Jackson Matteo Finds Mentorship Path Through Virginia

Jackson Matteo
Jackson Matteo worked from walk-on to starter and captain while at Virginia. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

At the end of his Virginia football career, Jackson Matteo questioned what his next step would be. Originally, he wanted to try to make an NFL roster or practice squad. However, this pursuit was cut short, as Matteo sustained injuries and had to retire from the game at the end of his fifth season.

The student-athletes who give their all to a sport can become lost after they graduate because they have to find a new path. At first, coaching did not feel like an option to Matteo, until he had one more conversation with Bronco Mendenhall.

“I have seen older guys on our team finish and become a GA,” Matteo said. “When Bronco first talked to me, I hadn’t really put thought into it. … When Bronco talked to me, I was like, ‘yeah, I like the sound of that.’ I love being around the game. Really cool opportunity to stay on here and coach.”

The path that led to that moment required patience.

Matteo had to be resilient early as a Cavalier. His time at Broad Run High School earned him a scholarship to continue his academics and football career at Temple. However, he later decided to decommit and stay close to home and enroll at Virginia as a walk-on. At first, it was demoralizing for Matteo to play with the walk-on tag, as he felt like he, and the others in the same boat, were cast out because they were not on scholarship.

“The equipment staff will give out backpacks or shirts or whatever it is, and it has your number on it,” Matteo said. “After 99, it goes 100, 120, and all the way to 125, and my number was 117. I would cut out the number on every one of my shirts, my backpacks, my travel bags because I hated it. I did not think that I was a walk-on, and nothing against that, but I didn’t like the fact that we were treated like others. That really always bothered from the day I showed up.”

Matteo also reminisced as to how the locker room was set up at the time. At the McCue Center, he said there were six sections that were usually dispersed by position or number. For the offensive linemen, their numbers are typically between 50 and 79. Matteo was separated from the others because he was No. 117 and said it felt like he and the other walk-ons were “shoved into a corner.” He developed a mindset of wanting to be more than a walk-on because of his early experiences, and this motivated him both on the field and in the classroom.

That motivation became a catalyst.

In the matter of a few seasons, he received his scholarship, became the starting center and captain for the Cavaliers, and was an integral part of the offensive line, starting in 24 straight games before he ran out of eligibility. Matteo went from being a walk-on to on the watch list for the 2016 Rimington Award. He worked his way from the bottom of the depth chart to being a crucial leader for the Cavaliers. That time bridged the coaching change from Mike London to Mendenhall and he started for both coaches.

Matteo credits those who mentored him and his coaches, in particular offensive line coach Garett Tujague, with the success he saw.

“Tujague is like a father-figure to me,” Matteo said. “He challenged me, and he trusted me, and he gave me opportunities. He pushed me as a player and as a coach. He always says that he’s going to coach you hard, but he’s going to love you equally as hard. He’s going to support you and care and reach out. … He’s the best offensive line coach in the country, and it shows from what he’s done at Virginia already and what he’s getting ready to embark on.”

Tujague arrived as part of the London to Mendenhall change. In 2016, Virginia was in a similar spot as they are today with a new staff. You tend to see players transfer out due to a coaching change, and questions linger about what is to come. In his situation, Matteo remained because of his built-up