The growth of this site continues to blow me away.
In the five years since I started writing about Purdue sports (beginning as the Boilermaker Football blog over on Blogspot just before the 2006 season), I have had a few parents contact me to thank me for writing about their sons. One such father was Frank Matti, Sean Matti's dad. He first contacted me last season around the time I profiled Sean in the countdown to Purdue football. He wanted me to know a few more things about Sean and clear up the mock internet feud he had with a high school rival back in Minnesota. I honestly don't remember a lot of the details about our first conversation, but it was a pleasant one as we talked about football and Sean's time in West Lafayette.
A little less than two weeks ago, Matti was on my mind again for the first time since that conversation (short of being at the spring game and seeing him play a handful of snaps). As I was enjoying the Fourth of July weekend at the Indiana Dunes, I saw a Twitter post that reported him missing on Lake Freeman. The grim news of his body being found the next day was a terrible shock throughout the Purdue community.
I wrote about Sean's passing later that day, never thinking that it would get back to his family. This Wednesday morning, I woke up and found the following e-mail in my inbox:
Mr. Miller, I don't remember your first name or would have used it. You may recall that we emailed a year or two ago.
Thank you for your article. There are a few things I would like to talk to you about on the phone. Did you know about Sean's injury problems? It seemed every year he had one that was just bad enough to take him off the chance to get on the field. I will show your article to Sean's mom tomorrow.
We have had so many lengthy emails and letters from his team mates. Many were amazed by his desire to keep playing with his injury history. Then they would talk about how hard he hit people. It seems Sean only had one speed (full) and you can't expect to stay healthy hitting like that every day, but Sean liked to, or was driven to, hit.
Since the time Sean died, I keep telling people "this is unbelievable". Our boy was more than everything we hoped for, and the number of people he has touched there and here in MN, is amazing.
The pride we have for Sean's determination and caring heart gives us some support throughout this terrible time in our family, and it is clear that Sean Alan Matti is in heaven. I have prayed that God puts Sean to work right away. Every coach Sean has ever had has said he was a coach's dream. I know God will be satisfied with Sean's work ethic.
Give me a call
What follows here, honestly, is one of the hardest things I have ever had to write. In my family I have become the family eulogist of sorts, and even in that capacity, I have not felt the apprehension that I feel in writing the rest of this article. I spoke with Sean's dad for over an hour on Wednesday night. We spoke a lot of Sean's work ethic and his character, but it is clear that this came from his parents, Frank and Karen Matti. Frank Matti is the type of father that many men and women would be lucky to have. I was very impressed by his candid demeanor and honesty in speaking to me about Sean and his other children.
Frank and Karen instilled in their children (Sean has two sisters and a brother) to respect everyone instantly upon their first meeting, and that respect is something you earn by giving it. One of the things that Frank confided in me was that I was just the second media member the family has spoken to since the tragedy. He talked of how the media was camped out a block away and hounding them even as they were looking for Sean. He wanted to speak to me because he trusted me and respected me, so he sought me out of his own accord. It is because of that that I am humbled and deeply honored to help tell Sean's story.
Throughout our entire conversation, the topic of respect was important. Sean respected all those around him, but if you intentionally did not respect him, he was raised to "flip the switch" . What this means is to not let others intimidate or control you or your actions. Frank taught all of his children to not let others control them, and Sean never did.
Another thing Frank wanted you readers to know about was Sean's toughness. Sean battled a number of injuries that few people knew of throughout his career, and those injuries prevented him from seeing the field every time he came close. After the 2009 season, Sean had to have surgery for torn tendons in the arch of his foot that required 3 screws to fix. He also battled shoulder stingers that lasted weeks and resulted in permanent nerve damage, stress fractures in his spine, and a pulled hamstring that once had the entire back of his leg deeply bruised and took most of his Sophomore year to work back from. There were other injuries as well, but Sean at 6 ft and 233 lbs was felling good and getting stronger than ever before his death.
Through it all, he played exactly like a kid who was nicknamed "The Hammer" in his youth league would be expected to play. That team was named the Mustangs and over 6 years they went a perfect 62-0 with Sean leading the way by playing Fullback and Linebacker. He kept this attitude through his entire time at Purdue. Even in the spring game this year, with his body banged up from various injuries, the coaches told him he was one hit away from ending his career and he nearly received a medical discharge. Sean's response? "Everyone is one hit away."
While I would love for Sean's hardworking attitude to carry over and have a positive impact on this year's football season, it would be better if his traits off the field were also known and carried over to everyone's life. Growing up, Sean was naturally big as a football player, but in school, he was an anti-bully. Frank spoke of how Sean would often stand up for those that were getting pushed around, bringing us back to respect. He wore #22 in honor of Emmitt Smith, whom he idolized growing up. He was a quiet guy, but one that had a scheming side that would wait weeks to pull off some trick that would get a laugh.
This quiet nature allowed him to do wonderful things as well. Frank did not know Sean was planning on working with Kurt Lichtenberg this coming season for the Dream Season program. As a walk-on, Matti had to pay his own way at Purdue, but he was an excellent student that received a few academic scholarships. Sean wanted to be hired as a tutor for other athletes, but found out that being an actual athlete, he wasn't allowed to do so by NCAA rules. It was sadly ironic that one of his biggest strengths as an honor roll level student couldn't be used to help pay for school because he was an athlete. This would get under anyone's skin, but Sean "flipped the switch" and just laughed, and went on with life.
Sean worked hard both in the classroom and on the field. Frank stated how he would often out-lift offensive linesmen, and how he could out-eat them as well, especially at the local Chinese buffet (which was afraid of him coming because of his appetite). Sean knew that as a walk-on it wasn't good enough to be equal to someone on scholarship. He had to be better. That was Sean's goal because it was the only way he would earn more playing time. Coaches and players have said, "When we did a drill going through the gauntlet for a ball-security drill, NOBODY stuck their hand out when he ran through because it was like a semi-truck running through".
As we closed our conversation, I once again expressed my condolences and thanked him for contacting me. I could tell he is a man still searching for meaning in this terrible tragedy. Frank said Sean exceeded every hope he and Karen had for him. He kept mentioning that Sean had the heart of a true Boilermaker.
To me, this isn't even a story about sports, but about a young man that had a terrible accident and now the world is trying to move on from it. There is still a family in mourning. There are teammates dedicating a season to his memory. There are friends still struggling with their emotions.
As Frank said, it often hits the mothers the hardest, and it has been helpful that the Purdue family has been so supportive; Karen knows her boy was with caring people the past 4 years. Sean's family plans to be in attendance this fall to see Sean's Boilermakers battle to win.
One of Sean's friends in Minnesota has created a song titled "22" that they performed at a memorial service attended by over 500 hundred friends in their Roseville Raiders HS football stadium. They are hoping to finish recording it and send it to Sean's Purdue family soon. A facebook page already has over 3,000 messages as well.
To help Sean's family with his final expenses, you can donate to the Sean Matti Memorial Fund to help defray those costs at the following address:
Sean Matti Memorial Fund
P.O. Box 130482
Roseville MN 55113-0005
In closing, it was a great honor to learn more about this young man. His self-discipline and the way he treated people is something that this world severely lacks. I am humbled to bestow upon him this site's highest honor of a Profile In Badassery.