It was draft day and Tyler Matakevich had to remind himself of two things:
1. He had once before been in the realm of relative anonymity coming out of high school, and ...
2. "Even if you get picked as a free agent, that's still a dream come true."
But here it was, late in the seventh round, and the man with the two trophies that pronounced him to be the very best defensive player in college football was fielding phone calls about the post-draft free-agent bidding wars.
"You just want to hear your name called," said Matakevich. "I was on the phone with a scout, and I said, 'Hold on I have another call coming in.' And I said 'Hello,' and the voice on the other end said, 'TY-ler! It's Coach Tomlin from the Pittsburgh Steelers.'"
That's when Matakevich's finely honed diagnostic skills kicked in.
"I instantly snapped my head to the TV and saw the Steelers were up next, and I was like 'No way,'" he recalled with a laugh and renewed sense of relief. "It all happened so fast, and Coach said, 'How would you like to be a Pittsburgh Steeler?'
"Everything just changed right after that," Matakevich said. "I've been so excited and thrilled to be here."
Matakevich brought his elite hardware, his 493 tackles, his resume that reflects his role as a key cog in transforming 2-10 Temple into 10-4 Temple, and his infectious yet humble Chris Hoke-like demeanor to Pittsburgh -- where he was promptly asked by the media this exact question during rookie minicamp:
"Have you been relatively slow your whole life?"
Matakevich chuckled at the question, talked about his track-star sister getting the good family genes, and finished his answer the way he finished just about all of his answers since he's been in Pittsburgh:
"I just want to get better every day."
Matakevich actually isn't all that slow. He ran a 4.81 at the NFL Combine. Former first-round pick Lawrence Timmons ran a 4.70 at his Combine. Former first-round pick Jarvis Jones ran a 4.88 at his pro day. Matakevich might not be "Bullet" Ryan Shazier, but who is?
Shazier, of course, is the lightning-quick mack inside linebacker for the Steelers who was drafted in the first round in 2014. Behind Shazier was hungry young veteran L.J. Fort, and behind Fort at the playmaking inside position this spring was Matakevich.
The rookie with a history of tackling everything that moves profiles -- on paper anyway -- to be the classic buck inside backer, the playcaller, the run-stuffer, the tackler. But here was Matakevich at the mack running deep with fullback Roosevelt Nix and sticking closely in coverage to the cheers of "Dirty Red! Dirty Red!"
"They called me 'Red' when I first gone here," said the red-haired, freckle-faced, good-natured Matakevich. "And then one day Coach T just said, 'Dirty Red.' All the guys like it. But, hey, they can call me whatever they want."
Raised in southeastern Connecticut as a New York Jets fan, Matakevich led St. Joseph High (Trumbull) to back-to-back state championships in 2009-10, but was considered a better baseball prospect, at least by UConn and several other colleges who recruited the third baseman and three-hitter with the .372 average.
But Matakevich loved football, so he spurned the baseball offers and spent a year at Milford Prep Academy where he caught the eye of Temple assistant coach Matt Rhule, who made Matakevich his only Division I football offer.
Rhule left Temple to help coach the New York Giants' offensive line while Matakevich accepted the offer and became one of four true freshmen to start at Temple for Coach Steve Addazio, who left for Boston College after that 4-7 season and was replaced by Rhule.
The first season with Rhule in the American Athletic Conference appeared to be a disaster, at 2-10, but both Matakevich, who led the NCAA with 8.8 solo tackles per game, and his coach were just warming up. By the end of Matakevich's senior season, the record would be flipped (before conference championship and bowl losses) and Matakevich would have the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagursky trophies and more tackles (493) than anyone else in college football at the time.
His college highlight?
"My whole senior year," Matakevich said. "To go 2-10 my sophomore year after having Coach Rhule come in, and junior year we got to 6-6, and senior year we literally flipped it and we went 10-2, beat Penn State for the first time in 70-something years, played in a conference championship, a bowl. It was one of the best seasons they've had in the history of Temple. So that's definitely something. Just to know you were a key part of that means everything."
But all of that winning and all of that production didn't seem to mean much to NFL scouts. A quote from an unnamed AFC North executive to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein summed up what seems to have been the consensus on Matakevich:
"Not big, not fast and not strong. Hard to make it as an NFL linebacker without those elements. With that said, the kid makes a bunch of plays. Production matters and he has it."
How did Matakevich, with all of those perceived shortcomings, produce the way that he did?
"It's just my preparation, my ability to just study the game," he said. "I'm able to really watch film and study offenses to the point where I know what they're going to do before they actually run the play. When they come out in a certain formation, I can diagnose the few plays they may run. Once I see that one key that I need, boom, I'm gone, whether it's a guard pulling or high hats or whatever the case may be. My preparation leads me up to that."
Matakevich said he's always been that way, and credited Temple coaches Rhule, Phil Snow and Mike Siravo with honing his skills. Matakevich grew up admiring Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, and then met Luke Kuechly at Boston College and "he was someone I definitely kept a close eye on."
Matakevich also played running back in high school, but preferred hitting to being hit and that hitting "has been something I've been doing since I was little," he said. "At Temple we used to joke around, 'Hey, I'll meet you at the ball.' That's what we would say to each other. They have the same mentality here. Coach Jerry O (Olsavsky) tells all these guys, and they know, they want to make every play, but he tells them 'Hey, you've got to want to make every play.' It's something I've been doing my whole life, or trying to do at least, and it's something I'm going to try to do here."
Was Matakevich able to diagnose plays as easily this past spring even with the obvious upgrade in complexity at the NFL level?
"It's the same thing," he said. "At the end of the day you've got to know what you're doing, you've got to know your job, and at the end of the day you're playing football. Just go out there and make a play."
And it's not all about diagnosing running plays. Matakevich also understands that the NFL is more about coverage skills for a linebacker these days.
"It's one area that everyone thinks I don't have," he said. "That just benefits me. One, it pushes me even harder to show I can do it. And, two, everyone takes it lightly and then, boom, I'm sticking right on the guy. Those are just steps.
"Ryan Shazier's been helping me out, reaching out to me as soon as I got drafted. And L.J. (Fort), Vince (Williams), all these guys have really helped me. Having a chance to be around L.T. (Timmons), you see why he's been in the league so long, you see why he's so successful. That's something I know I've got to do if I want to last in this league, you know what I mean? Definitely seeing everything he does is something I'm going to try to do. It's like that."
Yep, it's like that for "Dirty Red."