UT's Matuke­wicz gives biggest assist off the field

Coordinator was stand-in parent to player at NIU

11/12/2012
BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Tom Matukewicz
Tom Matukewicz

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.

Devon Butler
Devon Butler

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: rau­tullo@the­blade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twit­ter @Au­tul­loBlade.