A year ago, a torn ACL had D.J. Matthews questioning whether he should come back to Indiana.
His dilemma cut even deeper — it also made him question if football was even the right career path.
Matthews’ mental health, his spirit, and his manhood felt defeated after he got injured against Western Kentucky during week four of the 2021 season.
To keep his mind away from the trauma of the injury, he told the media earlier this month, “I never watched the play again.”
The injury occurred when Matthews tried to field a punt in the first quarter in Bowling Green, Ky. It seemed harmless at the moment, but as he attempted to get up, Matthews immediately knew it wasn’t.
“I just knew it was a feeling I’ve never felt before,” Matthews said. … “That was probably the first time I’ve ever had my heart broken.”
Ultimately Matthews knew he had to make a choice.
And a legacy to create.
“I never want to quit.” he said. “My children look up to me, I’m their hero. When they get older they’re going to see the trials and tribulations that their dad went through and a lot of adversities that I faced. I never want them to see that I quit anything.”
In 2021, Matthews transferred in and was expected to make an impact on a team that shocked critics the year before.
Matthews came to Indiana from Florida State after having back-to-back 300-yard seasons, with a total of 809 yards and 84 receptions during his time as a Seminole.
But during the offseason following the injury, Matthews considered quitting the sport.
“I was telling my parents that pretty much that I was done.” Matthews said, “but the relationship that I built for Coach Allen you know is very strong. He just helped me through my whole process. He was making sure I was a man of God. Just being a man of work of my words.”
Allen has seen enough football players go down to devastating injuries during his 30 years as a coach to fully appreciate the anguish Matthews was dealing with.
“Until you’ve gone through that it’s hard to really understand the mental strain that puts on you,” Allen said.
“It’s one of those injuries that everybody notices and when it happens you know hey that season’s over and you’re going to be an eight months recovery. He has a family those things all come into play. He and I, we’re pretty close we spent a lot of time together he and I, one-on-one and just helping him develop as a man that’s something that we have really been able to do quite a bit but I knew he was struggling. Especially in that time after the season was over, he’s still having from post-surgery but what we stayed in close contact I was always real with him. I want him to be where he wants to be continue to help him.”
In three games and a quarter, Matthews caught 13 passes for 165 yards, added two runs for 28 yards and two scores, and also returned a punt for a touchdown. In so many ways he was the dynamic open field weapon Indiana needed, and his absence was quantifiable after the injury. IU scored less than 11 points per game in their final eight contests. Although he says his injury didn’t contribute to the offensive struggles, there is little doubt the loss of Matthews was a major factor.
Once again, the offense is counting on Matthews to come back and serve as a playmaker. But it was only just a couple weeks ago that he said he could play without thinking about the injury in the back of his mind.
With Matthews rehabbing, Missouri transfer quarterback Connor Bazelak has only learned this month the difference he can make.
“I know just him coming back from the ACL injury you kind of seen him go through that process.” Bazelak said. “Obviously this fall was really the first time I threw to him because he had been recovering and hadn’t been cleared from the ACL injury. I think it was practice one and I hit him on two deep throws, and I’m like ‘wow this guy this guy can play.’ It’s kind of kind of a relief to have him back.”
Still, Matthews is only 11 months removed from a major injury. There are no guarantees he can return to form this fast, and he has competition for the slot receiver role.
However it goes on the field, his head coach believes Matthews’ presence around the team will add value.
“He’s just got such a great heart, such a great person that is fun to be around. He’s become one of our leaders in that room,” Allen said. “I challenged him for that and he’s responded.
“I’m excited for D.J. and for his upcoming season.”
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