“Careers on the Line,” New Era, Sept. 1986, 30–37
They were known everywhere they went. They were members of the best football team around, which made them members of the most popular groups on campus—in town—in the state. At every turn there was an encouraging word, a friendly smile, a jovial pat on the back. Their names were in the papers; their faces were on T.V. Their lives were a dream. Yet they willingly traded those dreams in for a hard dose of reality.
More than just voluntarily, they eagerly exchanged all that fame and glory for obscurity, taking little heed of the effect it would have on their futures. They traded the warm handshakes for indifferent shrugs, the encouraging words for curious glances. Only a handful, if that many people, knew them, and they were hundreds of miles away from those who cared for and loved them.
Yet Bart Oates, starting center for the New York Giants, and Trevor Matich, 1985’s first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, claim they would do it again in a second. They feel their choice to interrupt their promising college football careers to serve missions was one of the most important decisions they ever made. And they acknowledge the fact that they wouldn’t be where they are today if they hadn’t served.
“When I made the decision to go on a mission, a lot of people thought I was crazy,” relates Trevor. “I’d played two seasons of football at BYU. I’d made varsity as a freshman—the only freshman on the varsity offense that year. I’d received two championship rings. I’d been to two Holiday Bowls. And I was going to leave it all to go on a mission?
“But they didn’t understand my motivation. Going through my mind was the fact that football is good and football is important, but someday football is going to end. Where would I be on that day if I based my entire life on football? I thought of what doesn’t end, and that’s my relationship with God, with my family, and with our church.
“So I left football, knowing that I might not ever play again. But even if I didn’t there would be no regrets, because the most important thing would be taken care of.”
Deep sentiments from a deep man. Trevor belies the stereotypical offensive lineman image. At age 24 he is eloquent without being arrogant, which is an accomplishment, since he had barely finished helping BYU win the national football championship when New England snatched him up to play center.
Although the Patriots offered Trevor a salary that competes with the best of them, you won’t see him flaunting it. He’s still most comfortable in a plain shirt and his old Levi’s with the strings from his Super Bowl field pass attached. Trevor had to watch his team play in the Super Bowl from the sidelines because, in the first game of the season, a gang of Green Bay Packers fell on his ankle. That, much to his frustration, left him on injured reserve for the rest of the season. But Trevor has high hopes for this, his second season.
When he’s not working with the team, Trevor often finds time to travel home to Sacramento, California, where he likes nothing better than watching his younger brother play basketball. In Boston, where the Patriots are based, he spends a lot of time counseling youth at the Gabler House, a home for children who are wards of the state.
Bart Oates doesn’t exactly fit the bruising stereotype either, although he says he’s “too fat and too slow to be anything other than an offensive lineman.” In fact, “jolly” might be the first word you think of when you see him, with his perpetual smile, rosy cheeks, and sparkling eyes. It’s a good thing too, because at 6 foot, 3 inches and 265 pounds, the man could be rather intimidating without a smile.
At age 27, he has already had four years of experience with professional football. He was drafted out of BYU to play with the Philadelphia Stars of the newly formed United States Football League, where he stayed for three years. Just last year his contract with the USFL expired, and he decided to make the switch to the National Football League. His play at center helped the Giants to a division title, and they have higher hopes this year.
When he’s not playing football, he’s studying law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, playing racquetball, spending time with his wife and two small sons, or serving as assistant nursery leader in the Emerson Ward, Caldwell New Jersey Stake.
Bart feels the same way Trevor does about his choice to serve. “The decision to go on a mission was easy. It was just the right thing to do. And you know, when I went, I made up my mind I was not going to return to football. That was the only way I could serve well. Instead of suffering the mental anguish of going through two years of thinking ‘I’ve got to stay in shape so I can play when I get back,’ I put it all out of my mind, and in so doing I was able to concentrate on my mission.”
So out they went. Bart served in the Nevada, Las Vegas Mission from 1977–79, and Trevor served in the Mexico Torreon Mission from 1981–82. They were to learn many things in the mission field that they readily admit they would have missed had they stayed on the football field.
“It gave me a new perspective on life,” Bart says. “Before that, football was my life—it was my god, really, in that, first and foremost, everything I did was toward making me a better football player, and everything else came second. But my mission helped me to realize that the spiritual aspects of living are more important than anything we can do as far as personal glory goes.”
Trevor adds a few more lessons learned in the mission field. “When I first got to Mexico, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. There were people living in one-room houses about the size of my bedroom, with eight kids and maybe one bed, a chair, and a table. The door would be a curtain hanging down. You see other people put up four stakes, wrap butcher paper around them, and that’s their house.
“But the thing that struck me was that amidst all that lack of physical comfort, the people were happy. I mean, they were really happy. As time went on, I came to know that they placed very little value on material things, and a lot of value on people—the family—relationships. Mexico is very family oriented, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the Church is growing so fast down there. People love each other, and that’s their life. That became my life too.”
The mission experience, however, was not all smiles and tears of joy. At times, both Bart and Trevor met with hostility, pain, and frustration. No grueling spring training, no brutal two-a-day practices, no bone-jarring games can match the hardships Trevor felt. “I had some very trying times,” he relates. “But the motivating factor to keep on going was that I knew that at the point where I said ‘Stop! I can’t take any more!’ my progression would stop. So I just kept right on going.”
And Bart knows that no stunning football victory, no league or world championship, could ever match the elation he felt in the mission field when, for example, one of his closest investigators finally saw the gospel light. “His wife and kids were already members,” Bart relates, “and he just didn’t want to make a commitment. We got to be really close, great friends. Then one night I asked him if he would be willing to pray to our Heavenly Father to find out if the Church was true. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, and the whole family knelt down to pray with him. The Spirit came over us and everyone in the room felt it. I said, ‘Fred, do you know what you’re feeling?’ He couldn’t deny it. I said, ‘You know you want to be baptized,’ and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Neither Bart nor Trevor would pass up those types of experiences—not even if they had known what they would go through when they returned to football.
“My mission did not help my football,” Bart says. “Some guys go out and expect that since they’re making a sacrifice for the Lord, the Lord is going to bless them by improving their football skills. That’s not the case.” Toward the end of his mission Bart did rise at 4:30 A.M. for conditioning workouts. (“All my companions wanted to be transferred. I know that,” he laughs.) But he wasn’t a superman when he returned. He had to scramble to regain his skills and reflexes.
“I wasn’t better than I was before my mission,” he confides. “I wasn’t even as good. But it didn’t take me long to get back into shape.” Bart also notes that by the time he returned to BYU, the starting center ahead of him had graduated, and the position was open to Bart for the next three years, whereas he would have been second string two of those three years had he chosen to stay and play.
Trevor’s absence from football didn’t help his skills, and didn’t help his size either. “I left at about 235 pounds, and I came back at about 207,” he said. “Most guys have their mothers greeting them at the airport saying, ‘Great to have you back, son,’ but all my mother said was ‘Oh Trevor, you look so thin.’ To be honest with you, the coaches were worried. But when I got home, I lifted a lot of weights and ate everything that was slower than me—lots of pizza and chocolate chip cookies. It helps to have a mom who has a master’s degree in nutrition.”
Trevor’s mother not only played a major role in filling him out when he returned, but she also helped to form his character before he left. Trevor’s parents divorced when he was young, leaving his mother alone with four children. Besides Trevor, Carol Matich has managed to raise Maren, 25, who sings with the San Diego Opera, Krestin, 21, a runner-up in the Miss Sacramento Pageant, and Dever, 19, an All-Northern California basketball star.
Bart’s family had a great influence on him as well. His father, Bob, who was a tremendous athlete himself, started Bart playing football when he was only eight years old. Bart’s two brothers and three sisters were all very active, especially Brad, who preceded Bart into the ranks of professional football. When Bart was drafted by the USFL, they drafted Brad as well, and the two brothers played together for three seasons.
Bart is now influencing his own family. There’s four-year-old Derek, six-month-old Zack, and, of course the former Michelle Ivins, a convert Bart met at BYU and married in the Salt Lake Temple when he’d been home from his mission just under two years.
Michelle readily recognizes what an important influence Bart’s mission had on his life. In the somewhat glamorous world of professional sports, it’s easy to become conceited and self-absorbed, but she says Bart is the opposite. “His mission taught him selflessness,” she says. “I’ve noticed in our marriage and in his dealing with others that he is very conscious of the other person’s needs. Instead of trying to make himself look good, he tries to make the other person feel good. That’s an attribute that going on a mission helps to develop. You’re not out there to build yourself up, but to build others up and bring light into their lives.”
It’s been several years now since Bart and Trevor were released, but their missions are never far behind them. Both serve as stake missionaries and have the opportunity to draw on their mission experiences daily. Neither lives in an area with a large LDS population, and people are always curious about their beliefs.
The Boston media, in particular, was curious about Trevor’s religion. When he signed his contract with the Patriots, the local headlines read, “Ex-missionary to get new mission on Pats—BYU Mormon center must protect passer” and “Matich’s new mission: Patriots.” The papers carried detailed accounts of Trevor’s missionary experiences in Mexico and couldn’t resist mentioning that they inspired him to be a “dedicated disciple of the work ethic.”
The Oates find people in New Jersey curious about Latter-day Saints too. They belong to a group of Christian athletes and their wives who meet regularly for Bible study and fellowship. “I was a little reluctant to go at first,” confides Michelle, “because our beliefs are so different from most other denominations. But I decided to take the time and go because they talk about leading a Christlike life, and I wanted to be associated with people who are interested in that.” More than once the Oates have had the opportunity to explain LDS beliefs to the group.
So life in the world of professional athletics goes on for these two ex-missionaries, but they’ll tell you it has a deeper dimension, a brighter sheen because they served. Giving up a few years in college seems like a small sacrifice when they consider all they got in return. Neither feels he would be in the position he is today if he hadn’t answered the missionary call.
Trevor speaks for both of them when he says, “The things that I learned and the changes that came about in me, as well as the changes I was able to be a part of in the lives of others, were something I’d trade all the football and all the pro contracts in the world for. My mission was a great influencing factor in my life.”
What’s so unique about this game? It doesn’t seem that different. Looking around, you’d think it was just like any other junior college basketball game, played anywhere in the country on any given night.
The gym is about half full. Cheerleaders bounce and shout before a crowd that dosen’t pay much attention. Oh, the crowd cheers, but only when the player of their choice does something right or wrong. On the floor, two teams of average ability are racing up and down the court, exchanging the lead every now and then.
Is it the fact that football star Trevor Matich, fresh from the Super Bowl, has raced nonstop from Boston to Sacramento to catch this game? All right, maybe that makes it a little out of the ordinary. But there is something else unusual about the game. It’s a miracle that Dever Matich, Trevor’s 19-year-old brother, is playing at all tonight. Just a little over a year ago, Dever Matich was involved in a game accident that left the promising young basketball star blind.
Trevor went a few extra miles because of that game, too. It was near the end of his last season as star football center at BYU. The Cougars had been ranked number one in the nation and were practicing for the Holiday Bowl when he heard about his brother’s accident. Trevor, a returned missionary from Mexico, said adios to Provo, hopped in his car, and headed straight for Sacramento.
What he found when he got there broke his heart. In the first tournament game of Dever’s senior basketball season, Dever got jabbed in both eyes so hard that he fell to the floor in shock. He was lucky he made it to the hospital at all. His blood pressure had plunged so low he was very near death.
The doctors restored his heart rate, but they made no promises about his vision. Both retinas had been badly torn, and Dever’s family was told he would be lucky to ever see again, let alone play basketball.
Trevor was devastated. “Why couldn’t it be me?” he wondered. “I’ve already had my time in the spotlight. But Dever is just beginning. Why couldn’t it be me?”
The family’s home teachers came and gave a blessing to Dever, which offered considerable consolation to all of them—almost more consolation than they felt comfortable offering. They were inspired to say that Dever would recover completely, contrary to what the doctors had said.
The next morning Dever underwent laser surgery. The medical staff was delighted with the success but still gave Dever a good month before he could return to school and twice that amount of time before he could pick up a basketball.
His recovery, however, was incredible. Within a few days, Dever was up and around, being led by Trevor, to attend his team’s tournament championship game. Although Dever couldn’t see, Trevor gave him a play-by-play account, and Dever was more eager than ever to get back on the court.
When Trevor saw that Dever’s recovery was progressing so well, he returned to Provo, the Cougars, and a Holiday Bowl victory. It didn’t surprise him a bit to learn that less than three weeks after the accident, Dever was back in the game, his vision improved from 20/20 to 20/16.
It really does make this junior college basketball game a little out of the ordinary when you realize that if it weren’t for the power of the priesthood, one of the players would be listening from the bleachers. But there’s yet another unique aspect of the event.
That’s the unity that flows between these two brothers, who are about six years and an entire continent apart.
“He’s my best friend,” says Trevor of Dever.
“He’s so much more than just a brother,” says Dever of Trevor.
No matter what the scoreboard says when the final buzzer sounds, you’d have a hard time finding a closer game. Dever and Trevor Matich play the closest game in town.