In Greek mythology, Achilles was a strong and courageous warrior whose only vulnerability was his heel, which his mother held while dipping her newborn son in the river Styx to make him immortal. In battle, an arrow hit Achilles’ heel. Our hero perished.
Truth mirrored fiction, minus the unforgiving consequences, for University of Richmond linebacker Dale Matthews. Times two. Matthews tore both of his Achilles tendons last year.
The left one ripped during spring ball in 2016. After surgery and several months of rehabilitation, Matthews was good to go last season. The right one tore in November, in a game against James Madison. Matching surgery and rehab followed. Doctors told Matthews some genetic predisposition may have been at play.
When the left Achilles tendon tore, Matthews accepted the setback as part of the physical risk associated with sports. Repair. Recover. Return. And then the right one went.
“I was really in shock,” said Matthews. “But looking back, it was really a blessing. It just taught me about being humble. I learned a lot about being solely about the team and not really thinking about myself or my personal accomplishments.
“I love this team because they were with me 100 percent throughout the whole process. They really believed in me.”
It would be comforting to learn that this player who encountered a double dose of bad luck found the second rehabilitation less challenging because he knew what to expect and how to accelerate progress. That was not the case.
“The second one was actually harder,” said Matthews, a redshirt junior.
Matthews is back, again, and plays as if there were no Achilles issues. That’s apparent after watching him in the Spiders’ 68-21 win over Howard last Saturday. Matthews had a pair of interceptions, totaling 64 return yards after them, and took part in one of UR’s five sacks.
“He’s never in the wrong position,” said coach Russ Huesman, whose No. 8 Spiders (2-1) start CAA competition Saturday at home against Elon (2-1).
Matthews, a six-footer who calls UR’s defensive signals, weighed 235 pounds in January and checks in at 223 now. The loss was intentional. Huesman installed a 4-2-5 setup that relies on the quickness of the two linebackers.
“I haven’t been this light and fast since like sophomore year in high school,” said Matthews, a graduate of DeMatha High, in Hyattsville, Md. “I know in this defense, you have to be more athletic and you have to run around more. You have to be faster.
“But I still think of myself as a physical linebacker, and I love contact.”
Richmond’s other starting linebacker is 6-2, 220-pound junior Justin Rubin. Huesman said the first thing he noticed about Elon’s offense when Richmond’s coaches began their video analysis was, “They’re in the gun, but they are physical. They come off the ball and their backs run really, really hard. They break tackles.”
The Phoenix will test UR’s relatively light linebackers, which suits Matthews.
“The coaches have focused on us really being gap sound and using our athleticism as an advantage,” he said. “We might not be as big as other guys, but we can get around linemen and be in the right places to really (counteract) that size.”