For The 2005 Team, Matt Rice Becomes the First to Fall--Leaving a Lasting Impact on Us All
Two weeks ago, Bruce Springsteen played at the Bryce Jordan Center and introduced a song he’d written after a bandmate from his original band passed away. Realizing that he was the last living member of that original band he wrote the song “Last Man Standing.”
This past Saturday morning heading east on 322 in a springtime rain, that song came up on a playlist. I was headed towards Baltimore for the Celebration of Life for Matt Rice, a Penn State player whose last season was the mythical and magical fall of 2005.
Matt Rice died the morning of March 17th after a battle with brain cancer that he waged valiantly for well over a decade. Driving to Baltimore, the symbolism of the song “Last Man Standing” hit me, standing in contrast to Matt who became the “First Man to Fall” from that 2005 team.
The first loss from any team is always a jolt to the old teammates. For these men whose life journeys have followed individual paths, that call or text from former teammates jolts them back in time.
Coming off the 2004 season college football had written off Penn State. But their coach knew the 2005 team was on the cusp of greatness. The leadership of that team believed. Guys like team captains Michael Robinson, Paul Posluszny, Alan Zemaitis were driven to prove the doubters wrong.
In an era before teams named 6 or 8 team captains, great teams relied on a layer of respected leaders beyond the captains that drove a team’s culture. What those on the outside did not know was that Matt in his own impactful way put a big stamp on the demeanor of that football team. A gentle soul, he played on the edge of rage as a disruptive force at defensive end.
Teams that have yet to hit their 20th reunion are not supposed to be losing teammates. But when that first teammate dies it shocks the system. Especially integral teammates like Matt Rice, a vocal leader with a fighter’s mentality he brought to Penn State from Baltimore City. Repeatedly at his Memorial, that unlikely journey from Baltimore City to his world-class athletic and academic success at Penn State was noted as a testament to his perseverance. And his art was a driving passion.
One day Matt came into my office with his good friend Michael Robinson to show me some of the artwork he’d done for class. I was blown away seeing the balance in a mind that excelled in a violent game. He took that painting in to show Joe Paterno, who could not have been prouder of what he’d seen. This was the vision of what college football could be, a catalyst for young men to reach heights they’d never imagined.
A year or two later, after a disappointing 2004 season it was the men like Matt Rice who answered the call. That group of seniors trusted and believed in their coach and kept their eyes always fixed on the next challenge.
And there may have been no greater example of that then Matt Rice.
Each week as we walked off the field with victory just five minutes old Matt would look at guys celebrating and say “that’s over man.” After routing #18 Minnesota by 30 points, while fans and teammates celebrated, Matt was already guarding against complacency yelling “That game is over MAN! It’s O-State NOW.” Each week it was the same approach and it helped propel us to that Big Ten Title.
If you coach long enough, you may be fortunate to live through a season like 2005. It is not a tangible thing, but at every meeting and practice you’re full of anticipation knowing that today will be better than yesterday and that each day forward is going to be better than today. You want to capture that feeling in a bottle to keep, but nothing lasts forever.
Those teams build a lasting brotherhood forged by weathering the tempest winds of adversity’s storm. There was neither adulation, nor lofty preseason rankings that year. Even the most loyal optimistic fans harbored massive doubts.
Now just over 17 years later that season still seems like it was yesterday, its seeming recency making for heavy hearts for that era’s players gathered in Baltimore. These players caught up with one another. They talked about spouses, kids, and careers. Invariably the stories would turn to their own stories with Matt Rice.
There were laughs, there were tears. But Matt’s passing had become the sun around which these men fell back for a moment into the orbit of that shared time in our lives. He drew us together as the conversations picked up among men who’d not seen each other for years as though no time had passed.
And they came from places all over. The outstanding 2005 secondary of Alan Zemaitis, Chris Harrell, Anwar Phillips, Calvin Lowry and Donnie Johnson paid their respects over the weekend. Defensive line mates like Jason Alford, Josh Gaines and Mike Lucian were there. Michael Robinson was there.
Guys who followed Matt and formed part of the 2008 Big Ten championship team were there. Fullbacks Dan Lawlor and BranDon Snow were there. All-American, fellow Baltimore City native and artist/activist Aaron Maybin spoke to the service telling everyone that Matt paved the way for his life’s path.
As we caught up with each other, we all spoke of Matt in reverent, respectful tones. Others from that team received bigger accolades or recognition. Others may have had flashier statistics. Others were on the covers of magazines.
But Matt had a presence that commanded respect. Even that year’s team poster was made from a painting Matt had done. I think of Matt as I pass that framed poster in my house every day.
Now that Matt has become the first to fall, we’re reminded that someday our time will come. Mortality is part of our shared humanity. And as these players begin seeing men from their own peer group start to pass, that reality lands at their doorstep.
But on what became a gloriously sunny April Saturday, Matt brought us back to those days when immortality seemed within our grasps. Back to days when cheering crowds saluted victorious Gladiators filing through the Beaver Stadium tunnel. The sweet sweat of victory on their brows, the grass and blood stains on their uniforms and the dull ache of bruises as scars of battle marked them.
When we relive those moments, as we look at the victories and setbacks of our lives, if we listen closely, we’ll hear Matt’s voice from 2005, exhorting us to put each days’ triumph or failure in the rearview mirror and get on to the next thing. But not before we think about that gift he’d given us all.