AMES, Iowa. — It started as a dream.
Not a goal. Not something that seemed like it could realistically come together. No, Matt Leo’s football career started out as purely a dream — nothing else.
That fact makes the Australian’s journey from rugby player to construction plumber to junior college football player to Division I football player even more remarkable. Two years ago, Matt Leo’s football career was nothing but a dream.
“It never became a sort of real life goal until more people approached me about it,” Leo said at Iowa State’s annual football media day on Wednesday. “I met people in Australia who had taken the opportunity to go flyover to go to D2 schools. I didn’t expect to go to a JUCO then to a D1. I just wanted to try every instance that would maybe potentially get me to play.”
The 6-foot-7, 276-pound defensive end does not take anything involved with his football career for granted. Leo does not act like the opportunities he has created for himself were forgone conclusions. He is humble about his abilities despite the hype surrounding his arrival in Ames.
Meanwhile, his teammates and coaches describe him as a freak. They call him versatile and talk about how high the Adelaide, Australia native’s ceiling is on the football field. You see the raw physical tools he has at his disposal and you understand why.
“That dude’s a freak,” the Cyclones’ starting quarterback Jacob Park said. “Every time he walks past me, I’m just like, ‘Jeez, man.’”
Leo is listed as a defensive tackle on Iowa State’s pre-fall camp depth chart, but his favorite position is defensive end. He likes to rush the passer and come hard from the outside.
Actually, you could put it more simply and say Leo just really loves to hit people. He craves contact, and that is what has made football such an appealing sport to him despite the difficulty of following American football down under.
“I like hitting,” Leo said. “I definitely like rushing outside and if coach keeps me outside I want to be known as someone who is fast off the edge… I love it. I like making contact.”
One of the biggest positives to Leo starting his career at such an advanced age is his lack of bad habits. He has not had the years of Pop Warner, middle or high school football to create any.
All Leo has is two years spent playing junior college ball at Arizona Western Community College. He was a walk-on in his first season with the program, but it did not take long for him to prove he was worthy of a scholarship.
It has not taken long for him to make a serious impression on his new head coach, either.
“I love guys in football that, A, have a high-end passion for the game of football. And here’s a kid that really gave up everything,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said. “He left home, 20-21-years-old, he leaves his family. He hadn’t been home for two years — and he just flew back home before the start of camp, hadn’t seen his family, hadn’t seem his mom, his dad, his sister. He flies out here on his own dime. He’s really ready to start his own career back in Australia and says, ‘I’m going to take a chance on this,’ and not even on scholarship when he goes to Arizona Western, pays his own way there. So I love guys that appreciate this game and that are driven to be the best. And Matt is, it’s an internal drive. You don’t leave home, you don’t give that all up — you don’t give up a great job and all those things to say, ‘Hey, listen, I’m going to come to the United State of America and just give it the old try.’ It’s really been a vested interest in the sport, the game. What’s fun about Matt is some of the similar qualities that David Montgomery has. Matt’s here all the time. Matt’s training. He eats right. He’s addicted to the process that it takes for him to be the best because there’s a personal investment for him to want to be the best. So, both on the field and off the field, when you have a guy like that, who is a really good player, on top if it, his investment level’s really high, it starts to take all those young guys around him and say, ‘Man, I want to be like that guy. That guy’s a really good player and look at the time and the effort that he puts into it.’ It starts to create a culture around it that says this is who we are and this is what we stand for. So I think Matt has been a really great addition in terms of that aspect of it. His story’s certainly unique, but his want-to is what makes him really special in my opinion.”
It is tough to say what Leo’s impact on Iowa State’s defense will be in 2017. He has all the physical tools to become a breakout player, but even then he has still only played two seasons of football.
It is hard to fathom the jumps Leo has made from where he was two years ago to being less than a month away from stepping under the lights of a Big 12 stadium. It is that previously mentioned versatility that will make him having an early impact possible even if he can still be described as raw or unpolished.
“He gives (us) opportunities,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “‘Hey, he’s better in this scenario playing inside and this scenario playing outside.’ Well, you can do it because he can do it. Everybody talks about it’s really players and plays. In our situation, it’s players and defensive calls or schemes. What players do you have? What can they do? The more they can do, the more you can do. It just gives you some, ‘hey, if something happens to X, you can put him in to Y.’ It just gives you some depth and some different opportunities to put people in.”
They call him a freak. He draws rave reviews and eyes light up when you mention his name. From quarterbacks to coaches and everyone in between, they see the potential and physical skills the defensive end from down under brings to the table. They talk about how good he can be in the future.
But, as for Matt Leo, he is just living his dream. One day at a time.
“I never expected just to earn a scholarship for being big and fit,” Leo said. “I wanted to make sure I earned a spot on the team. That’s definitely what’s sort of motivated me every day just to be better.”