Nov. 20, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. -
Ask most kids what they want to be when they grow up and the answer will change from year to year, maybe even from day to day. An astronaut one day, rock star the next, maybe even a fireman or a policeman.
But for Ronald Mattes, Jr., known his whole life as R.J., the answer to that question was always the same.
“My answer was always, ‘NFL football player,’” he remembers.
And although very few kids don’t end up becoming astronauts or rock stars, chances are pretty good that, within the next six months, Mattes will indeed reach his goal.
Playing football was a foregone conclusion for Mattes. The middle child and only son of Ron and Sue Mattes, he was born in Seattle, where his dad had been drafted by the Seahawks following an All-ACC career at Virginia. A trade to the Bears meant a brief stint in that NFL town, but by the time R.J. was two, Ron had retired from playing and taken a job as an assistant coach at James Madison University.
“It was always football,” says Mattes. “I grew up a UVa fan because my dad played there. My dad took me to all the little kids’ camps that they had and every time Virginia Tech played UVa and my dad had an extra ticket, he would bring me. I always wanted to be a football player. That was my lifelong goal and hopefully I fulfill it.”
When Mattes was in fourth grade, the family left Harrisonburg, Va., and moved to Concord, N.C., where Ron started working in NASCAR with his brother Joe, who was the sports licensing agent for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. In sixth grade, Mattes began playing football for the local YMCA squad. His position from the very start? Offensive line.
“My Uncle Joe has four daughters and we lived a mile apart, so I was like his son and my dad’s son,” Mattes says. “They both pushed me and made sure I was physically and mentally tough. They wanted me to succeed in any sport I played, whether football, basketball or baseball. I remember at my basketball games they would be up in the crowd yelling at the refs for me to get fouls and sometimes they would stand up and walk away mad. My Uncle Joe still comes to every game - he’s like a second father to me.”
Mattes says that as a youngster, he was “the chubby, fat kid.” But between the ninth and 10th grade, he went through a bit of a growth spurt. “I went from 6-2 to 6-7 in less than a year,” he laughs. “I was the most uncoordinated dude you’ve ever seen in your whole life - falling on my face, tripping. I would be running down the basketball court and just fall. It was just bad.”
From age 10 to age 16, Mattes’ shoe size seemed to change annually along with his age. He wore a size 10 when he was 10, an 11 when he was 11 and on and on. It finally stopped at age and size 16.
Although Ron was an All-ACC performer on the defensive line at Virginia, he was an offensive linemen in the professional ranks. “It took him a year to make that transition,” he says, “and his head was spinning. He was used to attacking and going after the football. He had to learn to sit back and not rush things.”
The skills and techniques that Ron Mattes learned as a pro, he taught to his son while he was still in middle school. “There was no other position for me to play but offensive line,” says Mattes. “My dad wanted me to be ready and to teach me all the steps and techniques of an offensive lineman because he knew I wasn’t going to be fast enough for a D-end or D-tackle. I was kick-stepping when I was in seventh grade and no kid on the offensive line knows how to kick-step until he’s at least in the 10th grade.”
Being the son of a former NFL player also had a potential down side. “A lot of people had high expectations of me because my dad played in the pros. They thought ‘well, he should be good like his dad,’ and ‘of course he’s good, look how big he is.’ In high school, people said the only reason I got a college scholarship was because of my dad. I took it all in stride and used it as motivation. And I think I’ve shown that I deserved to play at this level.”
If not for his dad, another school would probably be enjoying the benefits of Mattes’ talents. Ron’s playing days at Virginia coincided with Tom O’Brien’s coaching stint there, so through that prior relationship a door was opened in the recruiting process. “My dad and I sat down and talked about the pros and cons of each school that was recruiting me,” said Mattes. “We thought I had the best opportunity at NC State because of the great relationship with Coach O’Brien and his reputation for putting offensive linemen in the NFL. There was a great offensive line coach here - first Coach [Don] Horton and now Coach [Jim] Bridge. It was definitely the right decision for me.”
Mattes started as a redshirt freshman before suffering a knee injury. He is the only current player in the FBS ranks to have ever started at four different positions on the offensive line, as he has started multiple games at both tackle and both guard spots.
“The moves were not easy,” he says. “It took a lot of hard work in the offseason switching stances from my left to my right side. The first time I moved to the left side I was backwards. If they called one play I would be running into our offensive line because I was going the wrong way. But I was willing to do whatever the coaches thought would help the team the most and my dad told me that versatility could only help me achieve my goals. I came and proved the haters wrong.”
When Mattes was a sophomore, Ron had had enough of a desk job and was ready to get back on the football field. He had the opportunity to join the Virginia staff as an offensive line coach. Then, when Wolfpack assistant coach Jason Swepson took the head coaching job at Elon, he asked Ron to join him.
The elder Mattes loved being on the field again, but there was one major drawback - he missed all of his son’s game.
The two found a way around that obstacle, however.
“He hates that he misses all of my football games,” said Mattes. “But he gets the game film and every Monday I sit on the phone with him and we go through every play. He’s more critical of me than any other coach, which is good. He’s making sure I’m making my first step and all that stuff. I will have already watched it by the time we talk and he’ll watch while we’re talking and say ‘what did you do here?’ ‘here’s what you did wrong there.’ It’s always good because you’ve got two coaches. Coach Bridge will coach me, then my dad will coach me later on in the day.”
Mattes admits that his dad is his toughest critic. “It can get frustrating to have someone critical of you, but it’s all in love because he’s trying to make me a better player. He strives for perfection for me. Sometimes it’s a little thing - first step, hand placement. He has a saying “you never played as good as you think you did and you never played as bad as you think you did.’ I know that has really helped make me a better player.”
In just a few weeks, Mattes will earn his degree from NC State in business administration. “These have been the best five years of my life,” he says. “I wanted to get the most out of every minute. Academically, I’m getting a degree that I know will help me throughout my life. I’ve made great friends that I know will probably be in my wedding one day and be friends for years and I’ve met a really special girl, Anna Kronenfeld.”
Mattes says that he can look back on his career with no regrets. “I think that I always put the team before me,” he says. “I played four positions in four years and I did whatever the coaches asked me to do. I played where I could help the team the most. I was a hard worker when I was here and I gave it my all and never took a day off.”
Although he isn’t ready for his college days to end, Mattes knows that the realization of his childhood dream is just around the corner. He will head into the draft as basically a carbon copy of his father. Ron played at 6-6, 305 and was one of the NFL’s first 300-pounders. His son is 6-6, 310 and will be one of a multitude over that weight. “I look just like him when he was my age, my mom says. People tell me I fit the mold of an NFL offensive lineman with my wide shoulders. My whole body type is because of my dad.
“I’ve had a dream since I was a little boy that I would be an NFL draft pick. It doesn’t matter what round, it doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter when. Just hopefully I get a shot and get in a camp and try to make a team. I know I’m going to have to work hard because it doesn’t come easy, especially nowadays with how big and strong and fast guys are. But I believe I can and if I get a shot, I’ll do it. “
A big reason for that confidence is that Mattes knows that as he goes through the process of becoming an NFL player, his dad will be with him all the way. “He’s been there, done that. He teaches me not to make the mistakes he made. He gives me guidance. He’s a big role model and I trust every word he says.”