recalled — the opportunities, the future, still seemed boundless. Soccer. Fishing. Running free.
“So we had a lot of fun. At any point in time, we were outside, most of the day,” Fernandez recalled. “There was always an opportunity to do something fun with family.
“There really was never (any) thinking that ‘This was a small space.’ We just enjoyed each other’s time. Now I look back on it, I think, ‘Wow, it’s crazy how we all fit in one space.’”
Crazier still how he discovered the game that would led him to the States. A friend of a friend saw him on a street corner in Kingston, sized the big 17-year-old up, and asked if he knew how to play basketball. He didn’t.
Soccer? Yep. Cricket? Sure. Track? Fine. Basketball? He knew of the game, but hadn’t watched very much of it.
“We only had three stations on the TV,” Fernandez said. “Sometimes, (NBA games) came on the TV, but I never really knew anything about it.”
But he was intrigued. He moved from the country to Kingston and attended Calabar High School. He also found a champion: Ajani Williams, a Kingston product who’d played collegiately at Georgia Tech and Eastern Michigan and saw something in this tall kid picking up the rock for the first time.
“He was the one who was talking to different coaches over (in the States) and trying to get me to come over here and develop,” Fernandez said. “He got in touch with people at Maryland.”
Fernandez finished his prep career at Maryland’s Princeton Day Academy. He made his international debut back in the summer of 2012, helping the Jamaican national hoops team snatch the bronze at FIBA’s Centrobasket tourney, then the country’s best-ever finish at the event.
But it wasn’t until this past Feb. 21 that Mom finally got to see him play for the Crusaders, having flown in to celebrate Valpo’s Senior Night, a 90-74 win over Detroit that clinched the Horizon crown. Vashil’s final home appearance came with a very Vashil line: Eight points, nine boards and five blocks.
“She loved it,” he said. “She doesn’t know anything about basketball, but she was excited. She got into the game.”
It was another sweet line drawn through the sweeter part of the bucket list over the last 10 months. April, the NCAA granted Fernandez a sixth year of eligibility. He and wife Bridget will celebrate their first anniversary in May. They met playing pickup basketball, not long after he’d arrived on campus.
“The first time we actually had a conversation was when she cornered me at a volleyball game,” the Crusaders’ big man chuckled. “I wasn’t as friendly as I am now. I didn’t really know a lot of people.”
Now, one of the nation’s toughest cats in the paint is such a sweetheart outside it, cherishing the mornings, cherishing daughter-daddy reading time.
“We just got a book from one of her friends, just a thing about firefighters,” Fernandez said. “All she cares about in that book is the Dalmatian dog. So she’s in a phase of just loving dogs right now.”
Every now and again, he looks into those eyes, wondrous and bright, and sometimes thinks about what he missed. Whom he missed.
“It’s definitely a big life change, that’s for sure,” Fernandez said. “It motivates me to work harder than I have most seasons. (When) I work, I know I’m not only here for just me.”
A narrative can’t read to you, help you with your schoolwork, show you how to throw a ball, teach you how to become a man. That last one was one lesson Vashil Fernandez had to learn largely on his own.
“I knew what not to do as a father,” the Valpo big man said, “and how much I cherish a child. Just to help them, to be a part of their life and just try to influence them in the right way and show how they’re supposed to live, to just be a good role model.”
And, above all, to be there. Forever and always.