Season in seclusion, part 1: East High football coach Brandon Matich tries to bind diverse team together
Tom Smart, Deseret News
Editor's note: This is the first of three-part story about the 2013 East High Leopards football team from two-a-days to its runner-up finish in the 4A state playoffs.
Ofa Hautau stood in an orange jumpsuit, his hands tightly linked behind his torso. The powerful Polynesian’s billowy island-styled hairdo rose as his head tilted despairingly toward the courtroom floor. There he stood. A motionless 290-pound sculpture awaiting judgment for his freedom.
Months earlier in 2010, Hautau was detained for allegedly assaulting a convenience store attendant in the midst of a beer run. The charge: third-degree felony. Prison lurked. Authorities planned to indict Hautau under the RICO Act, which allows officials to prosecute members of criminal organizations with racketeering.
Amid a background of previous legal issues and rumored gang affiliations, his life paused.
The vision of his promising football career became irrelevant. The 18-year-old high school senior faced up to 20 years in federal lockup. Quarterback hurries and forced fumbles are insignificant behind bars.
East Leopards first-year coach Brandon Matich refused to believe the kid he’d grown to love was capable of such a crime. In an attempt to decipher the evidence, he returned to the scene.
“I asked if I could see the surveillance tape,” Matich recounted. “I don’t know if it was even legal for me to watch it.”
As if he was preparing for an upcoming game, Matich robotically studied the footage of three assailants, masked in blue bandanas, violently robbing the station. “I must have watched it 100 times,” he said, sharing the tape with teammates and coaches for confirmation. “It wasn’t him.”
No longer simply a prep football coach, Matich approached the courtroom podium in Hautau’s defense. He had done all he could. The rotating hands pirouetted across the clock face as hours slowly passed waiting for the final verdict:
“He didn’t spend any time (in prison) because he was falsely accused, and they were able to find the right person,” Matich said. “Now he’s playing at Oklahoma State.”
Matich’s genuine endearment for his players materialized with the once-disconnected East neighborhoods. “He can go from having a conversation and relating with the Polynesian community, but he can also come up to the east side and do the exact same thing,” senior Korey Rush said with Hautau’s picture proudly hanging behind him. “He does a good job of saying, ‘This isn’t all about the Poly kids; this isn’t all about the white kids. We’re all one and if you want to come here you can be a part of this.’”
“Brandon is so good at what he does,” East principal Paul Sagers adds. “He’s very egalitarian in his approach. He’s just a prince of a guy.”
East finally had the coach who could exhume the moribund program back into greatness, but more importantly it had the man strong enough to endure what lay ahead.
In his field-side office, Matich, now in his fourth season, settles into an adjustable chair nestled quietly behind his desk. He twirls with energy, unable to maintain comfort for an extended period of time. He fiddles with an enlarged wire-bent paper clip, brushes his red-tinged scruff and reposition his charcoal fisherman cap.
This isn’t out of ordinary. At age 39, his energy meter is nearly bursting, like a pressurized Red Bull. It’s what fuels his hard-working lifestyle. “I’m a ham and egger,” he says. “I’ve had to earn everything I’ve got.”