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.”
His heritage is steeped with blue-collar workers. Matich’s great-grandfather relocated from what was then Yugoslavia and extracted coal within the mines of Price. Each day he climbed into darkened, rickety elevators descending underground until he collected enough money to transport his wife into the states. Matich's grandfather continued the family profession at a young age.
Growing up in the suburbs of Sandy, Matich terrorized the neighborhood with a motorized dirt bike while his parents, Mike and Torri, provided a comfortable childhood. “I knew that everybody had to work,” he said referencing how his mother maneuvered multiple jobs to be with her children. “My dad never relied on anybody to do anything. Whether it was fixing a fence or laying sod, he did it himself. I would witness him getting up every morning at the crack of dawn and working.”
A self-described "average athlete," Matich utilized his lunch pail upbringing to earn a roster spot at Dixie State subsequent to his days at Brighton High. “I had a drive; I didn’t want to be denied,” he said. “I think I still have that drive today in whatever I do. I don’t want to be outworked.” Success presented opportunity at the University of Utah, but an injured hand quickly ended his career before it started. He began studying mass communication with a dream in broadcast journalism, while his grandfather, Grant Martin, cajoled him toward coaching and education.
“This is what I’m supposed to do. He saw that before I did. He didn’t do that with his other grandkids,” Matich said of Martin, who died of heart failure in 2006. “He has five grandsons and I was the one he really pushed to go this route. He could see something. I just didn’t believe it at first.”
Martin’s instincts weren’t mindless opinions. He coached East to 140 victories, the most in school history, and three state championships from 1956-77. “He was the guy who taught me how to catch, how to throw,” Matich said. “He spent countless hours in his yard just throwing me passes and teaching me football. I wish he could be here now. I wish he could see me coaching here.”
Neither ever envisioned that one day he’d lead the program embedded in their family tree. Matich’s passion began to matriculate while coaching linebackers at Skyline High. He simultaneously focused on earning a teaching license at Prescott College in Arizona and his master’s degree at Utah, while his wife, Andrea, pursued medical school.
“My wife is amazing,” Matich said. “She’s our team doctor (and) a sports medicine doctor at Jordan Valley (Medical Center).”
The couple’s first date was the night before Brighton's annual high school Valentine’s Day dance. “That was our first kiss because she was going with somebody else, and I wanted to make my mark, so to speak,” Matich quipped. “She was a really smart girl — the prom queen — and I was like a bad rash. I wouldn’t go away.”
His persistence eventually paid off, and the two married. Andrea had deferred an earlier acceptance to the University of Chicago’s medical program in anticipation of the wedding and missed the deadline. The ensuing uncertainity on reapplying paved way for Matich to accept West Jordan’s defensive coordinator position in 1999.
As he settled into the role, life presented other plans: Andrea received another medical school offer in Missouri. “She got accepted right during two-a-days and wanted to go,” Matich said. “So, we packed up and I drove her out. Then I flew back and coached while she was starting in St. Louis.”
Married and 1,300 miles apart, Matich relinquished his position and trekked to the Midwest in search of employment. “I went to every coaching clinic I could at any high school I heard about. I think it totaled like 95 schools that I visited.” Eventually he landed at Francis Howell Central High, a newly constructed 6A school, before he accepted his first offensive coordinator title at Wentzville Holt High the following season.
There he sculpted his signature triple-option scheme and polished his credentials enough to receive an offer to fill the head coaching vacancy at Oakville Hill High. But, once again, life had other ideas. This time: kids.
“We thought it would be good to come back (to Utah) around family and have kids, which didn’t happen for quite a few years later.”
Five years passed while Matich anchored his first program at Park City. It was 2010, and the Miners were fresh off an 11-2 season. The couple was happily content.
Then East called.
Emblazoned posters scatter Pueblo-motif decorated hallways. Students assemble in the cafeteria cluttered with national flags for school-provided breakfast. Today: Cocoa Puffs. Players acknowledge one another with rounds of handshakes and head nods.
Matich arrives, keys in one hand and coffee in the other. Sunglasses perch on his head as the early-morning fog slowly dissipates from his eyes. It’s Friday. He ushers students into changing areas resembling evidence stations barricaded with chain-linked fences and padlocks. As traffic continues to funnel he notices the sister of a former player.
A sincere smile initiates conversation. The fog is fully lifted now. “Is he staying out of gang life?” Matich asks.
“He drinks kava with them,” she replies.
“But he’s not banging?”
She shakes her head, “No.”
“When you see him, tell him I want to take him to dinner.”
Matich encourages her to enjoy the day as the two separate. He veers toward his office. “He’s involved in the gang life as much as anyone I’ve coached,” he says of her brother. “ ... This isn’t Park City anymore.”
East’s demographics have fragmented throughout the course of 100 years, analogous to crocodile cracks in the pavement. The school first opened its doors in 1914, and housed the preppy middle- to upper-class population on the banks of the romanticized east side. Students boarded two passenger railcars nicknamed the “dinky” in the 1940s, symbolizing the sophisticated, elegant lifestyle.
Diversity was nonexistent. The student body consisted of one race: white. “I never saw a black person until the '70s,” said Nancy Wunderli, a 1945 East graduate. In the Eastonia yearbook, students resembled the Campbell’s Soup aisle at the local grocery store — pages upon pages of identically labeled aluminum cans. Girls complemented pressed sweaters and skirts with glistening white pearls, and accompanied saddle shoes with ankle socks. Boys slicked their well-manicured, Cary Grant-inspired hair in buttoned-down shirts and slacks with chestnut-colored shoes.
It was “Grease” without Danny and Sandy for nearly 75 years.
The school’s identity soon evolved into football prominence. In 1919, it captured its first of five straight state championships after outscoring nine opponents, 552-0. Its 79-0 win over Payson still remains the largest margin of victory in a state title game.
Up until 1975, the program won more than 70 percent of its games and didn’t record a single losing season from 1932-68. Then it was gone. As if a wildfire seared the ecosystem, East endured 20 years of futility before winning its 15th state championship in 1996. Despite a brief stretch of semifinal appearances in the mid-2000s, the program eddied in mediocrity.
Lost and searching to re-establish its identity, East’s pristine image changed forever with South High’s closing in 1988.
“It was a huge adjustment for East. The teachers, the community — for just all the reasons you can imagine,” explained Sagers, who taught at South for five years.
East inherited Glendale’s underprivileged, transient population across the western train tracks, and its diversity presented unique challenges.
“We have 65 percent of our kids that are on free-reduced lunch that are in poverty,” Sagers said, pointing out those percentages are increasing westbound with landlocked territory unable to expand in affluent areas. “A lot of those kids come from single-parent families. They could be homeless; they could be refugees; they could be a kid that’s moved in from another state; they could have been evicted and moved into the East boundaries. Our population is completely different because of all the risk factors that these kids have going on in their lives.”
“I think everybody thinks of East High as the eastside,” assistant coach and Glendale resident Mo Langi said. “It’s nothing like that. Down in Glendale it’s more of a territorial thing. You’ve got guys running around in packs and they claim places here and there. You don’t see that stuff up on the eastside. You come up (east) to sunshine.”
According to the Salt Lake City Police Department, 401 gang-related crimes were reported in District 2 neighborhoods — Glendale, Fairpark and Poplar Grove — from January 2011 to October 2013. One hundred were categorized as Part 1 offenses of forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.
Like a nicked scab refusing to heal, west-side kids are pestered by the relentless lure of criminal lifestyles. “It hasn’t touched me personally, but I can definitely see it around other teammates,” East quarterback Isaac Valles relates. “(Gangs) try and pull people away.”
Sione "Baby" Tuikolovatu is unfiltered and unflappable. He’s seen trouble — caused it, too — but he’s managed to avoid the same gravitational pull that grabbed his cousin.
“I feel kind of sorry for him 'cause he’s not doing anything with his life,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that he wishes he never went down that road either.”
Gang loyalties belong to many East students with a long-standing distaste for a rival gang. Last spring, a street war spewed onto school grounds. During a weekend dance, rival members tagged the school's block "E” and weight room windows. “I didn’t see it until Monday upon my arrival for first period,” Matich said.
The school locked down to avoid potential backlash. “The police and administrators looked at everything,” Matich went on. “That’s the first time that we know they brought that type of thing to our turf. We brought all the guys in and had an intervention to try and figure out what was going on.”
Added security prevented further incidents on campus, but the act was not forgiven. “I know there was a huge fight at Jordan Park right after that with some of the older boys during school hours,” Matich said. “It was the older brothers ‘taking care of business.’”
Still, East retained its predominantly affluent population with the merger of South High, and two cultures fused into one building. Feast met famine.
“I think a lot of our players don’t look at the haves and have-nots,” junior linebacker Christian Folau said. “If we truly call ourselves a family then we all have to equalize ourselves to be one.”
For Preston Curtis, David Huntsman Jr., Preston Burnett and other East players from opulent households, assimilating with different lifestyles is humbling. “I’ve bonded with a lot of them. In the past we’ve helped kids that couldn’t afford Christmas.” Burnett said. “It was a great experience. I’ve got to be grateful for what I have and help out the people in need.”
Rush experienced opposite spectrums after relocating from Missouri. He’s lived scarcely; he’s lived lavishly. At East he’s accepted as both. “I think it was kind of different. Most of the minorities at East are in a tough situation at home with not that much money coming in,” said Rush, who is black. “I think some kids were shocked by the way I speak, but I don’t think I’ve ever been judged.”
He hesitates, compulsively tapping his “Boise State” blue-and-orange-colored Nikes — searching for the politically correct adage to expound his thoughts. “I’m really good at English. My vocabulary is off the charts. Obviously, I’m still a teenager and I talk with bad words, but I talk ”
He pauses once more, this time peering toward the ceiling.
“Not as ebonical,” he giggles.
The business of football creates an avenue to escape reality. Players exchange rags for rushes; tattoos for touchdowns; and drugs for diplomas. Tuikolovatu tweets recruiting letters captioned by, “Playing football to get out of the struggle! #DreamBig.”
“My family is not wealthy, so I’m playing to help get out of the neighborhood we’re living in and to get out of the financial struggles,” he said. “I think that’s the main reason me and my brother play. We see the struggle my mom and dad go through, and we play football because that’s the only way we know how to get out. When I feel my weaknesses I come to football and grind it out even harder.”
“Football is big, especially in the Polynesian community,” Langi adds. “If they don’t have football, they’re out banging with everyone else in the hood. Football is an out for these guys.”
Dreaming big doesn’t require ambitions of endless riches, luxury cars and red carpets. It’s much simpler.
“They make their garages bedrooms,” Matich says. “They have so many kids in the home that there’s not enough room. They board in the garage and throw a mattress on the floor.”
“Think of the motivation,” Sagers adds. “For mothers in particular, they love the fact that they can visualize their kid going to college rather than doing what their older brothers and uncles have done. I’ve seen kids that if they didn’t have any other transition after high school they would have no option other than to fall back into the gang life.”
This pursuit of betterment is a two-part equation. Too often players neglect classroom responsibilities and perish by the pencil. “It doesn’t do a kid any good if they’re a great football player and they’re not eligible through the NCAA clearinghouse,” Sagers says.
Folau encapsulates the student-athlete. He’s an accomplished pianist, a 4.0 GPA honor student and recently a Stanford commit. “It was a place that puts me where I can be successful,” he said of his desire to pursue sports medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. “I don’t want to only show my strengths on the football field. I want to show them in school as well.
“I’ve always strived to be in a position to help my parents and my sisters,” Folau continued. “I’m grateful for where I’m at right now. I just try my best in school and football to make (my family) proud. I know when I get older that I’ll be able to pay them back.”
Dedication to books doesn’t come naturally for others. Established habits and outside influences continuously threaten progress. Not long ago a highly recruited athlete failed to attend two ACT tests because his father neglected to transport him. He had one final shot before the scholarship hourglass tipped empty. At 11 p.m. the night before, Matich shot out of bed.
“I freaked out and thought he wasn’t going to make it again,” Matich recounted. “I jumped in my car, went and got him and put him in our spare bedroom. I got up early in the morning, went to the grocery store and got him pencils, a calculator and some snack food. I came home, made him a good breakfast, woke him up and he took a shower, and I drove him to the test at the University of Utah. I went home, came back, and took him back home.”
Matich didn’t receive financial compensation or reimbursement, and nowhere on his coaching contract is “chauffeur” written. “He’s more than a coach to us — he’s our guardian,” Tuikolovatu said. “He takes care of us.”
East tight end Joe Tukuafu agrees. Last season, in 2012, he watched from afar when he disregarded his studies. “I was mad at myself because it was a selfish move on my part,” he said. “I just hung out with my friends and chilled.”
Matich implemented mandatory tutoring sessions after practice, and one year removed, Tukuafu maintains a 3.0 GPA. “It really does bring up my self-esteem,” he said. “It has shown me to be a leader on and off the field and (raise) my character inside the classroom. Matich made me believe that school has to come first.”
In 2012, East expelled Tuikolovatu following an incident of attacking students in the hallways. “I didn’t even care. I think it was misdirected anger,” he said. He transferred to the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. “(Sagers) said if my grades were good that I could come back. After the third term, I had a 3.6, and I said I wanted to stay at Horizonte to stay out of trouble. He said that’s all right, and I finished with a 3.9 GPA.”
Tuikolovatu is now back at East and out of mischief. “I don’t regret it because I learned a lot from that,” he said. “I think I’ve come pretty far. I learned that bottling up all my anger is not good — you can pop off at any second. I try not to be mad and live on the right side of life.”
“You can’t defend those things,” Matich added, “but at the same time, some of these kids come from such a unique background you’ve got to have the ability to see the big picture or you’re going to lose lives.”
Matich’s blueprint was working: The players were excelling in the classroom and on the gridiron. After East advanced to the state championship game in his second season, Matich believed he'd finally win a state title the next year and erase the one blemish on his legacy. The Leopards started 7-0 after outscoring their opponents 314-39. It seemed inevitable.
Before it was ineligible.
Coming Tuesday: Season in seclusion, part 2: Sanctions put the East High Leopards in crisis