Tackling Obstacles

By Danielle Nelson

*This story is posted on Owlscoop.


Nov 3, 2012; Louisville,KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals running back Corvin Lamb (20) outruns Temple Owls linebacker Tyler Matakevich (32) during the second half at Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium. Louisville defeated Temple 45-17. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Lindsey-US PRESSWIRE


Even after the last whistle blew declaring the end of football practice, Tyler Matakevich would not leave.

Instead, Matakevich would spend an additional two and a half hours watching film with his High School coaches.

That was nearly 13 hours at school, including his academic responsibilities, which began at 8 a.m., Matakvich rounded-off his day at 9 p.m. watching film of both sides of the ball during his time at St. Joseph High School.

But the amount of hours he devoted to the sport was never an issue for Matakevich, the-then teenager who spent most of his life around the pigskin.

“Before I actually played organized football, I would go to the practices and tackle bags and the kids would throw footballs at me,” Matakevich said. “If I dropped them, they would make me do five pushups. Sometimes if they would throw the balls as hard as they could just to see if I would drop them and to make me do five pushups. Sometimes I would catch them.”

“I think thats what made me who I am today,” Matakevich added. “Just having pride, I would’t want to have to do five pushups. I would catch the ball no matter what. They would leave marks and stuff because I would catch it with my stomach but I would do anything not to drop it.”

Early Years.

The current football players at St.Joseph High School in Connecticut never played a snap with alumni Matakevich but they know him all too well.

“He comes back and helps out when he is here,”Coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “He talks to the kids about his experiences. He is just an incredible person. He is so well liked by everybody.”

That would not have been the case if Matakevich didn’t get his start in football at a young age. He got his start at the age of 9, which his father, David Matakevich who coached Tyler in High School said.

“It wasn’t easy,” David said. “He didn’t want to play. He didn’t want to go to practice.”

David said it wasn’t until Tyler played his first Pop Warner Jamboree game, where three kids football teams played scrimmage games against each other, when Tyler started liking the game. He started out as an offensive guard but then his second year in Pop Warner he switched positions to a running back and linebacker.

Tyler continued to play Pop Warner football, which proved to be beneficial. St. Joseph High School football program has Freshman, Junior Varsity and Varsity teams. So when he entered High School he only played with the freshman team for the first four games of the season.

At 5-feet 11-inches and close to 195 pounds, Della Vecchia said Tyler moved to the Varsity team where he continued to play running back and linebacker. Yet, that was not the only sport Tyler played during his High School career.

When the Spring season rolled around he played 3rd base on the Cadet’s baseball team. He continued to play both sports throughout his High School Career.

The Drought was Over

“The kids reaction when we found out we were in [the playoffs] was unbelievable,” Della Vecchia, St.Joseph High School football coach said. “It was like somebody hit a home run and won the game at Yankee Stadium.”

After 19 years, football players at St. Joseph High School could finally celebrate the opportunity to play in the playoffs again. The last time the Cadets played a snap in the playoffs was in 1990. It was now 2009. The drought ended, in part, because of the expansion in the Connecticut State playoffs system.

Since the 1970s, high school football teams in Connecticut operated on a two team playoff system, which meant it was difficult for teams to get into the playoffs. As only two teams could get in the playoffs and play for a championship Della Vecchia said.

And after close games in the mid-2000s, the Cadets finally took advantage of the four team playoff system but it wasn’t easy. With just two rounds of the Class S State playoffs, Tyler and his squad found themselves in the championship round. But a hail storm would halt the Cadet’s passing abilities, who were down by three in the first half of the 2009 Championship game.

Della Vecchia said because of the wind and ice St. Joseph completely relied on their running game as Tyler, who played the running back position in High School “ran 23 straight times in the second half” and scored two touchdowns winning the 2009 Connecticut State Championship.

With a State championship under his belt, Tyler prepared for the upcoming season with preseason scrimmages. But with two weeks until the start of the 2010 season, tragedy struck. On the second play of the team’s first defensive series, Tyler caught an interception and landed awkwardly on his right foot in the second scrimmage of preseason.

“I just got up and it was painful because I was limping,” Tyler said. “I went off to the sidelines. The adrenaline was rushing and I thought it was [an old] bruise that was reoccurring. They taped it up and I was walking and I thought I was alright, so I went out there.”

On the next play, Tyler managed to make the tackle but could not continue in the game. He was rushed to the Hospital and later diagnosed with a broken right foot. Tyler would open up his last season on the sidelines on crutches for the first fives games. But that did not prevent him from leading the team.

“Tyler wanted to be on there but he was on crutches but he was helping to coach too,” his father and linebacker coach David Matakevich said. “All the things that we taught him, he tried to help out teaching the kids to do the right thing.”

There were a few other players who suffered injuries including another linebacker, who also broke his leg, a receiver who had an infection and the quarterback, the head coach’s son who injured his hip coach Della Vecchia said.

Still the Connecticut State Playoff system continued to expand in 2010 as eight teams could qualify for high school football playoff spots, which led to three round system coach Della Vecchia said. That only benefited the Cadets as the team opened up the first five games 3 and 2.

But after a doctor’s appointment that officially cleared Tyler to return for game 6 the team improved. Game 6, the Cadet went up against cross-town rival, who was undefeated at the time in New Canaan High School.

In a close game, the Cadet upset the Rams in a 27-28 win David Matakevich said. The Cadets rolled on to finish the season 7-1, qualifying for the state playoffs. The Cadets went on to win their first two playoffs and then they went up against Ansonia High School, at the University of Connecticut ’s Rentschler Field in Hartford. St. Joseph beat Ansonia, the school that won the most state championship in the state and winning its second consecutive championship.

The Phone Stopped Ringing.

Four years after he left St. Joseph his name still stands in the record books. Tyler has the most tackles at 400. He holds the school record for the most career touchdowns at 61. He is second all-time on the rushing and receiving list. He is second all-time with 95 career catches.

Once second, Tyler now stands all-time with the most touchdown in one year – 28 touchdowns in 2009. So it wasn’t surprising when Tyler entered the 2010 preseason with numerous Universities pursuing him.

His father, David Matakevich said Division I schools like Boston College and UConn were in communication with the family but also Division II schools like UMASS, Maine, Buffalo, Central Connecticut and Southern Connecticut were in pursuit of Tyler.

But that all changed two weeks before the start of the 2010 season.

“Once he broke his foot the phone stopped ringing,” David Matakevich said.

David Matakevich said schools weren’t completely such if he would play, if at all, because of the injury. Nevertheless, he said Division II and Division III schools kept in touch when he wasn’t playing but the “bigger schools stopped calling and sending him flyers.”

Although Tyler got better and played the rest of the season, helping to win the school its 10th Class S State Championship, Division I scholarships eluded him.When college recruits scouted Tyler at St.Joseph, Della Vecchia said many coaches wanted him to increase his speed.

“A lot of people didn’t like his 40 time,” Della Vecchia said. “They said he was too slow and my response was always, ‘if you are worried about how fast he runs to chase somebody down then you are in more trouble than you think. That kid is a tackling machine.’”

There were a few Division I schools that wanted Tyler to walk-on.

“Temple wanted me to come and be a preferred walk-on but I didn’t want to do that,” Tyler said.

Despite wanting to stay in state, no Division I scholarships came his way. Tyler was forced to seek other opportunities.

“He wanted to play at that level and no one gave him a chance at that time,” David Matakevich said. “For coaching for the years that I have been, I believed he could play at that level. So he wanted to play at that level so that is why he decided to go to prep school.”

A Need

An Italian Restaurant, a gas station with a mini mart, a food market that closes at 5 p.m. and Milford Academy.

That is how Tyler describes New Berlin, New York, a small town with about 2000 residents where he spent his post graduate year.

“The next town over was a 55 minute drive and on that drive if you look at your phone you had no service,” Tyler said. “If you look at it there was a circle and a line through it, you had nothing.”

For Tyler, it didn’t matter. Like him, top athletes from across the country attend Milford.

“It is very hard when you come from a small school or a small town and you are used to being the number one guy,” Head Coach Bill Chaplick said. “Well, everybody that I recruit nationally is the number one guy. So when I pick my final 55 guys everyone was the number one guy somewhere.”

Tyler wanted to be on a Division I football roster but it didn’t take long for Chaplick to find a problem.

“The biggest worry that we had was getting enough weight on him,” Chaplick said. “For him to be able to play one A, his baseball weight was certainly not enough good for football.”

Tyler walked onto Milford Academy weighting close to 205 pounds his father, David Matakevich, said.

With only four months to showcase his talent while competing for a scholarship and position among some of the top football players in the country at Milford, Tyler devoted hours to the game of football.

“We start our day at 6 o’clock in the morning,” Chaplick said. “We do weight training, lifting before we even start breakfast and then we go to class, then we go to practice in the afternoon and then we go into the meetings at night. So it runs like a one A college with the amount of hours we have to put in.”

Chaplick’s defensive program was setup as a blitz defense so it wasn’t strange when Tyler made some massive improvements including and increase in his “speed, weight lifting, talent level and statue.”

Towards the end of the season, David Matakevich said Division I school began calling back including UConn, Temple but also Central Connecticut and Scared Heart. Tyler’s devotion to Chaplick’s program showed as the team of mostly teenagers competed against Division I college players and went 12-0 during the 2011 season.

The Monday after Thanksgiving opened up a second opportunity for the athletes as what was considered to be a combine conducted at Milford Academy where 50 to 80 college coaches would recruit players from the Academy, Chaplick said.

“They did some drills,” David said. “They did some hitting drills and that’s where they noticed Tyler. They wanted to see how he could run and guard somebody in pass coverage. So they were looking at him at his position and what he can do and how fast he could get to the ball and his hitting skills. They liked how he hit and he make a couple good tackles in the hitting drills.”

It was there, on a Monday, when Tyler said Coach Matt Rhule, who was an assistant at the time, and Coach Frye told him to come to Temple that Friday for a visit.

“That weekend I was down here at Temple but they didn’t offer me until a week after New Years,” Tyler said. “Temple was the first school that I went with and I was sticking with it,” he added. “Coach Rhule was the main reason why I came here, he really fought for me to come here and the fact that he is the Head Coach now, is really awesome.”

To Hit or Be Hit.

“I just love hitting,” Tyler said.

“Scoring is awesome but I remember just seeing the beating running backs would take and I know how hard we would hit them and stuff. I just remember in High School saying ‘I don’t want to play running back in college.’”

So it wasn’t strange when Tyler took what he learned at Milford and accomplished an uncommon feat.

Coming into Temple a semester early, Tyler had extra time to learn the system, which he took advantage of. In his freshman year, he earned the starting job at linebacker and led the team in tackles that season winning Rookie of the Year in the Big East Conference. But he didn’t stop there even though there was a new defensive coordinate at the helm in 2013.

That season he earned the title of captain while leading the nation in tackles at 137, averaging close to 9 solo tackles per game. Now his second year into the Coach Phil Snow’s defensive system, Tyler said there is still plenty to learn.

“Learning the defensive playbook is so difficult.” Tyler said. “They are so thick. You have to be able to know the little details and I think that is the difficult thing. Still today and I have been in the defense now for about two years and we are still learning stuff about our base defense. That is something we started learning the first day.”

In an effort to continue to learn the system defensive coordinator Phil Snow said during this past offseason Tyler spent hours in the weight room improving physically and mentally.

“A year ago he weighted 222 pounds and now he weights like 235 so he did a great job getting physical bigger,” Snow said. “When you gain 10 to 12 pounds in muscle mass that is a pretty good job in the weight room. He also understands the game. He understands offense a lot better. They come in and study the playbook. So it allows them to react instead of to think. You can’t play good on defense unless you know offense and vice versa.”

Now into his third season at Temple, offensive coordinators are well aware of Tyler’s athletic abilities. He has a total of 40 tackles with five games into the season, a little less than last year at this time but for Tyler, it doesn’t matter.

“I am not worried at all,” Tyler said. “I know the other guys on the other side of the defense will make the play and if the ball wines back to me, I will make the play.”

With all Tyler has gone through to get to this practical point in his life, Della Vecchia said he is not surprised with his accomplishments but have other expectations for Tyler.

“He didn’t surprise not one of our coaches,” Della Vecchia said. “We all thought he was going to excel no matter where he was. We are hoping he has a chance at the next level.”

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