Nearly nine months ago, Jake Matthews, a two-way starter at Ironwood Ridge High School, took the field at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe for the Division II state championship game.
There were a couple thousand fans in the stands to watch Matthews and the Nighthawks play for the pinnacle of high school football, which Ironwood Ridge won.
Fast-forward to last Saturday and Matthews, wearing a blue No. 47 jersey for the Arizona Wildcats, stepped onto the field at Arizona Stadium for an open practice.
Not a game — a practice.
An estimated 5,000 fans — or about twice the number of people who attended the state game — filled the seats.
Welcome to college football, kid.
“I went out of the locker room to do our normal stretch and I come out and someone is yelling ‘No. 47’ and I look up and there’s a ton of people,” Matthews said. “It felt like I was back at the state championship game.
“I’ve never had a practice with 5,000 people in the stands.”
If Matthews thought that was something, just wait until he sees the stadium a week from tonight when the Wildcats open their season against NAU.
Based on how he’s performed so far in practice, there’s a decent chance the linebacker, who was a preferred walk-on, could play this season.
“There’s a chance, yeah,” coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We have a couple of upperclassmen in front of him, and we don’t want to just play him if we’re going to play him two or three plays on special teams. Jake’s still in the mix and we’ll see where it goes.”
Even if he doesn’t play this season, Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel are excited about the linebacker’s future at the UA.
“He’s a really good football player first and foremost,” Rodriguez said. “He’s got good size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds). I think he’s going to end up being a contributor for us at some point because he’s got a great attitude and is a tough guy.
“I’m real excited about Jake.”
Casteel sounded just like Rodriguez when he talked about Matthews.
“Jake is doing well,” Casteel said. “He’s a smart kid. He’s a long kid. He’s going to be big. I really like him. He’s got to get in the weight room and improve some things, but he’s a sharp kid. He’s going to be a good football player.”
The decision to turn down baseball scholarships from several Pac-12 programs and a chance to play professionally after he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in June’s Major League Baseball draft now seems like a really good one.
Matthews was a two-sport star at Ironwood Ridge. He had football scholarship opportunities from the service academies and some FCS programs, but opted to take the hard route and walk on to Rodriguez’s squad.
Sure, some doubts have crept into his head during the dog days of fall camp, but the former Nighthawk is happy to be where he is.
“When I was going through the process, I knew I was going to have regrets, but I promised myself that no matter what decision I made, I was going to be happy with it and I wasn’t going to look back,” Matthews said. “I’ve done a good job on that. There are some days where it has gotten hard and I wonder what baseball would be like. Then another day comes around and you think, ‘Oh yeah, this is why I chose this.’ I’m happy with it and just have to keep working hard and good things will come.”
At Ironwood Ridge, Matthews was one of the main stars of one of the top teams in the state. If he needed a reminder he was back down on the totem pole, he got it when he walked into the locker room on the first day of fall camp and saw the No. 47 jersey hanging in his locker.
Walk-on freshmen don’t get to pick their numbers and Matthews just took what was assigned to him.
“It’s a lot like going into freshman year of high school again,” Matthews said. “And going through this process again, I look at my high school days and it took me a while to work up there and be the guy. I just have to be patient.”