— Woodberry Forest School (@WoodberryForest) May 17, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — To his football players at Woodberry Forest School, he’s Coach Matteo. But they would not be mistaken if they addressed him as Dr. Matteo.
For Jackson Matteo, an educational journey that began in 2012 ended more than a decade later when he received his third degree from the University of Virginia. He earned a bachelor’s in sociology in 2016, a master’s in higher education in 2017, and a doctorate in education this spring.
“That’s it for me,” the 29-year-old Matteo said, smiling.
Matteo, who joined the UVA football team as a walk-on in 2012, earned a scholarship in 2013. He later became a team captain and started 24 consecutive games at center in 2015 and ’16.
He followed a winding academic path. As an underclassman at UVA, Matteo would not have described himself as a serious student. But he grew more committed as time went on, in part because of mentors like Lauren Hagans, whose husband, Marques, was one of the Cavaliers’ assistant coaches.
He and teammate Canaan Severin were close with the Hagans family, Matteo recalled, and Lauren Hagans encouraged them to set daily goals and become more proactive as students, athletes and people. Then came a life-changing event for Matteo. In December 2015, Bronco Mendenhall took over as the Wahoos’ head coach, and his influence on Matteo can’t be overstated.
He had already begun taking his schoolwork more seriously, Matteo said, but Mendenhall “took that idea to a different level, where he’s not only reading books, he’s highlighting every page that he sees something [interesting] on, and not only is he doing that, but he’s actually going back and creating Power Points to present the findings of the books [to the team].
“And not only that, his entire coaching staff has notebooks in every single one of our team meetings. And so now all of a sudden, it became cool to me to be a learner, and it became cool to challenge myself intellectually, where before it was very cool to challenge myself physically and mentally., but I had never really taken that step into academia.”
Matteo hasn’t looked back. “I was like, ‘I’m going to be a reader, and I’m going to pursue education and I’m gonna take this place for everything it’s gonna give me. They let me in the door and now I’m gonna do right by them for trusting me to be here.
“It happened at such a pivotal crossroad in my life, and it just struck gold. I wanted to be a learner all of a sudden. I wanted to get into my books, I found a really cool passion for taking great notes in class and feeling like I [could excel academically]. It was like an intellectual awakening, and that was really from Bronco.”
Matteo, who redshirted in 2012, had another season of eligibility remaining after earning his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2016, and he enrolled in a one-year master’s program in the School of Education and Human Development. With no realistic NFL options after his college career ended in December 2016, Matteo accepted an offer from Mendenhall to join Virginia’s coaching staff as a graduate assistant.
Many GAs take light academic loads that allow them more time to focus on football, Matteo said. His academic advisor, Christian Steinmetz, urged him to take a different route and pursue a doctorate in education. He accepted the challenge and, while working on Mendenhall’s staff, continued earning credits in the School of Education and Human Development.
Those were memorable years for the football program. In 2017, the Cavaliers played in a bowl game for the first time in six years. In 2018, they capped an eight-win season with a one-sided victory over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
In 2019, Matteo’s final season as a graduate assistant, UVA 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,” Matteo said in a January 2020 interview.
His eligibility as a GA exhausted, Matteo focused full time on his studies in 2020, a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But he missed helping young people work toward a common goal, and his interest was piqued when Gerry Capone, a longtime administrator in the UVA football program, called to let Matteo know Woodberry Forest was looking for an offensive line coach.
The timing was perfect for Matteo. “I think I was chomping to coach again,” he said. “I just didn’t know where I was going to do it, honestly, and I landed in amazing situation at Woodberry. The school is incredible, the organization’s incredible, the leaders are really special. This isn’t just another place. A really special kid gets admitted to Woodberry.”
A prestigious all-boys boarding school in rural Madison County, about 35 miles from Charlottesville, Woodberry has a strong football program whose alumni include Terrell Jana, Lindell Stone, Lee Dudley and John Kirven, all of whom went on to play at UVA. The Tigers’ athletic director, Matt Blundin, played football and basketball at Virginia.
Matteo started at Woodberry in the summer of 2021 and coached the offensive line that fall. In January 2022, he was promoted to head coach and named an assistant athletic director at Woodberry. The Tigers posted a 6-3 record last season and figure to contend for the Prep League title this fall.
In addition to his responsibilities in the athletic department, Matteo also works in academic development, providing support to students, and serves as the head of a dormitory on campus.
“So I wear four different hats professionally,” Matteo said.
The dorm in which he lives houses Woodberry’s sophomores, with “a few seniors sprinkled in for leadership opportunities, and, boy, is it chaotic,” Matteo said, laughing. “It’s busy, man.”
He’s loved working with Blundin, who had a legendary athletic career at UVA. The 6-foot-7 Blundin came to UVA on a basketball scholarship, and as a sophomore in 1988-89 he started at forward on the Terry Holland-coached team that reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
One sport wasn’t enough for Blundin. After joining head coach George Welsh’s football team in 1988, he backed up Shawn Moore at quarterback for three seasons. As a graduate student in 1991, Blundin took over as the Cavaliers’ starter and finished the season as the ACC Player of the Year. The Kansas City Chiefs selected him in the second round of the 1992 NFL draft.
“Matt and I, we are different but similar,” said Matteo, who graduated from Broad Run High School in Northern Virginia. “I want things done quickly, and I want to go and I want to do and sometimes that can get you in trouble, if you don’t have things well thought-out and if you don’t have a plan and you’re just ready, aim, fire.
“Matt is the opposite. Matt will really take his time on things. And he’ll vet all the details and talk to all the right people, but that can cause logjams, so he and I actually balance each other out quite nicely in a professional manner. We’ve really kind of found our flow that way, and it’s been great. He’s been nothing but the most welcoming, the most friendly, the most humble man that I think I’ve ever been around. He’s a great leader and he’s a great friend and it’s just been awesome with him.”
At the end of the 2021 regular season, Mendenhall stepped down as the Cavaliers’ head coach. Eight days after Mendenhall’s announcement, Tony Elliott was hired as his successor. In the spring of 2022, Matteo brought a couple of Woodberry players to a recruiting event at UVA at which he met Elliott and the new coaching staff.
“Since then, I’ve been back, I think, two, three times, and it’s been great getting to know these guys,” Matteo said. “It is good to know that a good man is leading an organization that I care about immensely. And it seems like all of the men on the staff are good men, which I would hope translates to good coaching, and I think it does. I went and saw a couple of practices, and I do think it does.
“They’re good people. They come by and they recruit our guys, and doors are completely open when I come by [UVA].”
His workload at Woodberry Forest made it challenging for Matteo to finish his doctoral dissertation, an examination of how redshirting has affected Black football players at predominantly white colleges. But he persevered, completed his work and, at long last, received his third (and final) degree from UVA this spring.
“This is the first month [in ages] where I don’t have to write, and it feels damn good,” Matteo said, smiling. “I’m excited to just be a coach and be at Woodberry and then get back to Charlottesville a little more and just be a young man.”
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