Nov. 12, 2016

by Vincent Briedis

Snow blankets every inch of Charlottesville on a cold and frigid January morning in 2015. Icicles hang from the trees and bushes around town, and the glow of the street lights bounce off the icy pavement. As most of this sleepy college town is enjoying its winter hibernation, there is hustle and bustle around the McCue Center.

Among the Cavaliers working out is center Jackson Matteo. Coming out of the 2014 season, where he missed seven games with a foot injury, Matteo is at the dawning of a life change.

His roommate and best friend, Canaan Severin, is coming off a career year for the Cavaliers. Severin’s transformation in all aspects of his life served as a great inspiration to Matteo.

“My friendship with Canaan is something that will always go beyond just football,” the fifth-year senior said. “We didn’t start off as good students, but then we started working our tails off and we both ended up on the honor roll. We are two guys who wanted to change our lives for the better and we did that in a very dramatic way.

“I can’t be in the position I am without him, not even close. He was the one who took me aside and told me I could be great. I think everyone needs someone like that in their lives, that can sit you aside and tell you that `you can do this, you can be great, and you can really be successful.’ And he was the one who did that for me. And I tell him all the time how grateful I am for him.”

Severin made the change months before the 2014 season, and results showed on the field. He went on to earn All-ACC honors in 2015. Over the course of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Severin caught a combined 96 passes for 1,337 yards and 13 touchdowns after catching six passes for 46 yards the two previous seasons combined.

Living with Severin for three years, Matteo saw the daily sacrifices that needed to be made to have success on and off the field.

“Making sacrifices off the football field will lead to success on the football field,” said Matteo. “Giving up anything remotely close to a social life, really buckling down on your studies, devoting yourself to eating clean, putting the right things in your body, setting goals every night, individual goals and team goals for yourself every single night, writing in your journal — writing down memories, thoughts, feelings, how you felt at certain times so when it’s all said and done I can look back on this day and be like, `Man, that was hard but it made me better.’

“Even this year as I continue to live this life of change I receive encouragement along the path I have chosen. Coach [Jason] Beck said something this year that is really relevant to my journey. He said, `If the path you’re on is an uphill climb, then you know you’re on the right path.’

“That was the thing for me in that process of transforming, I knew it was the right thing to do because it was the hard thing to do. At the time it destroyed me, but it spits me out on the other end a better man, a better football player and a better brother, son, teammate and leader.”

Matteo’s hard work paid off in 2015 as the he missed only one offensive snap all year. Over the course of the entire 2015 season he did not allow a sack over the 413 passing opportunities he blocked for. His stellar individual season did not go unnoticed. Matteo was named to the 2016 Rimington Trophy Preseason Watch List, an annual award given to the nation’s top center.

The blue-collar work ethic Matteo used to transform his life should not come as a surprise to those who know him. Matteo came to Charlottesville in 2012 as a walk-on after turning down a scholarship offer to play at Temple. By the end of his first year on Grounds, Matteo had already earned himself a scholarship. The foundation of sacrifice was already in place, but seeing Severin’s transformation showed Matteo that he had not scratched the surface of the potential he possessed.

“It was an honor for me to take him under my wing,” said Severin, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It was an honor for me to have someone watching me, one of my teammates, one of my peers. and seeing what I was doing on the field, extra in the film room, extra in the indoor facility when no one was watching, extra in the classroom my last couple years – that is why I made academic honor roll. I think that whole thing is bigger than football, it’s bigger than all that. It’s really about who you are as a man.”

Severin’s sentiments rang true for Matteo.

“When I got injured, going into that next spring [2015] and having that time off, that really made me realize that the show is going to go on without me,” said Matteo. “Where I was at that time, I realized this isn’t a one-man show. They’re going to keep playing games, they’re going to keep practicing, and they couldn’t care less whether I was there or not. It just let me know how hard I have to work to be successful on the field and take care of my body, because when you’re injured you may as well not really be there. You’re really of no worth in terms of playing in the football game. That spring of 2015 was the beginning of this whole thing and it carried through last season and then carried over even stronger to this season.”

Matteo was named one of UVA’s three captains for 2016. That Matteo was so honored does not surprise Severin.

“When he works that hard on a consistent basis, it’s only right that the people will follow you, especially when people see it working like the way it worked for him,” said Severin. “People will just follow you it’s inevitable. People will want to be around you because people see that it’s worked. I think he’s a great leader. It is kind of a testament to who he is as a man, as a player and as a person.”

Severin is just one of the inspirations along Matteo’s journey. His mother, Stacy Moren, is his foundation of inspiration.

“My mom has raised my brother and I on her own since I was eight years of age,” Matteo said. “Having one parent in the home is never easy, especially with two boys. Then it is probably twice as hard. I can’t remember one time when she complained, or said she couldn’t do it or had any doubt in her mind that she would make the best out of the situation. She molded me before I got here to UVA. Then with the inspiration of Canaan, the support of the Hagans family, I have been able to take that next step as a man.

“My mother has seen the growth and she is just so proud of me. she doesn’t like when I say this but I do all this for her. I love making her proud. I love seeing her smile up in the stands, just knowing that she’s is there watching me is just something that is so important to me. And she says, ‘don’t do it for me. Do it because you love it.’ Well, I love it because I love making her happy and I love making her proud. I love the game too, and I love the process, but there’s nothing better than having a person who means so much to you watching you become successful. There’s nothing better than that.”

While the journey for Matteo is still ongoing, he thinks back to those early morning workouts in the snow and smiles.

“The University of Virginia and the Charlottesville community took me in four years ago and led me to who I am today,” he said. “Each day is a process, and as we evolve as people we understand that it is not going to happen overnight. I am thankful for my journey and how I got to this point. It is something I will never forget.”