Oct. 19, 2009
Contrary to what others might suspect, Matt Nechak usually made out more than he lost out.
"My friends always ask if I got ripped off on presents," Nechak jokes, a Christmas baby, born on December 24.
By his accounting, notwithstanding the occasional offering intended to both convey a birthday greeting and spread yuletide cheer, the calendar generally worked in his favor.
"At Christmas Eve parties," he reasons, "family members who wouldn't have seen me on my birthday would feel obligated to give me gifts."
It was, for any kid, a wonderful life.
As that life has evolved, from childhood to manhood, one of the greatest gifts Nechak ever got was a knock on the door around Christmas of his senior year of high school. Not from a relative at a holiday reunion, but from a large Polynesian visitor bearing the opportunity of a lifetime.
Ken Niumatalolo didn't know what to expect the first time he reached out to the tall, rangy kid he'd seen on video tape playing for Malibu High School.
Recruiting then as an assistant at the Naval Academy, he was aware that Army's Stan Brock was already trying to lure Nechak to West Point. Other than that, Niumatalolo wasn't sure of anything.
He certainly didn't know what position Nechak would play, assuming he wound up in Annapolis. A scholastic middle linebacker, perhaps he would be a collegiate fit on the outside, where Nechak could better utilize his speed. Time would tell.
Niumatalolo also had no idea what kind of person he was about to discover. Sure, he had some preconceived ideas. Malibu's nickname is the Sharks, but, seriously, just how tough can one be when you attend class a block away from Zuma Beach and the Pacific Ocean?
"It was an interesting situation," Niumatalolo, now Navy's head coach, recently recalled of his first face-to-face encounter with Nechak. "I was expecting a preppy kid."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that it's exactly who Nechak wasn't.
"He went to Malibu High School," Niumatalolo continued, "but I didn't know that he lived in the San Fernando Valley."
Canoga Park, actually. Densely and diversely populated, it is 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Not quite the sand, surf and cool, ocean breeze of Malibu. Instead of salty air, it was salt of the earth. Much like Nechak.
"Matt was a good, hard-nosed, polite young man," says Niumatalolo, his memory of that first meeting as fresh in his mind as the Mexican dinner he shared with the Nechak family. "His dad was a Marine. His grandfather was living with the family. He was just a good, humble kid."
Nechak wasn't simply making an impression on someone else; he was forming one of his own.
"My first impression is that (Niumatalolo) was just a great guy and, obviously, a good football coach," said Nechak. "I knew that if I went to Navy I'd be in good hands."
First, he'd have to commit a year at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., where Nechak met Tony Haberer. Rooted in vastly different places - one from SoCal, the other from Texas - they nonetheless became best friends.
In retrospect, it's no wonder they hit it off. Though explicitly proud of his background, Nechak is much less the stereotypically smooth, laid-back Californian than a rugged Cowboy as dry as Texas Toast.
"There are exceptions to the rules for everything," he says. "Everyone I meet always asks me where I'm from in Texas or Colorado. No one thinks I'm Californian."
"We've been through a lot since NAPS," says Haberer, a native of Round Rock, who hails from Liberty Hill. "Matt came to Texas the summer before we entered the Academy. A friend of my father's has a ranch, about 1,000 acres, in Del Rio, TX. It's cheap land with trees and shrubs, and deer."
It's a long way from the San Fernando Valley of the Stars, and a world away from the Malibu coastline and Pacific Coast Highway. Yet, just as naturally, Nechak fit right in. Haberer says they shared stories, with plenty of laughs, and "fired some guns" while hunting deer.
Five years later, Haberer is reliving those good times following another trip to Texas, where he and Nechak hung together in victory over the Rice Owls. It was the fourth win in the first six games of their final football season together.
Each, as he might have only dreamed back then in Del Rio, or Newport, is a starter and leader of a very solid defense. Tight as ever, their years together in Annapolis have dwindled to months. Soon they will take up arms again, in defense of their country. Together, they hope, as Marines.
Of course, the decision on whether Nechak is awarded his service selection rests with someone much higher up on the chain of command. But if Dale Pehrson, who's helped Midshipmen mature from plebes to officers as a Navy assistant coach the last 14 years, had any say, there'd be no doubt.
"He's definitely a Marine," Pehrson says of Nechak, before chuckling. "If they don't let him, he'd probably drop out and join."
Pehrson's coached a lot of good men in his time here. Few as determined, and none tougher than Nechak.
The Mids' recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach, Pehrson has seen Nechak grow - literally, by an inch and 20-25 pounds or so - into a force since his freshman year. In fact, he's helped him get there.
Nechak began his career as an outside linebacker. Early on, though, a position switch was in the offing. By his junior season, Nechak was a full-fledged defensive end.
By late September - despite a lack of what Pehrson calls "growing-up time" on the front line - he was making a major impact, especially harassing opposing quarterbacks.
"Coming in, I thought I was a natural at outside linebacker," Nechak said. "But I naturally fit into defensive end."
At end, he could rely more on his aggression, no longer restrained by the more cerebral demands of linebacker.
"There was too much thinking at linebacker," he says.
More likely, it was a matter of lacking the speed to excel as a Division I linebacker, while possessing more than enough quickness to offset an apparent lack of size along the line. During one five-game span from late September into early November last fall, Nechak recorded a sack in four contests.
In the lone exception, he recovered a 4th-quarter fumble at Air Force. More remarkable, Nechak was performing in constant pain. In mid-October against Pittsburgh, he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee. It was due for surgical repair in the offseason.
The sixth game of that stretch was on Nov. 15 vs. Notre Dame in Baltimore. The Fighting Irish were driving into Navy territory, when Nechak tried to make a play. He takes it from there.
"All I remember is something hitting me in the side of my (right) knee," he recalls. "It was like a flash. I saw it in my brain, and heard a click. I knew exactly what happened."
He had partially torn the anterior cruciate ligament. One of the four major ligaments in the knee was shredded. Suddenly, another operation would be needed, on a second knee.
"I was full of adrenaline," Nechak says. "I went back in and it got worse and worse. The ligament was hanging by a thread."
Rather than undergo immediate, and season-ending surgery, Nechak wanted to keep fighting, to keep playing. The next week was out of the question. Unable to play, Nechak still attended the game at Northern Illinois. On crutches, from the sideline, he watched the Mids shut out the Huskies.
"I'm thankful they let me travel," Nechak says. "That was a real big honor. I'm just glad I was able to be there and be part of that win."
Nechak received another honor two weeks later, when he was handed the Stars n Stripes before the Army game. Back in uniform and prepared to play against the Black Knights, he was recognized as someone teammates would want to lead them onto the field.
Aware that Iraqi Freedom veteran Cameron Marshall is caretaker of one American flag, Nechak's not sure how he was chosen to carry the other from the locker room to the sideline. Neither is Haberer, nor Niumatalolo.
"It kind of just happens," Niumatalolo says. "Some guys request it, but there's nothing formal."
However it happens, it implies that someone is special in the eyes of teammates.
"I see Matt as someone who can lead us out every time," says Haberer.
Being that guy, in this case, truly was a special moment. Being back in uniform for a 34-0 rout of Army was even better. Another crest in Nechak's collegiate career.
"People ask what it's like to play college football," he says. "The best way for me to describe it is to say, `It's just a roller coaster of emotions.'"
His ride was about to get bumpier. In the weeks ahead, Nechak underwent surgery on each knee. Before his ACL was repaired, he labored to strengthen the muscles abutting his right knee. Prehab, it's called.
What followed were months of rehab. Nechak attacked his as if he were bearing down on a quarterback's blind side.
"If all football players rehabbed like him, I would have a very easy job," said Dr. Jeff Fair, the Mids' head trainer. "If anything, we had to make sure he didn't do too much."
"He worked hard when he got here and he's just continued to battle," said Niumatalolo. "He's just relentless. Doc Fair said Matt worked as hard as anybody he's ever had. I knew if anyone could bounce back, it would be Matt. He'd be the guy waiting for Doc at the door."
Treatments in the training room, several times a day, and workouts in the weight room became part of Nechak's daily ritual into the summer. Unable to participate in spring practice, he was back in time for preseason camp in August.
And back in the lineup for the September opener at Ohio State. Initially, his steps were as tentative as they were tenuous. Gradually, if not suddenly, he took them more freely.
"Each game this year you can see him getting more confident in his knees," says Pehrson, who sees much the same in Michael Walsh, another veteran lineman on the rebound from injury. "I've never had a guy rehab harder than (Nechak) and Walsh. For Matt, three times a day, coming off double knee surgeries."
Having made significant strides, now halfway through his senior campaign, Nechak concentrates on the subtleties.
"Coach Pehrson stresses that if you work on technique enough during the week, then in the game it becomes natural, and you don't think about it," said Nechak. "During the week I focus on the little things."
"He cares deeply about doing things right," Pehrson acknowledges. "He and Walsh are the same. They listen, try hard and are easy to coach; just tough, smart, good football players."
They also happen to play with a streak of nastiness, driven by their own selflessness. Generally, linemen get to grind it out up front, while linebackers get the tackles and defensive backs get the interceptions.
"It starts up front," Nechak explains. "If we do our job, the linebackers can feed off us. If we can pressure the quarterback, the defensive backs get picks.
"That's what I love about this team. No one cares who gets the credit, as long as we accomplish goals as a defense. Everyone's humble...we want to make plays for the team's sake."
It's what Pehrson loves too. Coaching players with that attitude, he says, has kept him around the Academy so long. There's never a risk of getting burned out, dealing with the likes of Nechak.
"He's just a real tough kid, a hard worker and extremely competent," Pehrson adds. "I can't say enough good things about him."
Better Pehrson say those things than the reticent Nechak.
"A lot of people think I'm stoic," he says.
Those people, however, weren't in the Navy locker room before last year's victory at Air Force. Before their head coach addressed the team, players were - as they always are - invited to pour out their hearts.
"I leave the floor open for those guys," says Niumatalolo. "They listen more to each other than they do to us."
In Colorado Springs, they listened to Nechak.
"He gave a pretty emotional speech," recalled Haberer, who stopped short of divulging the message, except to say that it was meaningful. "I wouldn't say Matt's too open with his emotions. He doesn't show that side of himself much, so when he does it's powerful."
"I get emotional about things I'm passionate about," Nechak says. "I'm passionate about football and this team. It shows.
"Just being part of this team, being part of Navy football is the proudest accomplishment of my life. The great thing is that I know I'm going to be in contact with these guys for the rest of my life."
Another of Nechak's passions is Hawaiian spear fishing. Once he tried it at a friend's house, on Malibu Beach, he was hooked.
"You use a spear, with a big rubber band on the end of it. You dive in the water and shoot it," he explains. "When I was at NAPS, people from Florida would ask, `What are you talking about?'
"It's not hard, I'm a decent swimmer. I've been spear fishing only in California."
Next month, when the Mids travel to Honolulu, he might get his chance to do it in Hawaii. If so, count his buddy Haberer in ("It's something I definitely want to try"). But don't bother with native Islander Niumatalolo.
"After I saw the movie `Jaws' I was too afraid to do that," Niumatalolo jokes. "It's definitely a phobia of mine, I'm afraid of sharks."
With one major, un-preppy exception, the Malibu Shark he once found in California's San Fernando Valley.