Friday, September 2, 2011

Purdue Will Start Season with Heavy Hearts

(Click HERE to listen to the audio version of the story)

Sean Matti will be with his Purdue football teammates when they take the field, Saturday.  He won’t be there physically, but he will very much so be there with them in spirit.

"This being the first game of our Senior year, I do think it will be pretty emotional," said linebacker Joe Holland.  "Sean's been out there with us for four years and I think it's really going to sink in when he's not out there with us."

Holland planned to share his final home opener at Ross-Ade Stadium with fellow senior Matti but it wasn’t meant to be.

Matti passed away this summer in a drowning accident.  He had been spending time with a group of friends at Lake Freeman over the Fourth of July weekend.  His friends reported him missing and his body was found two days later floating about 30-yards from shore.

Holland said that’s the type of news no team is ever prepared to handle.

"It's difficult, showing up to [practice] and putting all this hard work in and spending so much time with the football team and one of your brothers not being there," he said.  "I think it was difficult for everybody, but that's why being a part of a team is so important."

And few players exemplified what it meant to be a great teammate better than Sean Matti.

The 22-year-old, fifth-year walk-on running back from Shoreview, Minnesota was by no means one of the best athletes on the Boilermakers roster, but what he lacked in natural ability, he made up for with effort and drive.

Running Backs coach Cornell Jackson said Matti set an example for his teammates on how to act both on and off the field.

"He was always on time for everything.  Academically he was solid.  Football wise he was solid.  He was a tough guy," said Jackson.

Jackson was around Matti’s family, friends, and teammates the day his body was found and says he often thinks about the events of the tragedy.

He is still adjusting to not seeing Sean’s focused and enthusiastic face looking back at him, especially during film sessions.

"When I'd walk into the meeting, he used to always sit in the back in the left.  When I look back there, sometimes I want to say 'Sean, turn the light on,' because that's where he used to sit, by the light switch," he said.  "But he's not there.  Somebody else is sitting there now."

While Sean’s seat in the film room may have been replaced, his legacy remains.

Offensive Coordinator Gary Nord said he earned the respect of his teammates from the minute he came to West Lafayette.

Matti helped the team mostly in practice, but never displayed a defeatist attitude when he didn’t play on gamedays. Nord said that approach inspired everyone around the program.

"He was one of the hardest working guys on the football team.  He was a giver" said Nord.  "He came here as a walk-on and paid the out-of-state tuition and put in the hours that was demanded of him here in the football program.  He earned the team's respect from doing that." 

Matti’s on field reputation was gaining respect, as well.  He showed significant progress in Purdue’s annual Black and Gold Spring Game in April.

During the scrimmage, Matti rushed for 30 yards on eleven carries and caught a pair of passes for 32-yards.
Jackson expected that kind of production to translate into Matti seeing the field during the regular season.

"Sean would have played for us this year, I truly believe that," Jackson said.  "He was tough football player, very aggressive, knowledgeable of the offense."

"He wasn't treated as a walk-on.  And I'm not talking about from me, I'm talking about from his teammates.  That's important.  When you walk onto a team, you want to be liked and loved by everybody, not just the coaches but everybody, and most importantly your peers.  [The team] really admired Sean Matti," said Jackson.

That admiration is what will make not having him on the field Saturday so tough for guys like Joe Holland.
Holland anticipates the day will be filled with emotion.

He and the other Boilermakers will wear a decal on the back of their helmets with Matti’s number 22 on it. 
But, Holland said the best way to honor their fallen teammate is for the Boilers to play with passion and intensity, just as Matti always did.

"We want to make sure that we pay our respects through our play," he said.  "He really was a true Boilermaker and everything a coach could want in a college football player, very dedicated, very committed to the team, very very loyal, had a ton of pride and I think each player on this team should take it upon themselves to live out those characteristics so Sean will be on the field with us."

All of Ross-Ade Stadium will honor Sean Matti and what he meant to Purdue, Saturday, during a moment of silence prior to kick-off. 

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