Matt Orzech makes big hike from Azusa Pacific to Super Bowl with Rams
Matt Orzech settled into his stance, clutched the football and then looked backward between his legs at the punter standing 15 yards away.
It was September 2013 and Orzech, an Azusa Pacific University freshman, was about to long-snap in a game for the first time — on the road against Grand Valley State, the winningest program in NCAA Division II history.
“Of course, the very first thing that went through my head was, ‘Don’t snap it over his head,’ ” Orzech said.
Orzech listened for the count and then rifled the ball toward the punter. A moment later, the crowd was “going berserk,” he said.
“I turned around, and sure enough the punter is running for his life trying to get the ball off,” Orzech said. “Thankfully, he did.”
Orzech came off the field and was greeted by coach Victor Santa Cruz.
“Way to get the first one out of your system,” Santa Cruz said. “We expect it to be great from here on out.”
Orzech never had an issue the rest of his college career.
On Sunday, Orzech will become the first Azusa Pacific product to play in the Super Bowl when the Rams face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
Not that Orzech wants attention.
“My job is to be invisible,” he said in a phone interview. “My job is not to be noticed.”
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Except for a botched snap early in the season against the Indianapolis Colts, Orzech performed without noticeable error. Combining with punter/holder Johnny Hekker and kicker Matt Gay, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Orzech helped the Rams’ once-suspect special teams evolve into a strength.
“The rapport that he has with Johnny and Matt, I think, is vital to the success of both our field-goal operation and punt operation,” coach Sean McVay said, adding, “You can tell that teammates really like him, and he’s only gotten better as he’s accumulated experience throughout the year.”
Orzech, 26, never considered long-snapping when he started playing football at Menifee Paloma Valley High in Riverside County. Because he is tall, he played defensive end and wide receiver.
“He was just so solid and steady and even-keeled,” former Paloma Valley coach Bert Esposito said, “and his work ethic was off the charts. He did his job and made plays.”
Azusa Pacific recruited Orzech to play football and also to pitch and be a first baseman for the baseball team.
He was practicing as a tight end during football training camp when the Cougars lost their snapper two weeks before the season opener because of injury.
“I was kind of walking out on the field, scratching my head and thinking, ‘What are we going to do? ’” Santa Cruz recalled. “I’m looking around, and I saw Matt and started thinking: ‘Oh wait. He pitches.’
“I told Matt: ‘You’re a pitcher — it’s no different. You’re throwing the ball between your legs now. It’s the same thing. It’s fastballs.’ ”
Said Orzech: “He told me: ‘You’re used to doing the same motion over and over, and the team relying in you in that one moment. It’s kind of like just pitching upside down.’ ”
After his miscue against Grand Valley State, Orzech developed into an NFL prospect during a career that extended to six years because of a major knee injury and, he said, academic issues caused by trying to complete upper-division physics classes while playing football.
Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater was an offensive line coach at Azusa Pacific when Orzech played there. Slater, father of All-Pro special teams player Matthew Slater of the New England Patriots, saw Orzech’s NFL potential as a long snapper.
“He’s just a tough, gritty guy — and he pays attention to the details,” Slater said. “He had the perfect mental makeup for that job.
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“All the NFL scouts that came through, they came through to see him.”
In 2019, Orzech signed with the Baltimore Ravens and was tutored by All-Pro Morgan Cox. He was waived after the preseason, but the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Orzech and he played in 16 games under special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis.
Orzech was released before the next season — “I didn’t handle business as well as I should have in the offseason probably, so my consistency wasn’t at an elite level,” he said — and the Miami Dolphins signed him to their practice squad. He was claimed by the Tennessee Titans but also eventually ended up on their practice squad.
Last January, McVay hired DeCamillis, and Orzech was brought in to compete for the job left vacant by the departure of Jake McQuaide, a two-time Pro Bowl snapper who played 10 seasons for the Rams.
“Definitely knew there were big shoes to fill,” said Orzech, who made the roster after a training camp competition.
Hekker, a 10th-year pro, was confident Orzech could do the job.
“If anything, I was just apprehensive a little bit about the kind of guy we were going to get,” said Hekker, a four-time All-Pro. “You never know after having a relationship like that with Jake for nine years, you build a really deep friendship.
“But Matt’s really a joy to be around. He’s funny and really smart. You can talk movies or literally everything. … And he’s a pretty dang good football player.”
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Orzech did fine in the Rams’ season opener against the Chicago Bears. But in the second game at Indianapolis, a snap bounced off punt protector Nick Scott and was recovered by the Colts in the end zone for a touchdown.
Orzech said it was “kind of just the perfect storm of things going wrong,” caused by a lack of communication and the unit still developing chemistry.
“We all kind of looked at each other like, ‘I could have done this better,’ ” Orzech said. “It really was confidence-building for us, actually, because no one was blaming each other.
“Everyone was just kind of owning what they could have done better.”
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The Rams’ field-goal unit performed well throughout the season, and by the end and into the playoffs the punt-coverage team did as well.
“It’s been an absolute blast,” Orzech said of working with Hekker and Gay. “There’s a natural chemistry between us, and we get to have a lot of fun with our positions and our sport, which is the way you dream of as a kid.”
Orzech would not have fulfilled any Super Bowl fantasies had he not turned to snapping at Azusa Pacific, a program that produced five NFL players, most notably running back Christian Okoye, an All-Pro for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1989, and defensive end Doug Barnett, a 1982 fifth-round draft choice by the Rams.
Azusa Pacific, which won an NAIA national championship in 1998, shut down its football program in December 2020, in part because of travel costs and other financial considerations associated with being the only Division II program in California.
But not before starting Orzech on a journey that has him preparing to play in the biggest game of his life.
“Once I’m out there warming up and doing everything, I’m sure it will be pretty much the same business as always where it’s just another snap and you’re able to compartmentalize and make it as familiar as it can be,” he said. “But definitely, every now and then, you let the thought creep into your head of, ‘This is the Super Bowl.’ The game that everybody in America has grown up watching every year.
“So, it’s just really cool to think about.”
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