Fernando Diaz’s career at the University of Pittsburgh got off to an auspicious start on Wednesday morning. After signing his letter of intent and faxing it off, the Cardinal Hayes offensive lineman was ready to field a congratulatory phone call from Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt.
Except, Diaz’s phone went dead.
That was about the only snafu in what was a magical morning for Diaz, the Cardinals’ 6-foot-2, 275-pound left tackle who was one of a handful of New York City players heading to a Division I-A program.
“It was a dream come true,” Diaz said. “I’m looking forward to the future and it’s just the beginning of my career as a Pitt Panther.”
Fellow offensive lineman and close friend Erle Ladson also signed his letter of intent early Wednesday morning, faxing the papers to the University of Delaware of the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. Not bad for someone who just finished his second year of playing organized football.
“It’s unreal,” said an emotional Ladson. “With my buddy Fernando I saw the possibility, but I didn’t think I’d be able to make it at this point in time.”
Ladson, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound right tackle, attended the High School of Science and Technology, housed in the Evander Childs building, for two years before transferring to Cardinal Hayes.
With the help of Sean D’Arcy, his sponsor, Ladson finally picked up football after being denied when he was younger.
“He couldn’t even play Pop Warner, because he was too big,” said Ladson’s mother, Zunilda Camacho. “When he was 11, they wanted him to be 90 pounds with equipment and he was 98 without the equipment and they didn’t let him play.”
Cardinal Hayes coach C.J. O’Neil, though, had no problem letting Ladson play.
“He’s very athletic for such a giant young man,” O’Neil said of Ladson, who chose Delaware over Hofstra. “From his junior year to his senior year there was such huge growth, I could only imagine two years from now where he’s going to be.”
As for Diaz, a FiveBoroSports.com All City first team selection, O’Neil said his work ethic is what helps separate him from other offensive linesmen.
“Fernando and Willie Colon are probably the two hardest working kids. They’ve been intrinsically motivated to be successful,” O’Neil said, referring to Colon, who is a member of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. “He competes on every player and as an offensive lineman, he finishes people. You look for a nasty streak in offensive linemen and he’s got it.”
Diaz said he chose Pittsburgh over Big East rival Connecticut. It was on his official visit that Diaz realized he wanted to be a Panther.
“I fell in love with the school, the coaching staff, the players are real nice,” he said. “It’s like a family and city-type of environment, which I come from. They’re coming up, Coach Wannstedt is recruiting better players, it’s going to be great team in the future and I want to be part of that.”
Wannstedt, meanwhile, said he was very impressed with Diaz, who attended a training camp there during the summer.
“The kid came down and he was with us this summer and we watched him, talked about him and watched his toughness and got around the kid,” Wannstedt said in a press conference from the Pittsburgh locker room at Heinz Field. “When he left here we said he’s the type of kid we want in this program.”
While Diaz played left tackle at Hayes, he said because of his size he’s more likely to play on the interior and Wannstedt has already asked him to start to take snaps as a possible center.
Ladson, a FiveBoroSports.com All City second team selection, played both sides of the ball this year, but he is more likely to see time on the offensive line for the Blue Hens.
But wherever they play, O’Neil said he is confident both programs are getting quality people, as well as football players.
“They’re very high character kids who have definitely put in the work to get to where they are now,” O’Neil said. “When you see that happen, it kind of rebuilds your faith in humanity.”