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October 2, 2003


From: Columbia State, SC - Oct 2, 2003

By NAT NEWELL Staff Writer

• Who: Gallaudet (0-1) at Allen (2-2)

• When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

• Where: Bolden Stadium

• What: Homecoming for Allen, which is playing its third season of club football. It expects to become an NAIA independent in February.

Keith Matkins’ voice rises, carried by hope and excitement as he talks about his future. Then, suddenly, his head droops and he’s mumbling whispers. He can’t talk about the future without his troubled past wrapping its tentacles around his mind. Past. Future. Future. Past. They’re connected like thorns on a rose bush. Matkins’ future was supposed to be now.

Five years ago, he was USC’s quarterback of the future, his name higher in recruiting rankings than Carson Palmer and Michael Vick. Today, Matkins is playing for Allen’s club team, trying to take advantage of a final opportunity to separate a future from his past.

“There’s nothing like running out of that tunnel (at Williams-Brice Stadium) with 80,000 fans screaming for you,” Matkins said, his voice barely audible. “Nothing. Nothing in the world. Every time I wake up I think about that stadium and how it used to be. That’s what inspires me. I keep going because I know where I was and what I’m capable of doing.”

He looks different now. Matkins weighs 230 pounds, 40 more than when he was at USC, his hair is in cornrows and he absent-mindedly pulls on a scraggly goatee. At 6-foot-3, he still has the prototype quarterback’s body, but when he folds that frame into the school bus that takes the team to practice behind Carver Elementary School, it’s clear he’s not at USC anymore.

Matkins committed to then-USC coach Brad Scott after throwing for more than 3,400 yards and 41 touchdowns as a junior at West Charlotte High School. He redshirted in 1998 and was expected to replace Anthony Wright, but Scott was fired after a 1-10 season. Matkins dropped to third on the depth chart — behind Phil Petty and walk-on Kyle Crabb — under Lou Holtz and transferred.

“I wish I never left,” Matkins admitted. “My mind wasn’t focused like it is now, like it should have been. I should have been in coach Skip Holtz’s office every day trying to learn the playbook. I was impatient, ready to show the world what I could do. In the process, I rushed everything. I couldn’t run out into this world. It’s hard out there. It’s hard.”

Coming out of high school Matkins was also seriously recruited by North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio State and North Carolina State (“Everybody but Nebraska,” he said) and initially decided to transfer to Fresno City College, a two-year school in California, then move to another Division I-A program.

But his high school girlfriend, Tiffany Johnson, was pregnant with Matkins’ son, K.J., and Matkins wanted to be close to him. Sherman Simmons, then a North Carolina A&T assistant, now the Allen head coach, recruited Matkins to the Greensboro school but left to become defensive coordinator at Morehouse before Matkins played a snap. “It was just like the Brad Scott situation,” Matkins said. “I was kind of in a hole there, too.”

Matkins played one season, completing 53.7 percent of his passes for 1,008 yards with nine interceptions and eight touchdowns. Matkins flashed his potential vs. Delaware State, throwing for 324 yards and four touchdowns on 22 passes, and adding 42 yards and a score on the ground.

But Matkins dropped out midway through the first semester the next year. He returned to Charlotte but couldn’t find a steady job. He’d go to Labor Ready, a company that provides temporary manual labor, at 5:30 a.m. hoping to land an $8 per hour job in construction each day. Matkins refused to go into any other details of his life during the next two years.

“As a parent, I can tell you that you don’t know the pain,” said Joan Matkins of her son’s problems during that period. “I don’t think there are words to describe the pain you feel as a parent. Keith has been at an all-time low. He knows the lows and the highs.”

Matkins received an opportunity he never expected when Simmons was hired at Allen in March. Since the program is a club team — Simmons said Allen will become a full-fledged NAIA member in February — Matkins was immediately eligible to play, taking out student loans to pay tuition.

“When I left USC, I didn’t want my son to grow up without his father being there,” Matkins said of K.J., now 4. “(But) I wanted him to be able to see positive things, not his father out there in the street doing nothing. He wasn’t seeing me work, he wasn’t seeing me on the field ... that’s not the image I wanted for my son. I had to do something.”

Matkins hadn’t played organized football in two years but regularly lifted weights and played basketball. Simmons said Matkins — who plans to play basketball and baseball at Allen — is still rusty but he has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 436 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions, and rushed for 77 yards and a score. Matkins will have two years of NAIA eligibility left after this season.

“Allen isn’t a lower level, it’s another chance for a lot of kids that could have gone Division I but didn’t for whatever reason,” Simmons said. “That’s what I’m here for. This will be a chance for him to get to another level. Without a doubt, he has phenomenal ability, he’s just a little rusty after two years sitting out. You’ll be surprised after this spring what he can do.”

Few of Matkins’ teammates know he redshirted at USC and played at North Carolina A&T, an effort by him to focus on the present. Because of the transfers he’s still a sophomore academically, but has learned he’ll need a college degree if a pro football career doesn’t materialize. Matkins still is struggling to come to grips with his past but for the first time in two years, he has a future.

“I know it’s going to be four times harder to go anywhere out of here,” Matkins said. He’s speaking to his chest in a whisper, but slowly raises his head and voice. “But I’m blessed coach Simmons gave me this opportunity to play football again. Without him, I don’t know what I’d be doing.

“Sometimes you think about what might have been but I’m just looking at the opportunity I have now. If I can conquer this, I know I can conquer anything. I want to have a winning season this year and then coach Simmons and I can figure out what’s in store for us.”

Reach Newell at (803) 771-8419 or

© 2003 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.