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Being a champion

It was quite ironic, the note resting on the corner of his desk. 

I had come to interview the head football coach, to talk about his experiences as a coach in Texas and Alabama. I found out that Matt had made quite a few stops in his career. He was a walk-on wide receiver at the University of North Alabama before becoming a student assistant at the University of Alabama for two years. From there, he headed to Pittsburg State in Kansas as a graduate assistant. He moved to Tennessee to take a job at Carson-Newman University, where he learned to really get to know the hearts of his players. He left from there to head west again, this time to Missouri Southern State University as a wide receivers coach. After two years, he was promoted to offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. That is when his love for high school football was rekindled.

He was assigned to recruit central Texas, a hotbed for star football players. Missouri Southern State’s head coach handed him a huge three-ring binder, full of schools and names. He was instructed to just start calling around, asking high school coaches if they had players worthy of being recruited. The list of schools was arranged alphabetically. Matt closed his eyes, slid his index finger down the first page and landed on a school. He called the head coach, who told Matt that he had a wide receiver that no one was recruiting. He had been one of the most prolific wideouts in the state’s history, but he was short. Matt traveled to Texas a few weeks later on a recruiting trip and met with the coach. There were pictures all over his office. The two had an hourlong conversation, just about life. Matt says it was likely the most genuine conversation he has ever had. Football, in terms of Xs and Os, did not come up.

“There was a heart about it,” he says.

After the visit, Matt, who was single at the time, called his mother to tell her about this coach and how impressive he was. He returned routinely to recruit the area and visit. He went to games with this coach. He stayed at his house instead of a hotel. He learned how important relationships were.

“That relationship just stuck,” he says.

That coach’s son was hired at a Houston-area high school. His choice for offensive coordinator? Matt, who took the job. He spent three seasons there, the first of which included meeting his future wife. They now have two daughters. As his third season as the offensive coordinator came to an end, an opportunity to move back to his home state of Alabama arose. He chose to take it. On his final day in Texas, as he was clearing things from his desk, a piece of paper caught his attention. It was a note from a player.

Matt tells the story from the beginning. He was teaching a weight training class for non-athletes, students who wanted to work out but did not play a school-sponsored sport. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students in his class went outside and ran. One of his students was five feet, eight inches, maybe one hundred forty pounds. 

“He doesn’t look like a high school football player, especially in the state of Texas,” Matt says.

On one of those running days, the boy ran a forty-yard dash in a very quick 4.5 seconds. Matt asked him if he had ever thought about playing football. He told him that he could run down the field on kickoff coverage, maybe be the team’s twelfth man. The boy had never thought of playing. Matt took him to meet the head coach. The boy’s schedule was changed, and he became a member of the football team. He was never a starter. He practiced mostly on the scout team and played on kickoff coverage, though he did score a touchdown once.

“He was on the team, and it meant a lot to him,” Matt says.

Fast forward to Matt’s last day on the job. He finds the handwritten note on his desk. It reads, with just a couple typos corrected, “Hey coach, you probably weren’t expecting this but I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while. I hope you know you changed my life. Remember when you first recruited me, in weight training? That changed everything. You might not have known but before that happened I was in a lot of trouble, already been in (juvenile detention) and involved with a lot of bad stuff. You changed that you made me feel needed, needed on a football team. I think it was the best decision I have ever made. And you gave me the option, if you didn’t I wouldn’t know where I would be right now.” 

Matt keeps that note to remind him of the relationship side of football. It was on his desk recently because he had shared it with his Alabama team a few weeks prior. He told his players that they could talk to him that way, through a note, if they were not comfortable talking out loud. 

Sometimes, of course, he has to be firm with his players. Recently, he was working on a manifesto, of sorts. It would essentially serve as the football program’s Bible, a set of regulations and expectations every player was required to meet. There were rules for practices, conditioning, weight training, games, playing time, game days, spring training, offseasons, fundraising and, of course, academics. Everything is identified and clearly stated. If the players follow it, then everything else will take care of itself. 

“I used to think that I could motivate a fence post,” he says. “I used to think that. And I have learned that I don’t have all the answers.”

One answer he does have, however, is the message he shares with his team every Friday before games. He tells his players, “Men daily represent qualities associated with courage and strength. Boys make mistakes that men have to fix. So what are you?” It is an attention-grabber. What tough football player wants to be called a boy? On Fridays, this is solely applicable to football. But during the week, this is applicable to life. He wants his players to have courage to do the right things on a daily basis, to have discipline, to put in the work that greatness requires. 

“That’s being a champion,” he says.

As a head football coach, he does not get to spend as much one-on-one time with players as he would as an assistant. He has more administrative responsibilities. This also keeps him away from his wife and two daughters more than he would like. But they make it work. On occasion, his daughters spend time in his office just beyond one of the football stadium’s end zones. They go to practice with him. He wants his daughters to see that he is not missing time at home just for jet sweeps and all-out blitzes. He wants them to see that he is investing in other people’s lives.

“I’m hoping that I can be a good example that not just it’s important to work hard at whatever you do, but let’s make sure that the job we’re doing is investing in other people’s lives,” he says. “My hope and prayer is that my daughters see the investment that I put in other people’s lives, that it teaches them one day to do the same thing.”

Gary Lloyd is the author of five books: "Trussville, Alabama: A Brief History," "Deep Green," "Heart of the Plate," "Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South," and "Ray of Hope." He has been a reporter and editor at newspapers and magazines in Mississippi and Alabama. He grew up in Trussville, Alabama, and graduated from Hewitt-Trussville High School in 2006. He earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Alabama in 2009. He lives in Moody, Alabama, with his wife, Jessica, and their two dogs, Abby and Sonny.

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