By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– After eight seasons in the University of Virginia football program––the first five as an offensive lineman, the last three as a graduate assistant––Jackson Matteo is no longer officially involved with the sport that’s been such a major part of his life.
He’s focused on his schoolwork this semester. Matteo, who graduated from Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, has earned two degrees at UVA and is closing in on a third.
He’s taking two classes this semester in the Curry School of Education and Human Development, where his focus is athletic administration. He’s also co-teaching a class with fellow student Molly Harry. Once Matteo completes an online course this summer, he’ll start researching his dissertation, and he hopes to receive a doctorate in education (Ed.D.) in May 2021.
It’s been quite a ride for Matteo, who joined the Cavaliers as a recruited walk-on in the summer of 2012. He earned a scholarship in 2013 and later, in 2015 and 2016, started 24 consecutive games at center.
Jackson Matteo (right) with Dillon Reinkensmeyer
Matteo experienced a coaching change late in his playing career––Bronco Mendenhall succeeded Mike London after the 2015 season––but thrived under the new staff as a fifth-year senior in 2016.
As a graduate assistant, Matteo helped the Wahoos win six games in 2017, eight in 2018, and nine in 2019, when they defeated Virginia Tech for the first time in 16 years, captured the program’s first Coastal Division title, and advanced to the Orange Bowl.
“It’s really fulfilling to me, because that’s what I wanted when I was a player,” said Matteo, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in education. “Towards the end of my senior season, someone asked me, ‘What are you guys playing for? There’s no bowl.’ And I basically just said, ‘There’s a lot more to play for than the bowl.’
“You couldn’t really see it at the time, because we were a two-win team [in 2016], but in my mind I felt that everything we were doing was going to pay off, and I’m really lucky that I got to be a part of it. I got to see it first-hand, and then I got to coach on the staff, and now it’s come to fruition like this.
“I take a lot of pride in Virginia sports, and this place and the people here have done everything for me and more. And just to watch it come to fruition is exponentially fulfilling. I can’t even put it into words.”
Matteo was among the UVA veterans who after the coaching change immediately embraced the earned-not-given approach of Mendenhall, who’d spent the previous 11 seasons at Brigham Young University.
“Obviously, there was an opportunity to transfer,” Matteo recalled. “People do that, and the thought came to my mind, because it’s your fifth year and you want to make sure you have a positive experience your fifth year. But once I met the coaches, I quickly realized, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m here and I’m going to buy in and I’m going to try to squeeze everything out of this.’ A fresh start felt good, like a breath of fresh air.”
A back injury hindered Matteo throughout the 2016 season, and the NFL wasn’t a realistic post-college option for him. He hadn’t planned on going into coaching, but when a GA slot opened on Mendenhall’s staff, Matteo applied for and got the job. He work with the defense in 2017 and then moved to offense in 2018. In that role, Matteo assisted offensive line coach Garett Tujague, for whom he’d played in 2016.
“I love him like a son. I’m so grateful,” Tujague said on a recent Virginia Athletics podcast.
It’s impossible “to put a price tag” on Matteo’s impact as a GA, Tujague said. “He’s going to be missed, but never forgotten. He did a great job. He did a lot with the tackles [in 2019] in helping to continue their development. He’s an integral part of this program. Always will be.”
After three seasons as a graduate assistant, Matteo was not allowed, under NCAA rules, to continue in that role. Is he through with coaching? Not necessarily.
“I would like to stay in coaching at the University of Virginia,” said Matteo, who’s shared that desire with Mendenhall.
“I called him a couple days after the Orange Bowl, and I basically told him, ‘Look, Coach, I’m going to stay and I’m going to finish my credits [this spring]. My dream is to coach for you, and I’m not really ready to go [elsewhere],’ ” Matteo said. “I just am not ready to jump into the college football coaching thing. I really want to see it through here [academically].”
During Mendenhall’s tenure at UVA, there’s been virtually no turnover on his coaching staff. Defensive line coach Ruffin McNeill left for Oklahoma in the spring of 2017, at which point Mendenhall promoted Vic So’oto from GA to full-time assistant. There’s no telling when another position will open, but Matteo can count Mendenhall among his biggest fans.
“He’s made a real difference in our program,” Mendenhall said. “My criteria for hiring a graduate assistant is I have to be able to see them as a full-time coach, and if one of my coaches leaves, no one should be surprised, other than maybe if it’s coaching quarterbacks, to see Jackson Matteo, who’s never coached officially at the Power 5 level, [join the staff].”
Four of the Hoos’ assistants––So’oto (defensive line), Nick Howell (defensive coordinator/secondary), Kelly Poppinga (co-defensive coordinator/outside linebackers) and Shane Hunter (inside linebackers)––are former GAs under Mendenhall, and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck was an offensive intern for Mendenhall at BYU.
Mendenhall sees similar potential in Matteo.
“We would gain momentum by just inserting him, which I did with Nick, which I did with Kelly, which I did with Vic, which I did with Shane, which I did with Jason,” Mendenhall said. “That’s how I do it. So he’s next in line.”
For now, Matteo’s primary concern is his doctoral work. For his dissertation, Matteo wants to research the impact of redshirting on freshman student-athletes, and he might focus on how redshirting affects African-Americans.
Matteo recently attended a three-day conference in Austin, Texas: the Black Student-Athlete Summit. The experience was transformative for him, said Matteo, who came away with a better appreciation for the challenges African-American student-athletes face at predominantly white institutions (PWI).
“They’re going to schools where people don’t look like them,” Matteo said. “They’re going to schools where the professors don’t look like them, and not many of the head coaches look like them.”
He was one of only about eight Caucasians at the conference, Matteo said, and “for three days I got to feel like what it’s like for black student-athletes at a PWI. I was a minority. And it’s really eye-opening. Imagine trying to learn and grow and ask questions and feel comfortable in a place like that. It’s really difficult.”
If he’s more than thoughtful than when he enrolled at UVA in 2012, Matteo has changed in other ways, too. He might not have described himself as cocky back then, but others in the football program would have used that adjective.
“I didn’t mean to be,” Matteo said, smiling. “I didn’t mean to be arrogant. I didn’t have anything to be arrogant about. But I think I was just trying to display, ‘Don’t step all over me just because I’m a walk-on.’ I wanted to fight back a little bit.”
He became a leader on the football team and a serious student. He credits the support he received from a variety of people, including Canaan Severin, one of his teammates at UVA, and mentors like Lauren Hagans, whose husband, Marques, coaches the Cavaliers’ wide receivers, and Christian Steinmetz, Matteo’s advisor in the Curry School.
“It really just takes one person to tell you they believe in you, and after that the sky’s the limit,” Matteo said.