Tom Matukewicz’s life was rearranged in April, 2011, and so was the furniture in his living room.
The moment that defined Matukewicz’s existence as a stand-in father to a teenage boy crystallized when he returned home one day to find his recliner positioned six inches from his 50-inch flat screen TV. The volume on the TV was ramped up to a deafening pitch spewing sounds of the Madden video game.
"That’s when I knew life was kind of different," said Matukewicz, who is in his first season as defensive coordinator at the University of Toledo.
Matukewicz, whose former team will host his new one Wednesday in a huge Mid-American Conference West division showdown, holds a special place in the hearts of members of the Northern Illinois football team. He served as their interim coach in a bowl game after the 2010 season, and as a bridge the following year between the outgoing and incoming coaching staffs. To linebacker Devon Butler, Matukewicz means much more.
After Butler suffered near fatal wounds from gunfire that was intended for his friend, he turned to Matukewicz and his family for support. An out-of-state student from Florida whose nearest family members lived several hours away, Butler moved in with Matukewicz, his wife Lenna, and their young daughter Georgia.
For a period lasting more than one month, Butler’s temporary family helped him in and out of bed, changed his bandages, and did what they could to lift his spirits after his near encounter with mortality. Two NIU students were arrested for what has been described as a drug transaction gone bad, in which Butler was an innocent bystander. He was in critical condition for several days.
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After the NCAA granted NIU a waiver to do so, Matukewicz, the linebackers coach who was retained months earlier by new coach Dave Doeren, stepped up to become more than Butler’s position coach.
"Next thing I knew, I had a teenager living with me, which is obviously a lot different," he said.
Butler and Georgia, who is now 5, "turned into best friends," Butler said, forging a relationship centered on cartoon watching and Georgia’s artistic endeavors. For family dinners, Matukewicz showed off his grilling acumen, fixing what Butler describes as "some abnormally large pork chops."
The two have not spoken since August when Butler phoned Matukewicz seeking guidance after Doeren dismissed him from the program. Butler days earlier was the victim of another altercation, and this time was stabbed by a man he had kicked out of his 21st birthday party. Injuries were not serious, but damage had been done. A history of questionable decisions — it didn’t look good when Butler announced on Twitter he was throwing the party — and unsavory acquaintances spelled the end to his career at NIU. A former starter, Butler was set to make his return after a one-year hiatus, but Doeren sent him packing, and Butler transferred three hours away to Western Illinois of the Football Championship Subdivision.
"Pain’s the best teacher," Matukewicz said. "I know he had a lot of pain with the decisions he decided to make. Who you’re hanging around with, it matters."
Butler’s 50 tackles this season are fourth most on a team that dropped its fifth straight game Saturday to fall to 3-7. More importantly, he says he "learned from my experiences" and now surrounds himself with positive influences. His former team has done fine without him, having won nine straight heading into Wednesday’s matchup that will likely determine the West champion for the third year in a row.
"When I was at Northern Illinois I definitely had that game circled on my calendar," Butler said of the rivalry with Toledo. "I was looking forward to seeing coach Tuke again, but unfortunately circumstances changed."
He plans to watch the game on TV, perhaps from six inches away with the volume cranked up high. The site of Matukewicz strolling the sideline might even induce a hankering for those gargantuan pork chops.
"He’s one of those guys that whatever he says, he actually means," Butler said. "To him, football is not everything. He proved that to me plenty of times."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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