Matthews’ path to D-I leads back home in bowl

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This week not only brought a homecoming for Devon “Monster” Matthews but a birthday.

On Sunday, Indiana’s sophomore safety turned 20 years old.

“I enjoyed my birthday,” the Jacksonville native said, smiling, as he recalled a low-key day spent with his fellow Hoosiers at the team hotel.

“A lot of kids in Jacksonville don’t make it to 20.”

There was an easiness about Devon as he delivered a bitter truth, just before he put on his pads and walked onto the field at Fernandina Beach High for IU’s bowl practice. He was matter-of-fact but friendly, barely breaking a vocal stride as he shared what’s been his reality for a very long time.

Jacksonville, the site of IU’s Gator Bowl matchup with Tennessee, is the place Devon grew up, the place he earned his beloved nickname Monster after knocking a quarterback’s helmet off as an 8-year-old defensive end. It’s home to some of his favorite people, family and friends.

But it’s also a place he purposefully stepped away from when he chose to attend IU. It’s where, in the summer leading into ninth grade, he lost two AAU basketball teammates in two months — the first to gun violence, the second in a tragic car crash.

“I just wanted to get away from home,” Devon said. “I didn’t want to be involved with all the violence that’s going on around the city. I just wanted to be far away.”

So while he’s back home, in a place that’s taught him so many lessons, hard but true, this has been as much a business trip for Devon as anything.

The team hotel, 50 minutes north of downtown — just a stone’s throw from the Georgia state line — was a suitable distance for Devon’s purposes. He just spent his 20th birthday with his team, happy a new year had arrived.

Happy to be one day closer to the gift he most desires.

“I’m not even focused on my birthday right now, really,” Devon said. “I’m focused on winning this bowl game.”

• • •

To say Devon was born into a competitive environment would be correct.

But football wasn’t the venue.

His mother, Monique Patrick, was a 6-foot forward for a Jacksonville junior college in the late 1990s. The culmination of a two-year stint was about to take her north to a Division III women’s basketball program. Her papers were signed.

That summer, however, Monique discovered she was pregnant. She never left Jacksonville. Her playing career continued after Devon’s birth, thanks in part to the encouragement of Angela Daniels, the head coach at Edward Waters College.

“We’ll take care of you and the baby. Let’s keep it going. We’ll take care of everything,” Monique remembers her coach saying. “It worked out pretty well. You can multitask. You just have to put your mind to it.”

Her little boy was at practices and games. He grew up with a basketball in his hand, shooting and dribbling on the sideline, all the way through Monique’s brief semi-pro career with a women’s league in the city.

Monique, now a middle school physical education teacher, coached on some of Devon’s earliest summer teams. They were a pressing bunch, running and gunning. Devon was so steady with the ball, a favorite play was “Spread Monster,” letting the young boy live up to his nickname off the dribble.

“Other coaches would be mad because they were losing to a female,” Monique said, laughing. “The group of boys we had, we kept them for so long, it just became a family. They started calling me ‘Auntie.’ I wasn’t just Devon’s mom.”

Basketball offered Devon a close community. While he lost his biological father at an early age, the head coach of those AAU teams, Claude Harold, was and remains a kind of second father. His son, Cameron Harold, has been like a brother since the day he offered Devon some money at a gym concession stand when nobody else would.

Then there was their friend Tyriq, nicknamed “Quiet Storm.”

“He was so quiet, but he performed on the court, he did what he had to do on the court,” Devon said. “The next year he got real comfortable, so he started talking and stuff like that. He was just a good guy. He was a great guy.”

He was. Because in Jacksonville, small mistakes have tended to lead to horrible consequences.

At the very beginning of their ninth-grade year, Tyriq decided to skip school with some friends. They were driving, and their Crown Victoria rear-ended another vehicle. In a panic, they sped away. Their car struck a light pole.

Tyriq, a passenger, was the only one who lost his life.

“I never sugarcoat anything. If you do this and this and this, this is what can happen,” Monique said. “He’s seen the good and bad. We just used those as examples, as motivation, to understand the things we have to choose in life.”

Monique doesn’t sugarcoat things, and Devon has displayed an uncanny evenness through hardship.

On the day of Tyriq’s death, Cameron was in the middle of cutting the grass when he came inside to grab a drink. His father’s phone — which he has a habit of leaving at home —was buzzing. Cameron answered, heard the news, and then called Tyriq’s mom to confirm.

Cameron, a 10th-grader, heard sobbing on the other end and immediately broke down. Devon, returning from football practice, met Cameron in the front yard and embraced him.

Devon, a ninth-grader, didn’t shed a tear.

“Monster’s presence is very powerful,” Cameron said. “Like I said, I was very emotional. I was crying. Monster kept it strong. He just said ‘Everything will be alright,’ and ‘We are going to make Tyriq proud.’”

Claude was so hurt by Tyriq’s death, which came so shortly after the shooting that claimed another player, James, he considered quitting as the team’s coach.

“I felt like I hadn’t done the kids justice for that to happen,” Claude said. “You start blaming yourself for certain things. I didn’t want to coach no more. It was just too painful.”

Claude worked through his grief, as they all did. He continued to coach. His boys only grew closer, winning games and hanging medals around their necks.

Devon continued to learn, from the good and the bad of life.

“Everybody in this world is going to die one day,” Devon said, just as matter-of-factly as anything else.

“You can’t just let that take a toll on you. You just have to stay focused and you’ll be fine.”

Quiet Storm became a point of focus for Cameron and Devon. “TL4L” — Tyriq’s first and last initial, “for life” — became their motto. At school, Cameron saw Devon scribbling TL4L everywhere, from notebooks to shoes to his wrist tape on the football field.

They weren’t going to forget.

“We are always going to worship him,” Devon said.

• • •

Devon knew who he was playing for.

He just wasn’t sure what he was going to play.

At the beginning of his eighth-grade basketball season, Devon injured his knee on a freak accident in the pregame layup line. While he recovered to play football and basketball his freshman year at First Coast High, worries about his knee persisted. A contact sport concerned him the most.

Sophomore year, an athlete nicknamed Monster for his hard-hitting style turned away from the gridiron, choosing to focus on basketball. Monique, always honest with her son, made sure Devon was informed on the pros and cons.

Especially if he wanted to use athletics to get to college.

“I knew, realistically, basketball is a different sport. You have to be the man,” Monique said. “I was explaining to him, coming out of Jacksonville, you have to be averaging in the 20s to get any attention.”

Devon was a talented basketball player. He was physical, athletic, high IQ. But he was scoring more in the teens.

Monique was patient through that sophomore year. All the while, Devon’s supporters were telling him to go back to football, where the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder could really shine.

“The light bulb went off. Mom was right,” Monique said. “Ever since then, it took off from there.”

As a junior, Devon transferred to Ribault High, Claude’s alma mater. That upcoming basketball season, Claude would become the coach of the boys’ program, which raised some eyebrows in Jacksonville.

“Oh, he’s recruiting kids … I didn’t have to. They beat me to the campus,” Claude said. “A couple of other kids, I’m like ‘What y’all doing here?’ Devon transferred before my own child did. It was a good move for him.”

On the football field, Devon went from a junior varsity player as a freshman at First Coast High to a Division I prospect in just two seasons at Ribault. He swiftly returned to form as a gridiron “Monster,” de-cleating receivers over the middle, swooping in for sky-high interceptions.

On the court, Devon was instant scoring for Claude off the bench, helping Ribault to the state’s final four. He wasn’t the loudest voice of them all, but he constantly filled his teammate’s ears with two words.

Be great, Devon would say.

“He had all of us saying that,” Claude said. “Be great.”

Devon strived for greatness, and, as mom expected, Division I football programs came calling.

It was Central Michigan, Samford, and Howard offering scholarships first. Devon initially committed to South Florida in July before his senior year, but when the Hoosiers offered in September, plans changed.

Devon had his ticket north, and he took it.

“It’s so hard raising kids nowadays, and they can take a way different path,” Monique said. “In Jacksonville, they are real excited when these kids make it out and are doing good things and that child is respectful.”

Before he left for Bloomington, Claude flipped Devon’s motto back at him, telling him to “Be great.” After keeping such a watchful eye on Devon for so many years, it was a little bit harder for Monique to just let go.

She spent three days with Devon at IU’s freshman orientation. At 6 in the morning, before she was about to depart for the airport, Monique became anxious.

She texted IU coach Tom Allen, seeking reassurance.

“I just need to know my son is in good hands,” Monique wrote. “Do you have time to talk?”

Allen didn’t just give her a little bit of time. He gave her 30 minutes, talking it through, telling her it was going to be OK.

“That just blew me away,” Monique said. “I just know from being around a lot of coaches, a lot of coaches don’t have open-door policies. He’ll call you right back.”

Two years in, Devon is one of several young, promising athletes pushing the program to new heights.

On the heels of an 8-4 season, IU now finds itself pitted against Tennessee in a post-New Year’s Bowl. Devon, the Hoosiers’ sixth-leading tackler, will find himself in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stadium, with familiar faces staring back at him, including his mom and the Harolds.

He will also have a fellow Jacksonville native, senior safety Khalil Bryant, alongside him.

“Just like it’s his last, this is my first, going back home and playing in front of my friends and family,” Devon said. “Especially our families. They don’t have to travel. They already there.”

He knows they will be there. But on his birthday, Devon maintained a separation. He celebrated his 20th year at the team hotel, surrounded by teammates.

He was asked if he saw his mom that day.

“I’m 20, I’m not a little kid no more. I’m not spending too much time with her,” Devon said, smiling.

He will be with her Thursday, though. Hopefully after the Hoosiers win their first bowl game since 1991.

“Any game close to Florida, they are going to be there,” Devon said, very sure of that fact. “All my supporters, they are going to support me forever.” 

3 comments

  1. What a great story about Devon and it explains a big reason I love having him at IU. I coached players like him in a school with many of the same issues. I had students and players that died due to violence in the neighborhood and in a car wreck due to speed and drinking. It isn’t possible to get all kids to turn away from the people that influence them to do the wrong things but the ones that do turn away are special kids that work hard to succeed.

    Stories about Devon and others on the IU team need to written more often so fans can see the good from people they normally don’t think can be good. Many people just look at the failures instead of the successes when you work with young people. Devon shows why they aren’t all alike.

    1. What a great read; it literally brought me to tears. Monster, my nephew…so proud of him! It’s amazing how you see these things as they happen, but to sit back and reflect on the greatness of a young boy growing into manhood in front of your eyes… it’s really special.

      He IS Great, and will be even greater as time moves on. My sister did a great job with this young man. Everyone who had a positive input in his life, from coaches to friends, THANK YOU. May God cover and protect him! Love you Devon!

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