He was a running back as a true freshman and a wide receiver as a sophomore and now, as the 'Cats began preparation for their Outback Bowl date with Auburn, Jeravin Matthews was reassigned yet again. This time he was reassigned to that island inhabited by all cornerbacks.
"We were trying to find the best position for him," explains defensive coordinater Mike Hankwitz. "He runs extremely well. He's made a lot of plays on our special teams, and he has that speed you're really looking for in a corner. We just felt like it was a better position for him. You know, everybody has different strengths. He wasn't a natural receiver. But he's competitive and he has that great speed and he made those plays on special teams. Those are the kinds of things a corner has to do, so we thought maybe it was a more natural position for him."
"I wanted to find a home for him," echoes head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He was struggling, scuffling to catch the ball, so receiver didn't seem the right fit. Effort, attitude, the work ethic he's been committed to since he's been in our program has been spectacular. He's been if not our best, one of our best special teams players. So I really felt that would be the best role for him after talking to the staff."
"I just gave them a big smile and said, 'All right. I'm ready,'" says Matthews when asked his reaction to that switch. "Coach Fitz and I had talked about it and we thought it was best for me and it was best for the team and it was a way I could possibly contribute more to the team. So we just did it and full speed ahead."
• • • • • •
Back in 1973, that fall when he became the first NFL back to rush for 2,000 yards, O.J. Simpson said this to your Scribbler: "Running. Man, that's what I do. That's me. . . I'm a runner. When I make a good run, man, it's a great satisfaction. And if I can do it in front of 80,000 people, all the better. It's like, man, it's like you feel after making love."
Some years later, after spending a season with the San Diego Chargers, a psychiatrist named Arnold Mandell published a book called "The Nightmare Season" and in it he wrote, "The wide receiver needs to be the center of attention."
So the running back defines himself by his position and the wide receiver perceives himself as a movie star, yet here was Jeravin Matthews not only belying those images and taking on a challenge with no guarantee of success. He was also putting himself in a position that would deliver no instant gratification, which is nothing less than mother's milk for so many in this age.
He, in fact, was here spitting in the eye of so many notions and common beliefs, and proving himself far different than those narcissistic jocks that now so clutter our airways. "I was a running back in high school," he says when all this is pointed out to him. "Some people say running backs are prima donnas. But I think the running backs here, and the guys I was around, I consider them workhorses. I consider them some of the toughest guys on the team, and I was happy to be in the room with them and take on that mentality with them. I thought it was really beneficial to me being around those guys.
"I identified myself with that position, that was the position I wanted to play when I came to college. But the thing about me is it really doesn't matter to me where I play. As long as I'm helping the team, as long as I'm getting a chance to contribute and showcase what I can do, wherever I'm at, I'm going to do my best and put my all into it."
Did he consider how long it might take for him to get on the field as a corner?
"That's one of the things Coach Fitz and I talked about. He said, 'Try to keep in mind it's going to take a little bit and just stay patient and keep with it, stick with it, and just keep working the technique, working the fundamentals.' I knew that it wasn't all going to come overnight. I knew it was going to take time. So I just patiently worked at it with (defensive backs) Coach (Jerry) Brown and the older DBs and just got ready for my opportunity, got ready for the opportunity to play football."
Where did he find that patience, that ability to turn his back on instant gratification?
"I'd just say the people around me and how I was raised," he says, and now comes a pause that fairly asks his listener why he doesn't understand his commitment to the whole.
"Basically it was just whatever I could do to help the team, whether it was special teams, whether it was being a starter on offense or defense, it was just how can I get on the field?" he now reiterates. "Then, if I got on the field, I was going to be the best at whatever I did on the field. That's the mindset I take into everything. I just wanted to really help the team. That was my mindset and how I dealt with it."
• • • • • •
Her name is Michelle Matthews and, back when she was raising her two sons, she worked some 14 hours a day so she could provide for them. Some were spent laboring in a nursing home, others were spent as a cafeteria lady in the district where her boys attended school, but all were duly noted and safely stored by that son she called Jeravin. "When I was growing up," he remembers, "we really didn't have a lot. Sometimes that got hard, and I just learned a lot from her about keep working, keep working, keep working, and soon that hard work's going to pay off. I saw that it paid off for her and I try to translate that into everything I do in my life. She was really instrumental in me as a person, as a football player.
"She was a very hard-working woman. That's where I got a lot of my work ethic from. But even though she was working so much, she still found a way to take care of me and my brother and keep us on the right track and our nose in the books and everything. She's a very special woman, a very important person in my life. I saw her doing that and thought, 'She's doing all of this for me. The least I can do is put my all into everything I do. Kind of repay her.'"
So working up the ladder at corner is a way of repaying his mom?
"Just doing what she taught me," Jeravin Matthews says.
• • • • • •
Last spring, shortly after the 'Cats returned from Florida, Fitzgerald told Matthews he might want to think of redshirting so he would have more time to master the new challenge just handed him. Matthews considered that overnight and the next day told his coach, "I want to play." He would play little at corner, while still shining on special teams, and so his fall was mottled by some inevitable bouts with despair. "There were times when I got down on myself," he admits. "There were times when I got a little bit frustrated trying to take in so much information in the time period I had. But, like I said, I had a lot of guys around me, (safety) Brian Peters, Coach Brown, Coach Fitz, to go to and talk to. They kept me level-headed and grounded."
And what was the best advice he got in those talks?
"Coach Fitz always tells us not to compare ourselves to other people, but to compare ourselves to ourselves. Which means, focus on what you need to do, not the guys you're competing against. Just focus on yourself, focus on your technique and your fundamentals, and eventually, after you start focusing on that, you start getting better and you'll be prepared for your opportunity to play."
"He wasn't doing anything wrong," Fitzgerald himself says when asked about those talks. "It just wasn't happening right now for him. As a competitor, to learn that kind of patience is really, really difficult, if not impossible. But I think he's handled it well. Yeah. He's gotten down. But I don't think he ever lost his attitude, ever lost his edge."
• • • • • •
Now we have another spring, that time for blooming, and when the 'Cats scrimmage Saturday for the first time, their starter at right corner will be Jeravin Matthews. "You like guys at corner who played other positions," says Hankwitz. "All those skills help you, and we're excited by the progress he's made. We just hope he continues to progress."
"He would be the best poster child for our team and our program," says Fitzgerald. "He's had great patience. He's been willing to do anything and sacrifice for the program. . . He's got great football intelligence. He's got incredible "want to." His work ethic is great. He's a multi-year member of our Leadership Council for a reason. He's respected by his teammates and that role's important to him. He's the ultimate and consummate team player."
• • • • • •
And now that he is a starter, what is Jeravin Matthews' approach? "It remains the same. Focus on me and just do what I need to do to get better," he says. "Nothing's set in stone. There's guys breathing down my neck. There's young guys. So it's just constantly keep improving."
This answer, of course, is not surprising. It is instead an answer that would make his mother proud.