Bigger and stronger, Phoebus' Atavius Matthews wants to make up for lost time

FootballSportsKordell Stewart

The last time we saw Atavius Matthews on the field was in the 2010 Group AAA Division 5 title game. He made a couple of tackles and rushed for 10 yards as Phoebus won its third consecutive state championship.

The game program that afternoon listed him at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds.

But plenty has changed since then. The following July, Matthews tore his ACL in a summer league basketball game. So the guy expected to take over as the Phantoms' starting tailback as a junior instead missed the entire season.

After a long and occasionally frustrating rehabilitation process, Matthews is back — at 6-foot, 225 pounds.

"I wasn't able to lift much with my legs, so I just got bigger lifting with my upper body," he said. "At first, I felt too big. But during the offseason, I was lifting and running, and all the weight slowly became muscle. I became leaner.

"I'm getting recruited for linebacker now. I like playing offense, but I'm making the most of it."

His knee fully recovered, but Matthews isn't quite the same athlete he was before the injury. He's bigger and stronger, but he's also a little slower. Matthews said that before the injury, his 40 time was 4.53. Now, it's 4.8.

Still, he's a well-built athlete with multiple skills. Which is why Phantoms coach Stan Sexton plans to use him at multiple spots on offense.

He'll be at quarterback, especially in the wildcat set. He'll play receiver, where he can use his size much the same way Romond Deloatch did. He'll get some carries at tailback along with returning starter Tony Pittman. And maybe he'll get some reps at fullback, though he admits he's not fond of that idea.

On defense, he's strictly a free safety. On offense, like Kordell Stewart with the Steeler, just call him "slash."

"I go to practice on offensive days, and I have no idea where they want me to go," he said. "I'm like, where am I today? And coach tells me, 'Go with the receivers, then go with the quarterbacks.' I'm all over the place.

"Last year, I was dying to get on the field. This year, they're asking me, 'Do you think you can handle all this?' I want to handle it. I love football. Being on the field the whole time, I love it."

Matthews doesn't hide that he prefers tailback. Phoebus is, after all, Tailback High. As a sophomore, he rushed for 110 yards playing mostly as Tyree Lee's blocking back. But everyone knew he'd get first crack at the starting tailback job in 2011.

Then came the torn ACL. He was actually cleared to play defense and long snapper in the championship game but chose, with his family, to take no chances.

Sexton appreciated that despite not playing, Matthews was constantly around.

"He was at practice every day last year," Sexton said. "He was at every game."

As for Matthews' added size, Sexton admits he had some initial concerns.

"He put on a little more weight than I'd like to have seen, especially after a knee injury, but he's carrying it well," Sexton said. "He moves really well on the field. It hasn't slowed him down any. He's able to make cuts and everything."

Because he missed his junior year, and because of the words "torn ACL," Matthews knows he'll have to prove himself to college recruiters. So far, Old Dominion and James Madison have expressed the most interest. Most see him as an inside linebacker in college.

"I'm already qualified," he said. "Since I was hurt, if I didn't have grades, I think they'd have given up on me. But I have like a 3.2 GPA and I'm going to re-take my SAT to improve that score."

For now, Matthews just wants to play again. And, of course, win another state championship ring.

"All the seniors from last year are messaging me, 'You have to keep the tradition alive,'" he said. "That's all I'm trying to do, defend the title for them and let the younger guys get theirs."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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