Mattio recalls memories of 36-year coaching career

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Mattio recalls memories of 36-year coaching career

Dave Mattio and Jerry Colangelo both grew up in the Italian neighborhood known as Hungry Hill in Chicago Heights. Colangelo and most of his friends went on to be standouts in football, basketball, baseball and track and field at Bloom Township. To this day, Mattio can't understand why he ended up at Marian Catholic.

"I have no idea why I came here," Mattio said. "Colangelo grew up on 22nd and Union. I grew up on 25th and Butler. My mom and dad said a new school had opened up. We went to an open house and I was here."

Mattio never left. Because his grammar school didn't offer football, he was talked into playing football as a freshman. As a junior and senior, he was a two-way lineman under coach Tom Mitchell, who went on to a storied career at Brother Rice.

A 1966 graduate, he earned a football scholarship to Northern Illinois but blew out his knee in the last practice as a freshman. He graduated in 1971, obtained a masters degree in physical education and returned to Marian Catholic as a physical education, health and history teacher and coach in three sports.

When Don Berg left in 1975, Mattio became athletic director. The following year, when Don Voss left for Lockport, he became head football coach. He will continue to serve his alma mater as athletic director but, after 36 years, he has decided to retire from coaching.

"It's time," he said. "I've been thinking about it for a couple of years. I've always believed you are either part of the solution or part of the problem or you are the problem. A lot of things have changed here. Numbers are down, private school enrollment is declining and we're not getting the volume of kids we used to get."

Mattio will be 65 at the start of the 2013 football season. He has 14 grandchildren. He saw two of them play football last week. One is a cheerleader. Another plays hockey. He said he just realized he has been married for 40 years. His wife Jody is a candidate for sainthood.

"It took a long time to build this program up to where we were competitive state-wide," he said. "But in the last nine years things have gone in the opposite direction on my watch.

"When you have a program and a school and kids at heart, you reach a point where it is time to cut your ties and support someone else to come in with a fresh outlook and energy and new ideas. It is frustrating when it is an obsession and whatever magic you had doesn't work any longer."

In 36 years, Mattio's teams posted a 251-141 record. He produced 22 winning teams in a row and guided 20 teams to the state playoff. His 1993 team, led by Terence Marable, Jerry Verde, Mark Clifford, Brian Kochanski and Brian VanderLuigaren, went 14-0 and defeated Geneseo 13-6 for the Class 4A championship. His 1999 team finished second.

He sent four players to the NFL--Dennis Kelly, John Holecek, Rodney Harrison and Mike Prior. He still describes Harrison as "the best football player I coached," Holecek as "the most unsung player I coached" and Prior as "the best all-around athlete I coached."

Mattio also produced several other outstanding players who had the capability of succeeding at the college level but, due to various reasons, didn't achieve their potential. Most noteworthy were Marable and Roderick Middleton, a free safety on the 1999 state runner-up.
 
Marable, an All-Stater, went to Illinois and played several positions on offense, defense and special teams. Unfortunately, he was an I-back at a time when one-back schemes were becoming popular. He never found a niche. Mattio insists Middleton "would have been a great NFL free safety" but he suffered a back injury. His first love was basketball, which he played in college and overseas.

But in the last nine years, Marian Catholic was 37-50, including 1-8 in his last season in which Mattio went through four quarterbacks, a number of running backs, was forced to play many kids both ways and usually wore down in the second half.

"It was disappointing from the standpoint that the kids worked harder than a 1-8 team," Mattio said. "I'm proud of how they played. I can't put a finger on the won-lost issue. The important part is our kids played hard through it all and performed in the last nine years. We worked harder as a staff as ever before but the results weren't as proficient as before 2000."

The decline can be traced to many issues. Marian Catholic, which opened in 1958, used to have as many as 15 or 16 parish programs that fed the school. Now there are only three. This year's freshman and sophomore teams were both 0-9.

"On seven of the last nine Sundays, I watched grade schools play on our field and I wondered how many of those kids wanted to play here," Mattio said.

As athletic director, he will help to rebuild the program and rekindle interest among alumni. There are new projects--the school's website, more bleacher seating, a new pressbox. He doesn't fish or golf or hunt but has a passion for collecting football and baseball cards. What will you give him for a Sibby Sisti or a Yogi Berra 1959 card or a Hank Aaron 1960?

He coached son Jamie in 1989 and son Josh in 1991. He is proud of former players and assistants who have gone on to achieve success as head coaches at other schools--Jerry Verde, John Holecek, Mike Romeli, Ron Butschle, Josh Howe and Nick Novak. He misses Bob Bergstrom and Ron Guagenti, who retired after 30 years on his staff.

He'll remember beating Joliet Catholic and Rick Thayer 16-6 in his first season, losing to Joliet Catholic in the Prep Bowl in 1979, winning 12 in a row before losing to Belleville Althoff in the semifinals in 1980, finishing 8-1 in 1981 and, of course, the state championship in 1993. Last March, the team was inducted into the East Suburban Catholic's Hall of Fame.

"I'm thankful to my wife for allowing me to be a kid chasing my dreams all these years," Mattio said. "I have been blessed to work with a lot of great people."

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Jack Aho is the reigning state champion in Class 2A and recently shattered a course record at Warren High School. 

But beyond posting some of the area's fastest times, cross country is also a family affair for Aho.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”