Nov. 22, 2014 — the sun had set, the sky was dark and the ‘Hoos were playing Saturday night football under the lights at Scott Stadium. Their opponent? The University of Miami Hurricanes.
It’d been more than six weeks since Virginia had walked away from a game with a win. After a tremendous start to the season, the Cavaliers were struggling. They had to beat Miami to keep their chance at becoming bowl eligible alive.
With fewer than four minutes left before halftime, the Cavaliers were trailing 7-3 when then-quarterback Greyson Lambert threw a rocket to wide receiver Canaan Severin. From 23 yards out, Severin made the catch — a one-handed diving touchdown that sent shockwaves through Scott Stadium. The Good Ol’ Song rang out throughout the stadium at a deafening decibel — the sidelines roared and the stands shook.
Single-handedly, Severin had shifted the momentum of the game in the Cavaliers favor. Hope was alive again. The crowd erupted. But, one viewer watched silently from his apartment on Wertland Street, stunned for an entirely different set of reasons. That was Severin’s teammate, close friend and Virginia offensive lineman Jackson Matteo, who was out for the season with a badly broken foot.
“I’m watching [Severin] on TV and I was almost in shock — like what just happened? I didn’t yell, I didn’t cheer,” Matteo said. “I was just thinking — we’re in the same class. He just did that, and what am I doing?”
It was in that moment that Matteo’s mindset, and his path, completely changed. Severin’s catch sparked something in him — it lit a fire in his desire to pursue an even better version of himself. A desire that later landed Matteo a spot as Virginia’s starting center his junior year, as a captain of the Cavalier team as a senior and on the Rimington Trophy watch list that same season.
Now, Matteo is part of Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s coaching staff as a graduate assistant while he pursues a doctorate in education in athletic administration through the Curry School of Education. He also lives on the Range, which is an honor in and of itself.
If you asked him back in 2014 if this is where he saw himself three years down the road, his answer probably would have been ‘no.’
In his first two years at Virginia, he’d gone from walk-on to scholarship recipient to active player to sitting on the injury list — but he wanted more. And his friends wanted more for Matteo, too.
“That very next spring, we got a new [offensive line] coach, I got healthy, and Canaan took me aside and changed my life forever,” he said. “He told me I could be good and I could accomplish things and be successful on the field. Thank God for that.”
Everything changed for Matteo the next season. His playing progressed, his educational aspirations amplified and his outlook changed forever. He was the same person he’d always been off the field — funny, caring, dedicated and excited about life — but entirely unrecognizable on it.
“He really just changed his entire approach to the game — he started eating a lot healthier, he was just doing everything the right way. All of a sudden he saw his game go to a whole new level,” former Virginia quarterback Matt Johns said. “Then the next year, he did the same thing, and he got even better and then he became a captain, which was really cool to see. He put every ounce of his effort into this program.”
Working hard, doing things right and leading by example has been Matteo’s mantra since that November night in 2014. As an undergraduate, as a player, as a graduate student, as a captain and now as a graduate assistant and EdD candidate — in every role Matteo has made for himself, he’s found a way to make the most of his time here while helping as many people as he can.
“I want to show people that they can achieve and they can do it the right way and they don’t have to take shortcuts — they don’t have to go out on Friday nights and they don’t have to put things in their body that aren’t good for them. That was my role as a player,” Matteo said. “Now, I think my role is just being there for this team ... I know I don’t have a huge role as a graduate assistant, but I know I have a big role with some kids on the team still.
Reaping the rewards of his efforts is something Matteo has come to see often over the last five years — something that, ironically, started when he found reward in an injury.
In one game, on one play and with one catch, Matteo began the endless pursuit of his best self. Right now, that takes the form of being the best graduate assistant and coach that he can be for the best Virginia football team the University has seen since 2011 — and the first to be bowl-eligible again, too.
“The coaches are very personable, and they relate to the players really well — but no one can relate to a player like someone who has played with them,” Johns said. “When [Matteo]’s pushing kids in practice, they’re not complaining that this guy has no idea what he’s doing because he does — he did it just last year. There’s that trust he’s created with the players that now he’s coaching. He’s a role model and a motivator.”
What that role he embraces next is anyone’s guess — he’s considered coaching and athletics administration, among other things. But what is known is that he’ll do it as best as he can — he’ll do it the right way. He has Virginia football to thank for teaching him that.
“My experience at U.Va. ... I can’t even describe it. It’s been one for the books,” Matteo said. “It’s done everything for me and more. It’s given me the best friends and mentors I could ever have, opportunities a plenty, and all I had to do was make the right decisions and it’s all fallen into place for me.”