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By Cayce Troxel, Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Defensive lineman Matt Conrath has played in his share of hostile environments during his time at Virginia – at Lane Stadium in front of rowdy Virginia Tech fans, in College Park before the screaming Terrapin faithful, even all the way across the country at Southern California’s feared Coliseum.

None of those, however, compare to the atmosphere Conrath must face every Monday and Wednesday – on the playground at Charlottesville’s Jack Jouett Middle School. There, the opposition may be a little shorter, the taunts a little more high pitched and formal. Nevertheless, that does not mean the competition is any less fierce.

“Come on, Mr. Conrath!” yells one sixth-grader. “We can take you in basketball. Two-on-one-let’s go!”

“Bet you can’t make it over me!” his classmate teases, extending his arms high into the air.

“I’ll give you $100, Mr. Conrath, if you can make it from here!” another shouts from halfcourt.

Mr. Conrath’s response? Simple. Dunk the ball.

The defensive tackle learned years ago that actions speak louder than words. That means quietly leading by example both on the field – Conrath has already compiled more tackles this season than he did all of last year and was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week after the Cavaliers’ upset of Georgia Tech – and off the field. Not just in classrooms on Grounds as a Virginia student-athlete, but also in classrooms-and on playgrounds-off Grounds as a member of the University’s Athletes Committed to Community and Education (A.C.E.) program.

“It’s just so cool that he’s so big and so fierce on the football field – such an aggressive defensive player – and then he’s able to turn that off and find the side of him that’s going to impact lives for years to come in a classroom,” said A.C.E. supervisor Natalie Fitzgerald.

Serving seven Charlottesville schools, the innovative A.C.E. program sends Cavalier athletes like Conrath into the community to work with area students.

“The program is just about getting out there,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s based on a Jackie Robinson quote that says, ‘A life is not important except for its impact on another life.’ I tell my athletes, if Charlottesville’s going to give you everything it’s got – a good education and a good community – then you need to leave it better than you found it. This is our way of reaching out.”

Fitzgerald has seen that outreach effort “spread like wildfire,” as she puts it, during her time at Virginia. A.C.E. was founded in 2006 when six football players first proposed the idea for the program. Now Conrath represents just one of the more than 100 Virginia athletes from 17 different sports currently involved. Required to visit their “adopted” classroom at least twice a month for two hours, most Cavaliers volunteer at least once a week. Some engage students through activities like lunch buddies and recess monitoring; others tutor and even teach music lessons.

Conrath’s assignment is arguably even more personal and hands-on than that.

Originally planning to major in economics at Virginia, Conrath nevertheless sampled classes in other disciplines, including kinesiology. That is how, in his third year on Grounds, the defensive tackle ended up in Dr. Luke Kelly’s Introduction to Adaptive Education class.

“It was just an intro class, but it was really interesting to me,” Conrath said. “We had to wheelchair across campus, then we had to walk through Mem Gym blindfolded. We did a lot of little stuff like that, and I found it fascinating.”

Aside from the in-class portion, Dr. Kelly’s class also included a practical component requiring Conrath to assist an adapted education master’s student as they worked with children with disabilities. It was then that he decided to abandon the economics track and adopt a different route, becoming a full-time adapted physical education major instead.

“I want the student-athletes to major in what they’re interested in – not what I’m interested in or what their teammates are interested in,” said Adrien Harraway, UVa’s Assistant Athletic Director for Academics. “When you’re engaged, you’re going to do better, which is what Matt has done.”

Such an interest is what led Conrath to Fitzgerald’s office this fall. Having already participated in a few A.C.E. activities in the past, the defensive tackle wanted to take on a bigger role, hopefully putting what he had learned in his adapted ed classes to use in the community.

With only one adapted physical education teacher in the entire Charlottesville Public School system and over 50 special needs students needing physical education instruction, there were more than enough opportunities available for Conrath to do that.

Dina Baber, the special education instructor at Jack Jouett, just happened to be the lucky one to claim Conrath first.

“We’re stretched extremely thin,” Baber said. “The woman who coordinates our A.C.E. program here contacted me and said, ‘Do you want him? Do you want him?’ I immediately said, ‘Yeah!’ We were fortunate enough to get Matt here, and it’s been a blessing ever since.”

Conrath has been a godsend for Baber, yet he has made an even greater impact on Baber’s six learning needs students. While the Cavalier devotes his attention primarily to the two autistic children in the class, he works to improve the motor skills and coordination of the entire group. Whether that includes jumping back and forth across lines, dribbling up and down the basketball court, or even practicing situps, Conrath is right there with the children, doing everything they do, every step of the way.

“What’s the neatest with these guys and their relationship with Matt is that most of them don’t know he’s a UVa football player,” Baber said. “That means nothing to them at all. They just know he’s a lot of fun and they get to have special time with him. If you’ve never seen him work with kids, it’s a real treat. They love him here.”

“It’s just nice having him here as a father figure, a role model, even a big brother kind of thing,” said Trish Pugh, one of Baber’s assistants in the classroom. “They bonded to him right away. Sometimes they tend to be shy, but they totally meshed with him.”

As quickly as the children may have adjusted to Conrath, one novelty of his presence still remains: his size. A looming 6-7, 280 pounds, the defensive tackle is more than two feet taller than some of the students he teaches. The disparity creates frequent comedic relief-the kids often clump around Conrath as he walks down the hall, jumping up and down in an attempt to touch his hand as he holds it above his head, and the defensive end himself is known to elicit a few giggles by accidentally bumping his head on the school’s low door frames. At the same time though, it is Conrath’s size that makes his immediate acceptance in the classroom all the more remarkable.

“As a football player, that’s one of the things you have to overcome,” Fitzgerald said. “No matter where you are-in a media interview, in a one-on-one conversation, doing community service, even in the classroom with a professor-your bigness can be so intimidating. They have to be able to put that size factor aside and really get down to where everyone is. It’s just so incredible that Matt Conrath is touching little people and they’re not afraid of him.”

Some of Conrath’s ability to do that likely lies in the fifth year senior’s maturity.

“He’s always been that way,” Harraway said. “Even from his very first recruiting visit with his parents, I could tell that his demeanor was more mature than most first years that come in here.”

Another factor arguably rests in a value instilled in Conrath since his earliest days on the football field: perseverance.

“You learn not to give up when you’re working as an athlete,” said Dr. Martin Block, Conrath’s adapted physical education major advisor. “That’s the same thing when you’re working with children with disabilities. A lot of times-on the first, the second and even the third try-they might not be successful or they might not try. You have to have perseverance-the idea that ‘We’re going to make this work.’ Those are two things that really coincide between being an athlete and being a teacher.”

While such determination could lead to a career in the NFL for Conrath once his playing days at Virginia are over, it could also provide him with an eventual post-football profession in the future.

“To work in special education, you either have it or you don’t,” Baber said. “If he goes to the NFL for a few years, that’s fine. But if he ever wants to do this, he’s got it. He’s got it in his heart.”

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