By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — They met for the first time when Matt Fortin, a student at the Haverford School outside Philadelphia, traveled south to tour the University of Richmond, where Mike London was head football coach. Fortin and London talked for about 20 minutes.

“My plan was to hopefully get in the school and walk on [to the team],” Fortin, a long-snapper, recalled recently. “At that point no one really wanted me.”

The conversation did not leave a lasting impression on London, whose visitor lacked the physical stature of the average Division I football player. But Fortin never forgot the coach’s graciousness. And so when UVa hired London away from UR in December 2009, Fortin, then a postgraduate student at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, saw an opportunity.

“I actually drove down here from Deerfield and gave a sales pitch, asking him for a shot,” said Fortin, whose hometown is West Chester, Pa.

He didn’t bother asking for a scholarship, because he knew what the answer would be. But in February 2010, when offered a chance to join the Wahoos as a recruited walk-on, “I committed on the spot, as soon as I heard,” Fortin said. “It kind of all fell into place for me.”

He’s now listed at 5-11, 185 pounds. In his senior year of high school, though, he weighed closer to 150 after a bout with mononucleosis.

“I was a tough sell to a lot of Division I programs, but the nice thing was that I was just looking for a walk-on spot, just to kind of get my foot in the door, to go to a school like UVa,” Fortin said. “I was pretty confident. I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder after seeing some of these top guys go to these big-name schools. I had been out to camps with them and knew I could hang with them. And so I just wanted an opportunity, and it was a great situation here, with not only Coach London, but having Danny [Aiken] here as well, and then the opportunity to play right away after Danny was gone.”

Sometimes the best-laid plans work out. That happened in Fortin’s case. He redshirted in 2010 and apprenticed under the 6-4, 255-pound Aiken, who now snaps for New England Patriots. Fortin assumed the long-snapping duties in 2011 and is now in his third season as a starter for Virginia, which hosts VMI at Scott Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Moreover, he was awarded a scholarship near the end of spring practice this year — to Fortin’s surprise — and was one of 13 players selected for the team’s Leadership Council.

“I joke a lot that I’ve stretched about as much talent as I’m going to get out of my athletic ability, and it’s been fun,” Fortin said. “I didn’t ever think it would pan out like this in my wildest dreams.”

London said: “It’s one of those feel-good stories. Things can work out for people that work hard.”

There’s more to Fortin’s story. He lives on the Lawn, an honor accorded to only an elite group of UVa undergraduates in their final year of study. A few doors away, in another Lawn room, is teammate Blake Blaze, who’s perhaps best known as the student representative on the University’s Board of Visitors.

Fortin often passed the Lawn on his way to class, “and it seemed pretty special,” he said. “I didn’t ever really think I’d have a shot at it, but I applied at the end of the fall semester last year, just thinking I’d throw my name in the hat and see what happens. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering, `What if I had applied?’ So I did and it worked out. And it was exciting having Blake on the Lawn, too. I didn’t know a lot of other guys living there, but it’s nice to have a familiar face.”

His other teammates have a standing invitation to hang out in his Lawn room — No. 45, same as his jersey number. They haven’t stopped by as often as he expected, but they do so when they can. For the linemen he’s taken precautions.

“I upgraded to a couch,” he said. “I think it’ll hold them better than the folding chairs.”

Fortin, a foreign affairs major in the College of Arts & Sciences, is studying the Middle East. To better understand the region, he’s learning Arabic.

“I’m still at a pretty basic level,” he said. “I think that immersion, when you go to another country, is kind of the best way to learn a language, but I don’t really have the time to do that, being here all summer. I’d like to do that maybe at some point when I’m done with school. But I’m working hard at it. It’s definitely a tough language to pick up.”

As for his post-college plans, Fortin said, “I’m looking at a couple of options in the military. I’m still trying to work that out. I want to focus on getting a degree and playing football right now.”

Fortin’s minor is in leadership, a program offered in the McIntire School of Commerce. He has taken two classes taught by Professor Thomas Bateman.

“He’s just a very good guy,” Bateman said. “Definitely attentive. Definitely a participant in class discussions. He adds value to the class discussions, and I just enjoy talking to him off-line.”

Bateman, a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan, added: “What’s cooler than a long-snapper?”

Students must apply for the leadership program. From about 80 applicants, Fortin was one of 30 or so admitted. Most are from outside the Comm School.

“Any major can be in there,” Bateman said. “Getting in is not [solely] about GPA … They’ve got to show some kind of passionate and genuine interest, and interesting ideas, to which they might apply their leadership skills.”

Requirements for the leadership program include a self-designed field project, Bateman said. Students “write a proposal in their third year, in the small class with me, and then they execute it in the fourth year with another professor doing the directing of all the projects.

“Some are done on Grounds. Some are done in Charlottesville. Some are done elsewhere, at home or conceivably on an alternate spring break or something, and people execute and write papers around their experiences.”

Former UVa football player Trevor Grywatch preceded Fortin in the leadership program. Fortin succeeded Grywatch as the player who works most closely with Steve Atkinson on `Hoos in the Ville, the team’s community service program. Atkinson is the football team’s director of player development.

“So it was kind of a nice transition,” Fortin said. “Trevor was able to help me out with everything I needed to do, submitting proposals, things like that. And from there my project really is: How do we improve upon the groundwork that Trevor laid?”

Fortin said his No. 1 goal is to get more players involved in and aware of the team’s community service projects.

“We do weekly visits to the Boys & Girls Club and the hospital before home games on Fridays, which are two awesome opportunities for guys to serve,” Fortin said. “And really the biggest thing that we’ve found is [the importance of] getting people in the door with these things. A lot of times people don’t really know how to do it, or they’re not really comfortable doing it, but as soon as they get there, they have a lot of fun with it.”

Fortin’s project also will focus on finding ways to donate some of the team’s “gently used clothes” to area shelters and other organizations, “because we have so much gear that guys either grow out of, because they’re getting bigger and stronger, or they just don’t need anymore,” he said.

“Steve has a couple of people who’ve mentioned to him that they’d be willing to take the gear. So now it’s kind of figuring out when is the best point to gather it, what can people give and how do we disperse it.”

During Fortin’s first three years at UVa, Anthony Poindexter was his special teams coordinator. Larry Lewis, who coached at Nevada last season, took over the job in January. Lewis’ first thought upon learning that the Cavaliers’ returning starter at long-snapper weighed 185 pounds on a good day?

“Can he snap?” Lewis said, smiling. “Really, that’s the biggest thing, because of the nature of what we do. If you’re smaller, you gotta design around it a little bit. But my biggest concerns are how accurate are you and what are your times?”

Fortin took nothing for granted.

“You don’t want to get the feeling that anything’s handed to you,” he said, “so I wanted to go out and prove to Coach Lewis and the rest of the coaching staff as well that I was going to be a starting long-snapper. He’s mentioned to me that I’m smaller and he probably would have liked or recruited [a bigger player], but I think he sees that I’ve handled myself over the past two years, and I think he’s comfortable with me.”

Having redshirted, Fortin will have another year of eligibility remaining after this season. He hopes to use it at UVa.

“Coach Lewis and I have talked about it a little bit,” Fortin said, “but I think we’re all pretty focused on this season, and then we’ll get to the fifth year after the season. But I’d love to come back.”

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