Failure Not an Option
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
If there’s a James Brown of the gridiron, a very strong case could be made for Temple LB Tyler Matakevich, arguably the hardest working man in the college football universe over the past four years.
Matakevich is the classic example of hard work and an indomitable spirit paying off big time on the back end. He is positively and unapologetically blue-collar to his core, a lunch pail linebacker who authored a most unexpected career since graduating from St. Joseph’s (Conn.) High School.
Entering his final year of high school, Matakevich, then a running back and a linebacker, was one of the top-rated athletes in the state of Connecticut. But Connecticut has never been recognized as a fertile pipeline to college football’s power programs. And whatever interest did exist evaporated after Matakevich broke his foot prior to the start of the 2010 campaign. In fact, colleges showed more interest in him as a baseball player, but that wasn’t the plan. Matakevich was determined to continue his football career, even if a pit stop at a prep school was required.
After finishing his St. Joseph’s career strong, and with back-to-back state titles, Matakevich spent a year at Milford (N.Y.) Academy, an audition of sorts to rekindle interest. The Stratford native attracted attention from Temple and Akron and essentially no one else. However, it only took a single offer, one from then-Owl assistant Matt Rhule, to unlock the potential of a young athlete with an insatiable desire to beat the odds and prove the naysayers wrong.
From the very moment Matakevich stepped foot on Broad Street, it was evident that Temple had mined a gem out of the Nutmeg State, one of Rhule’s building blocks for the future. Matakevich started eight games in the middle as a true freshman in 2012, becoming the first rookie in school history to register at least 100 tackles in a season. It was the ground floor of a remarkably productive career, one etched from a willingness to grind tirelessly and squeeze every ounce of potential out of his natural ability.
“Tyler is one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around,” said Mike Siravo, Temple’s linebacker coach for the past three years. “He’s also one of the most instinctive kids I’ve coached. After the first step or two of an offensive play, he has this uncanny ability to know in which direction the play is flowing. It’s a feel and a sense of timing that can’t be taught.”
Matakevich was never going to be the biggest or the fastest linebacker in America. That was reality. But reality for the linebacker was simply an invitation to outwork the competition in every possible way. True, you might be able to outrun Matakevich in a straight line race. To compensate, though, he’d commit to being the resident gym rat and film junkie. He was going to be the very best Tyler Matakevich he could be, which meant maximizing the skill set he brought to Philly.
“I love breaking down offenses,” said Matakevich about his passion for studying film. “I look for tendencies in our opponents. I want to know all of their formations, so that when, say the guard begins to pull, I have a good idea of where the play is headed. Whatever my limitations may be, I’m going to make sure I compensate by being one of the best prepared players on the field.”
Over the span of four dominant years as the leader of the Temple D, Matakevich was a model of consistency, the run stopper you could set your watch to. Ferocious and gritty, with a nonstop motor, he became just the seventh player in FBS history to amass at least 100 tackles in each of his four seasons of eligibility. And his 493 career stops place him sixth all-time at this level of college football. It was as a senior, though, that Matakevich reached his peak as an Owl, and for reasons that rise above a box score.
In terms of output, 2015 was a typical season for Matakevich—a team-high 138 tackles, 15 stops for loss, 4.5 sacks and five interceptions. Just another year at the office for the senior. What was atypical last fall was the team’s performance. And while Matakevich was one of many cogs in the Temple machine, he was unquestionably the most impactful one.
The 2015 campaign was marked by a litany of breakthroughs for the long-suffering Owl program. It began with a momentous first win over Penn State since 1941, a school-first 7-0 start, a Top 25 appearance and 10-win season for the first time since 1979 and an American East Division title. It was a most un-Temple-like campaign for a program that had been exiled from the Big East for general futility a little over a decade earlier.
Matakevich was far from alone in guiding the Owls to the rarified air of national relevance. And he’ll be quick to point it out. But his role in the cherry and white renaissance was unequivocal. So, for dominating his side of the ball one final time, while being the driving force of a program-defining revival, Matakevich is the winner of the 21st Chuck Bednarik Award.
“Tyler has phenomenal leadership skills,” offered Owl CB Tavon Young, who was a part of the same 2012 recruiting class. “No one spends more time in the film room, and when you combine that work ethic with his natural instincts, it’s easy to see why he’s one of the country’s best run defenders.”
Four years ago, Matakevich had one shot to follow his dream of playing football beyond high school. It turns out that one shot was all he needed. Temple provided it, and the kid with the no-quit attitude returned the favor in ways that’ll endure even now that he’s played his final down as an Owl.
Matakevich was a perennial tackling machine at Temple. No, he was actually much more, an example of everything that’s possible when the passion to overcome is so fierce that obstacles are mere nuisances on the path to success. And that’s the best gift he could give back to the Owls for the confidence they showed in him.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” reflected Matakevich. “But my mindset and approach haven’t changed at all. I still have that chip on my shoulder from hearing for so long that I wasn’t fast enough or quick enough. It fuels my fire, because I’m still the guy that wants to prove I can achieve any goal I set for myself.”
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.