Flashback: D’Wan Mathis final high school game, long way from Arkansas
ATHENS — The last time D’Wan Mathis took the field as a starting quarterback was 694 days ago. Then, he was a carefree Ohio State football commit with his sights set on a district championship.
Mathis and his Oak Park teammates ran onto Tom Adams Field at Wayne State University in Michigan into the face of a bitter wind, ready for battle in the state’s second-largest school classification.
A November hawk brought frigid, moist air from the northwest, dampening the Knights’ hopes to pass their way against defending Division 2 state champion Warren De Le Salle.
Mathis, lined up in the shotgun as he had most every snap all season, scrambled left and right, looking to make something happen throughout the first half.
The Knights struggled to get anything going, a 40-yard TD pass to future Purdue tight end Maliq Carr was called back.
De Le Salle, en route to 212 yards rushing on 48 attempts that day — the Pilots attempted only two passes — had built a 14-0 lead by halftime and gotten pressure on Mathis.
Media reported Mathis suffered a leg injury in the second quarter that was later revealed to be an ankle sprain.
Mathis, however, refused to come out of the game and rode out the 35-7 defeat. It was a frustrating game for the Knights filled with dropped passes, two interceptions, two fumbles and two occasions where the ball was turned over on downs.
“We knew if we came in and we contained the quarterback,” A De La Salle player would later say, “we’d win the ballgame.”
The only second half highlight for Oak Park was Mathis’ 70-yard touchdown throw to Carr in the fourth quarter.
It was the sort of play Mathis had become known for since starring in the PAL (Police Athletic League) during his youth.
“That was a day we just weren’t good enough,” Oak Park coach Greg Carter recalled. “D’Wan played well, he was a consistent player … that was a sad day.
“But I knew he would go on to bigger and better things.”
Mathis was committed to Ohio State at that time — Nov. 2, 2018 — having flipped over from prior pledges to Iowa State and Michigan State.
Curtis Blackwell, founder and operator of the Sound Mind Sound Body camp in Detroit, remembers how early Michigan State worked to get Mathis on its recruiting board.
“The trend then was for colleges to identify guys in the eighth or ninth grade, and I knew for MSU to have a chance at D’Wan, we needed him to come to campus for an unofficial visit early,” said Blackwell, who served as the Spartans’ recruiting coordinator through the 2016 season.
“D’Wan was a no-brainer. He was a 6-5 eighth grader who had big arm strength and could run like a deer. My job was to get the best talent from Detroit to Michigan State.”
Mathis’ path had shifted when the then-Urban Meyer-led Buckeyes offered him a scholarship the prior summer.
The Ohio State pipeline into Detroit is strong, and Mathis saw an opportunity for early playing time if he could complete some online courses of study and graduate from high school early.
That was the plan until Mathis took note of social media chatter involving then Buckeyes’ quarterback Dwayne Haskins and former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields.
Mathis, recognizing that Fields was in the transfer portal and likely heading for Ohio State, flipped to Georgia on the December early signing date and hasn’t looked back.
Saturday will be a day for Mathis to look forward, albeit with metal plates and screws in his head after his well-documented brain surgery and cranial procedure on May 23, 2019.
Mathis is ready to be judged as a football player in the Bulldogs’ season-opening game at Arkansas, where sunny skies and temperatures soaring toward 80 are forecasted to greet him.
Carter expects vastly different results for his former pupil than that cold, bitter defeat from nearly two years ago.
But Mathis’ high school coach knows that like any other young quarterback, Mathis will have his highs and lows.
“D’Wan will have growing pains like everyone else, but he’s going to make some plays, and he’s going to get better each and every week,” Carter said. “It’s a matter of getting used to the offense and the speed of the game, I think he’ll be a phenomenal.
“He’s very similar to Devin, he threw the ball better than Devin did at the high school level,”
“Devin” is former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who Carter coached at Inkster (Mich.) High School before taking over at Oak Park.
Gardner, once rated the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com, was the Wolverines quarterback under Brady Hoke from 2012-2014.
He was signed by the New England Patriots, and then Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent in 2015. After two seasons playing in Japan, Gardner finished his pro career with Saskatchewan (CFL) in 2018.
Carter said Mathis ran the same offense in high school as Gardner.
Mathis in the making
Mathis was rated a 4-star prospect, one of the top 10 players in the state of Michigan.
The Knights didn’t lose more than two games his junior or senior season, and Mathis was revered and targeted by defenses.
Most coaches in every sport lives by the same creed: “Don’t let the other team’s best player beat you.”
That player was Mathis.
“We were a spread team, he didn’t get under center much, we were in shotgun 99 percent of the time,” Carter said. “With D’Wan, a lot of teams would play us for the pass, and we would run the ball until they got out of it.”
One of Mathis’ favorite plays in the Oak Park offense was called “Chicago.”
“D’Wan had a lot of QB isolation runs,” Carter said. “We had a counter player we called Chicago, where he would run behind a guard and a tackle.”
Sometimes Mathis would have a single back beside him, on other occasions, two backs or no backs.
“D’Wan had the freedom to check, and we trusted what he saw,” Carter said. “He got us out of bad plays and put us into good plays.
“He was a tough guy to defend, because he can throw every ball, and he had that escapability. We just wanted him better each and every season.”
Mathis has done just that, putting that cold, gray Michigan high school district playoff game behind him, and leading a championship caliber team into the opening game of the 2020 season.
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