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August 5, 2012Most smaller guys who play football attack the game with a chip on the shoulder. I'll show you, or words to that effect. Gibbon's 150-pound senior Eli Van Matre doesn't bother talking a mean game, he just plays it.
A four-year starter and two-time all-district player, Van Matre is football tough; actually he's real world tough and happens to play football. A three-time state wrestling qualifier - he finished third at 125 last winter - he's not one to start a rumble but he's also not afraid to finish one.
You decide you want to go head-to-head with Van Matre, be ready to have it go the distance. And it doesn't need to be physical for him to make a difference, says Gibbon head coach Mark McLaughlin.
"Eli has such presence; his presence means more than all the yards and tackles. He's tough and competitive and he comes from a family that's got a reputation for its athletic prowess and as a result Eli expects a lot from himself," says McLaughlin. "He's a driven young man with remarkable toughness, both physical and mental."
You can be as tough as you want - and be as big as you want - but when you have only 22 or so players on your Class C-1 roster, you have your work cut out. And when you lose a couple of starters who decide to skip football to prepare for other sports, it makes the task even more difficult. Van Matre, who rushed for a thousand yards during his team's 6-3 playoff run in 2010, says the program's small numbers actually do pay some positive dividends.
"We have tremendous chemistry because we feel like it's us against the world. That sort of thing really brings you together," says Van Matre. "Football is my favorite sport and I like surprising people when I hit them but not having a lot of depth on our team means we have no room for error. Everybody's got to contribute."
As much fun as the 2010 playoff season was for Van Matre and all Buffalo faithful, 2011 was a stinker, as Gibbon won only once. After a season-opening win against what would prove to be a winless Ainsworth team, the Buffs lost seven straight, six of them to playoff teams. In the face of that sort of challenge, Van Matre still delivered, rushing for 860 and nine touchdowns, his 107.5 yards per game 15th best in C-1.
"It's a fact we didn't create a lot of running room for Eli, so he was getting those yards three and four yards at a crack, really taking some tremendous punishment," says Coach McLaughlin. "You never heard him complain, never heard him belittle a teammate, and I thought that said a tremendous amount about his character, probably more than his athletic ability."
To that point, two seasons ago Van Matre carried the ball 48 times in a game against Grand Island Central Catholic, finishing with 185 yards and a touchdown. "He did most of that between the tackles, where he really likes to run the ball, and he showed a toughness and fearlessness you don't often see in a running back. All that, he almost never fumbles the ball, which is another sign of mental toughness."
Van Matre carries a 3.7 GPA, has his wrestling accolades and also competes in track and spends his summers showing his 4-H market hogs. His post-high school plans might include college, and if that's the case maybe football or even wrestling, but it's also possible he will go straight into the workforce. "Whatever I do, I want to be outside. I love working outside," he adds.
For his Gibbon team to maximize its potential in 2012 Van Matre believes it needs to develop an edge. "We need to play meaner. Clean, but meaner," he says. "We need to find that balance between being a jerk and being a leader. I like to tell it like it is and I am not afraid to challenge my teammates; we have potential as a team but we have to all have to really buy into the idea we can be a better football team. Do that and we will be."
His success on the wrestling mat brings him a certain amount of personal glory but all that pales in comparison to putting on the helmet and shoulder pads each Friday night.
"I like being part of a team - plus I get to eat," says Van Matre. "We have a great bunch of guys on the team and I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing the game and trying to make our team the best it can be, whatever that turns out to be."