The Sweetwater Eagles, down 22-14 to local powerhouse Grand Park in the 2012 Pop Warner City Championship, desperately needed someone to make a play.
There were just over seven minutes remaining in the game at TIAA Bank Field in Florida, where an estimated 2,000 fans filled the seats. A bid to the regional championship was on the line.
Willie Green, a local Florida coach, was at the game. It was there, Green recalls, standing near the endzone, that a “little skinny dude” on Sweetwater named DJ Matthews started calling for the ball as Grand Park prepared to kick off. Matthews danced around. He taunted the other team. He begged them “kick the ball to me, kick the ball to me,” as Green remembers.
And because Grand Park “thought they were the big dawgs” in the area, they kicked it to Matthews.
It was a deep boot, long enough to force Matthews to field the pigskin near his own goal line. He made his way to the 20-yard line, where he shook one tackle. Then he was gone, untouched the rest of the way. It was a nearly 100-yard return for a touchdown. On the sideline, Matthews did a little Dougie, swaying his body back and forth in celebration.
Sweetwater won the game. Then they went on to win the 2012 Division I Pop Warner National Championship.
“Everybody in the area was like, ‘this guy is legendary,’” Green said of Matthews.
Nine years later, Matthews, now listed at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, has shown the same at Indiana. After transferring from Florida State last year, Matthews, a wide receiver with seemingly boundless energy, has become a spark plug for a struggling Indiana offense. In his first three games, Matthews has 11 catches for 150 yards, plus a rushing touchdown and an 81-yard punt return touchdown. In his first season with the Hoosiers, he’s quickly fit into the culture, where he says head coach Tom Allen’s phrase “LEO” after speaking with reporters.
“Ever since he’s been here, he’s been great,” Allen said. “He’s worked extremely hard and he had a tremendous attitude. And he’s got a great smile.”
But his college career up to this point hasn’t exactly gone as expected. Once a highly-touted recruit, his time at Florida State was riddled with inconsistencies. He also had an internal feeling he couldn’t shake. Ever since high school, he was “searching” for something, a sort of inner peace. For the longest time, before the birth of his daughter Sevynn last year, he couldn’t find it.
“It can be overwhelming,” Matthews said. “…My dad always told me ‘we’re all human,’ we all have to go out and perform. I’m a man of God, I put all of my trust and I put faith in myself. ”
There are various ways to describe Matthews’ athleticism.
His trainer Brian Burnett says this: “If you haven’t seen magic, you’ll know what it is after watching him work.”
Green puts it another way, saying, “you got every dime worth,” if you paid to see a high school game.
It was evident throughout his time at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. While playing quarterback and receiver, Matthews was the human embodiment of a juke stick, where he’d effortlessly glide across the field. One time, he made two defenders crash headfirst into each other while trying to tackle him. Another time, at wide receiver, he leaped backward to make a one-handed catch. While playing basketball, he skied above the rim and threw down two-handed dunks.
— DJ MATTHEWS??? (@2nineee) February 22, 2017
There was a certain undeniable joy that Matthews played with. At practice, he would launch 70-yard passes for fun. Matthews would constantly race his teammate and close friend Shaun Wade, now a cornerback in the NFL, and Green can’t remember Matthews ever losing a race. He did backflips. He once did a summersault into the endzone when scoring a touchdown.
“It was almost like he was a kid out on the football field,” Green, who coached Matthews at Trinity Christian, said. “He never came to practice as if he had a final exam or if something happened at home. Everything just stopped when he got on the football field.”
It’s also why he became an effective leader. During Matthews’ senior year, when Trinity Christian lost to powerhouse IMG on national TV, Matthews was the first to rally the team together.
“Don’t feel bad about it,” Green recalls Matthews saying. “We played as well as we could. We’re going to states and we’re going to win it.”
And they did. Trinity Christian won the state championship for the fourth consecutive season. Matthews tallied a combined 1,487 rushing, receiving and passing yards while scoring 19 touchdowns. He was a consensus four-star prospect in the 2017 class and was named to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl before he headed off to play at Florida State.
But in three seasons with the Seminoles, there was a revolving door of coaches.
Before the end of his freshman season at FSU, Jimbo Fisher, who recruited Matthews, left Tallahassee. Then Willie Taggart took over for two seasons. Then there was another change with Mike Norvell, who became head coach in 2020. And Matthews was caught in the middle of all of it. In three seasons, he had three different offensive coordinators and three different wide receivers coaches.
Given that he was undersized, Matthews repeatedly had to prove himself to the new coaches.
“I never pass the eye test for anyone,” Matthews said. “They look at me like, ‘that guy is too small. He don’t even look like a football player.’”
To make up for it, Matthews studied the playbook with vigor. He made sure he was on time for meetings. He got his work done in the classroom.
There were moments during Matthews’ career at Florida State where he flashed his talent. As a sophomore, he zipped through the defense for a 74-yard punt return touchdown against Miami. He combined for 737 receiving yards in sophomore and junior seasons, but wasn’t able to break out as a star, like many had hoped. While the program continuously underwent a rebuild, Matthews tried to keep the team together, Green said.
“Everything is not going to go as planned,” Matthews said. “You can walk into great situations and a lot of things happen, a lot of adversity happened. It just allowed me to just trust the process.”
Between all of the stress in his football career, Matthews finally found the inner fulfillment he’d been looking for. Last year, his daughter Sevynn Matthews, now one years old, was born.
At the time, Matthews was still enrolled at Florida State. Last August, he tweeted that he tested positive for COVID-19. A few weeks later, he decided to opt out of the 2020-21 season and enter the transfer portal. The decision, Matthews said, was in part to save his career, where he ultimately committed to Indiana. But most importantly, it was to dedicate time to Sevynn, who was named that because she was born on a Sunday.
When she was big enough, Matthews took Sevynn fishing and canoeing. She likes music and musical instruments. Last December, as a song played, Sevynn swayed her hips back and forth to a song and raised her arms into the air. Another time, Matthews let her sit on his lap in the driver’s seat of a parked car and, as she pretended to move the wheel, he made engine noises as if the vehicle was moving.
I’ll choose this Over Anything Any day?My princess My Fav Person Ever? pic.twitter.com/3WF4GYGE7g
— DJ MATTHEWS??? (@2nineee) September 6, 2020
“When I did spend time with her, I was just relaxed. All the anxiety was gone,” Matthews says now, pausing to collect himself and find the right words. “It was just a different feeling, a feeling that I’ve been searching for since leaving high school.”
“I really found peace with myself last year… She brought so much joy to my life. I was happy. I just found myself again.”
Now, while Matthews is playing at Indiana, Sevynn is with her mother, which means there are daily phone and Facetime calls. Sevynn, who even has her own iCloud account, will call Matthews and then hang up. Call again and then hang up. “Baby, what are you doing?” Matthews will say. And then Sevynn, who has started to say “daddy” and “mommy,” will let out a squeal of joy. After games, Sevynn’s mother shows highlights of Matthews.
“It helped regain my focus back to understand that I’m not doing this for myself anymore,” Matthews said. “I’m doing this for my family. I’m doing this for my daughter. I can’t let my daughter not seeing me go hard.”
Daddy Princess ❤️ pic.twitter.com/KnxXBJxp5T
— DJ MATTHEWS??? (@2nineee) May 9, 2020
In Indiana’s week two win against Idaho, Matthews reminded the college football world about his dynamic abilities. He caught a punt over his shoulder near his own 20-yard line. Then he weaved his way around the field before putting his left foot in the ground and cutting upfield. He tiptoed down the sideline, pushing a defender away with a stiff arm. Finally in the clear, he looked over both shoulders and then reached the football out in front of him as he cruised into the endzone.
All with the number seven on his back.
“I really get the same feeling that I always have since I was little,” Matthews said. “That excitement. That chill. That release.”