Football

SENIOR DAY: How three words — and an “impossible” dream — fuel ISU’s Matt Leo

ISU defensive end Matt Leo takes on an Oklahoma State blocker in a game this season. Photo courtesy Cyclones.com. 

AMESMatt Leo remembers the time: 1:15 p.m.

 He remembers the extreme temperature in Adelaide, Australia: “Hot day.”

 He also remembers the words that served as his first, baby steps toward pursuing a career in American-style football: “I miss sports.”

 Beads of sweat covered the future Iowa State defensive lineman’s expansive frame as he turned his wrench as a plumber’s apprentice roughly five years ago. His tradesman responded, telling him he’d seen something in the newspaper about an Australian playing football in the United States..

 Leo narrowed his gaze and tightened his focus under the blazing sun.

 “I told him straight away, I said, ‘I could easily do that,’” said Leo, who will be celebrated along with 19 others Saturday at 11 a.m. when the Cyclones (6-4, 4-3) welcome Kansas (3-7, 1-6) on Senior Day at Jack Trice Stadium. “‘I want to do that. Let’s hunt down this guy.’”

 The rest, as Leo told CycloneFanatic in a Thursday phone interview, is “history.”

 His journey has been well-documented. His growth, immense. His gratitude to Coach Matt Campbell, defensive line coach Eli Rasheed and the ISU football program in general? Boundless.

 “All the seniors wanted to make ‘us’ better,” said Leo, who boasts 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in his two seasons as a Cyclone reserve. “Not having the coaches hound us with what they want. The players had to (have) the initiative to step up and want it for ourselves. No one’s going to want it more. You can have people tell you daily to go out there and practice hard with detail and precision, but if the players didn’t want it, then no one would do it. So having that culture has just been incredible. To have a player-led team is just something you don’t see much, or very often.”

 Players like Leo — who stands 6-7 and weighs a chiseled 275 pounds — are not often seen, either.

 His size opened eyes.

 His will opened doors.

 “We see Matt as this physical Greek god that he looks like,” Campbell said this week. “But learning to play the sport of football in such a short amount of time has been a great challenge. Matt has done everything above and beyond the call of duty to practice and get himself to this point to become a great player. The passion he’s had — obviously you have to really want to do something to make the sacrifices that he’s had to make to get to this point. He’s been an unbelievable asset to this program.”

***

  When Leo arrive on campus at Arizona Western Community College, he showed promise — but there were no promises. He’d saved up money while working to complete his plumber apprenticeship and needed it while he toiled as a walk-on.

 “I believed in myself enough to eventually earn a scholarship,” Leo said. “I knuckled down and offered to the coach, I said to him, “I”ll pay my way and earn (my spot) on the team.’ That’s what I did. I’m definitely not going to lie. It was definitely tough times at Arizona Western in JUCO. Not being able to work, being on visa, and obviously having to pay a lot more for the things I didn’t have — necessities even — and obviously having to stand on my own two feet without any family here was definitely challenging, but I feel like it motivated me more and more because I had to get it out of the mud.”

 Leo played, but didn’t start his first season at Arizona Western. His breakthrough came in season two, where he recorded 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks — and eventually came to be regarded as the 34th-best JUCO prospect, according to Scout.

 What fueled his rapid rise? Attention to the details, of course.

 “It was honestly like learning a new, foreign language,” Leo said. “It’s not as simple as people in Australia may look at it and see guys running in gaps, or running upfield. It is so much more complex than that, so it really made me appreciate just how detailed and how challenging the sport is. Everybody back home just considers football to be men running into men, just like rugby — and guys catching balls. It’s so much more detailed than that so it was very hard to wrap my head around it when I first arrived to junior college.”

 Leo chose Iowa State over offers from Oklahoma, Arizona, Mississippi State and others.

 “I remember clearly the day I touched down here and going through everything that I needed to learn to become a student here,” Leo said. “It was absolutely just incredible to finally have made it to not just a massive program and an up-and-coming program, but to play for coaches that I loved and absolutely respected. Just couldn’t want to touch the field and make an impact on this team.”

***

 When Leo arrived in Ames in December 2016, he was immediately dubbed a “physical freak.” Imposing on the outside, still growing on the inside, Leo deserved the appearance-based label. He took a medical redshirt in 2017 and began coming into his own last season as a versatile backup. This season, he took another step forward and became a prime contributor — still coming off the bench, but fully demonstrating how his once fanciful dream was now firmly rooted in concrete reality.

 “Remarkable,” Campbell said of Leo’s development. “I pick 10-15 plays after a game to show the team, and one of the plays was Matt on one of the third-down plays from last Saturday (against Texas). The physicality that he shows on this play — the ability to snap his hat and hands, his ability to shed the blocker and make the play — it was a 3rd and 1 play and it was all Matt Leo. Just that play embodies the amount of growth that he’s been able to make. It’s been remarkable.”

 It’s also ongoing.

 ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said Leo’s ceiling remains high — even as his playing career as a Cyclone draws to a close.

 “I don’t think he knew all the skills of the positions and those things and that’s what coach Rasheed’s done a great job (with),” Heacock said. “The D-line room and those guys have helped him along a ton and that kind of thing, but learning is a curve. He still, I think, learns every single day on techniques and fundamentals and really now, I think, has an understanding of what the offense is trying to do. So I think he’s grown immensely, but I think he would probably say he still learns some stuff every day.”

 Yup.

 “Coach Heacock is absolutely right,” Leo said. “I have so much more to develop. So much more experience just to take from football. … I’m just constantly trying to absorb it right now and I do believe I want to take football as far as I can. I absolutely would and I’m going to keep my head down to try to make that dream come true. But my biggest thing being here at Iowa State is I wanted to be exactly what the coaches needed me to be. Be dependable. Have the trust earned from the coaches and know that when they put me on, they can believe I’m going to commit to the assignment and really get the little things and the details right.”

***

 Leo’s mom, Margaret, is in the states right now. She arrived this week in order to see her son play this completely foreign game for the first time. On senior day, she’ll be on the field — and in the stands — cheering her 27-year-old dreamer on.

 “It’s honestly incredible just to have my mom here,” Leo said. “She’s loving every minute of it.”

 Margaret toured the facilities that helped mold her son from promising, raw talent to partially-finished, high-performing product. She gleaned a sense of what he put into his personal construction project — and what legacy he’ll leave behind.

 Just as senior captains such as Ray Lima, Marcel Spears Jr., Josh Knipfel and numerous others, Leo’s left a mark on this program and his teammates.

“Man, going from a plumber to the player that he is …” Spears, one of the program’s top leaders, said before pausing and shaking his head slightly. “His growth is insane. What he’s done is considered impossible, but he did it. So just going through his journey and thinking about it, he’s a big reason why we can’t give up. We can’t stop. He left a life back home that is impossible to get out of and came here — impossible to play in a D-I, Big 12 league, but he did it. So why can’t we? Why can’t we do something big for him?”

 That’s how a “brotherhood” operates. It’s all about giving. That’s how “impossible” morphs into routine. And it all started with Leo tracking down a guy who knew a guy that could jump-start a dream that he thought would end with him becoming a punter.

Wait, what?

 “Long story short,” Leo said. “I arrive at Arizona Western and my coach is like, ‘There’s no way you’re punting. You’ll play defense. And they put me in pads and I started hitting people.”

 He won’t stop. Can’t stop, like Spears said. But despite his hard-earned knowledge of the intricacies of the game, descriptions always circle back to his physical gifts.

 “I’m not a huge fan of Matt because whenever I, after a workout, take my shirt off and I’m feeling good, he walks by,” ISU tight end and Mackey Award semi-finalist Charlie Kolar said, jokingly. “Kind of screws that up. But, no, he’s an awesome guy. Really good dude. Really good dude. He’s come so far in just a few short years. I mean, just another one of those guys who came in and just worked their tail off. Humble guy. Awesome. I’m going to miss him, too. Great guy.”

 So when Leo strolls onto the field Saturday, his journey — at this level — will nearly be complete. He accepted Campbell’s scholarship offer on the heels of a 3-9 season. He’ll finish it out on his own terms after the Cyclones play in a third-straight bowl game for the first time since Dan McCarney guided three consecutive teams to postseason play from 2000-2002.

The time? 11 a.m.

The temperature? Cool, not hot.

His parting words?

 “There’s definitely some anxiety,” Leo said of the state of his emotions as Senior Day nears. “It kind of hit me yesterday when I departed the facilities last night. It kind of helped me realize that this is coming to an end, this chapter. It’s honestly a tough pill to swallow because it’s been nothing but an amazing experience. Ames and Iowa State have shown me nothing but love my entire time here.”

Rob Gray

administrator

Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.