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Team player: Former NFL lineman makes smooth transition to INL Security

June 29, 2022

By Idaho National Laboratory

When he mangled his shoulder in his second season in the National Football League, Robert Valenzuela realized his NFL career was over. So, he traded his shoulder pads and helmet for a badge and gun and embarked on a career in law enforcement that eventually led him to Idaho National Laboratory.  

Robert Valenzuela

Valenzuela, a security officer with INL’s Specific Manufacturing Capability, was a star on the football field. He ranked among the top five defensive linemen in the nation as a high school senior in northern California. After high school, Valenzuela obtained his bachelor’s degree in general studies at the University of Oregon, where the football team was coming off a top-five finish. With Valenzuela playing defensive line as a freshman in 2001, the Ducks finished the season as the second-ranked team in the nation. After four years at Oregon, Valenzuela signed with the Detroit Lions in 2005, but he was derailed by a lingering shoulder injury that ended his NFL career after two seasons. 

“I tried to come back but it wasn’t the same,” Valenzuela said. “Playing in the trenches against 300-pound linemen, you really need a fully healthy shoulder. It’s a tough injury for a guy playing my position.” 

That’s when he decided to follow his older brother into law enforcement. 

 “I like the atmosphere, the camaraderie you build with your teammates on a crew,” said Valenzuela. “You have their back, and they have yours. It fits my style.” 

After he earned his Peace Officers Standards and Training certification from the University of California, Berkeley, Valenzuela joined the Special Response Team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2007, and, when a vacancy arose on INL’s Pro Force in 2014, he made the move to Idaho Falls.   

Valenzuela was stationed at the Advanced Test Reactor until taking a new assignment in 2022 at the Specific Manufacturing Capability. He serves on a crew that handles a range of duties, from access control to facility checks to motor patrol. 

Valenzuela conducting patrols as a member of INL’s Protective Force.

“It’s rewarding to come out here and have good people to work with,” he said. 

When he’s not working, Valenzuela and his family – wife Debra, daughter Emma and son Hunter – enjoy the outdoor opportunities that abound in eastern Idaho.  

“We’re big outdoor people,” he said. “Hunting, fishing, country stuff; the outdoors is a big part of our lives.”  

And coaching football is a big part of Valenzuela’s life. 

When I was a kid, I always paid attention to people who helped others, and I always had aspirations to coach and teach people,” he said. 

For the last several summers, Valenzuela has held “Big Man” camps for high school football players of all positions. He also is a fixture at Grid Kid games. His son, Hunter, is a fourth grader, and Valenzuela is a fixture on the sidelines at Hunter’s games and practices.   

He helped start the East Idaho Flag Football League in 2014. And last spring, he volunteered for the Firth High School football team, teaching the players proper technique and footwork as well as how to read opponents’ tactics.  

Valenzuela with attendees of one of his “Big Man” camps for high school football players.
Valenzuela team photo
Valenzuela is a volunteer coach for the Firth High School football team, instilling the importance of proper technique and footwork.

“It’s very rewarding to teach these kids something they’ve never seen before,” Valenzuela said. “Not a lot of people have played in the NFL; so, when I show young football players something and it works, the reaction is great.”

Perhaps one day he’ll trade his badge for a whistle; instead of roaming the halls at SMC ensuring classified material is secure, he’ll roam the sidelines as a football coach, ensuring proper technique is deployed.   

“I enjoy coaching,” Valenzuela said. “It gives me satisfaction, whether it’s Grid Kid, high school, at the Y or at the rec center – I like helping kids succeed on the field.” 

Hobbies are fulfilling, and fulfilled people make more productive employees. Hobbies also unearth hidden skills, alleviate stress, unite you with others, and improve quality of life. Discover the stories and unique interests of just a few INL employees. 

About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted June 29, 2022

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