He arrived with his family from the Dominican Republic when he was just 6 years old, a budding baseball player who didn’t even know what the game of football was all about.
Now, Josue Matias is a national champion, a member of the Florida State football team that defeated Auburn in the Bowl Championship Series national title game last Monday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Talk about your improbable sports miracle stories. A kid from Union City who takes a huge gamble to go to Florida State in the first place, recovering from a torn patella tendon and bone fracture in his knee he suffered before he even played a game his senior year, ends up as a starting left guard on a national champion.
“It’s hard to believe,” Matias said in a phone interview after he arrived back in Tallahassee after the Seminoles’ thrilling 34-31 victory. “I never thought any of this was possible. It’s unreal. It’s really a dream come true.”
Matias’ team capped a remarkable 14-0 season, going from an unranked squad in the preseason all the way to the national title.
“I always thought we had a good team, but at the beginning of the season, I never thought this,” Matias said.
Matias said that the turning point came in the sixth week of the regular season, when the Seminoles went to Clemson and defeated the heavily-favored Tigers by a lopsided 51-14 score.
“We were the underdog, but we wanted it bad,” Matias said. “We went to Clemson and blew them out. I think that’s when we all knew we had a chance.”
It was also the game that catapulted Jameis Winston into the national spotlight and made him the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, which he eventually collected a few months later.
“Playing with Jameis is amazing, because you never know what he’s going to do,” Matias said. “It’s like playing with Tom Brady back there. He’s like a machine. You always know he’s going to make a play. All we have to do is block for him for two seconds and he’s gone, then doing something else. He makes our job as linemen much easier. He’s a pleasure to play with.”
Matias was a standout performer at Union City High School, the first real NCAA Division I product to come out of the newly combined school.
He first gave a verbal commitment to attend Rutgers, but then changed his mind after he suffered the catastrophic knee injury during a preseason scrimmage two years ago.
“I knew I was going to play college football somewhere,” Matias said. “But I felt like I just had to get out and explore the world a little. My family all felt comfortable with Florida State. Believe me, I couldn’t decide. My parents helped me with the decision.”
Matias headed to Florida with his older brother, Jose, a standout baseball player at Union City High School. Jose Matias is currently playing baseball at Tallahassee Community College. Matias’ father, Jose, is still a custodian at Union City High School.
When Matias suffered the knee injury, he thought his chance of playing college football was history.
“I thought my career was over,” Matias said. “I blew out my knee and thought I was done.”
But Florida State took Matias even after the injury and watched as the 6-foot-6, 320-pound lineman rehabilitated the knee to complete recovery.
Matias played in some games as a freshman, then started some games last year as a sophomore before securing the starting guard slot this season, culminating in the national championship.
“It all worked out pretty well,” Matias said. “I overcame so many obstacles. God’s been good to me. I’m really blessed.”
Back in his hometown of Union City, the news of Matias winning a national championship struck a special chord.
“I think it does a lot for our program,” Union City head coach Wilber Valdez said. “We have kids who are being recruited now and this gives them an instant shot of credibility. Josue is the pioneer of Union City football. He’s the first Division I signee. He took a chance by leaving and going to a very competitive school. He wasn’t afraid of the competition. I know Union City High School, the city, his coaches and everyone is certainly proud of him and what he’s accomplished.”
Steven Gonzalez is a current member of the Union City football team who has always thought of Matias as a role model. Gonzalez is currently sifting through more than 20 major college offers and will be a big-time lineman like Matias.
“It was a great feeling when they won,” Gonzalez said. “I was rooting for him so much. He’s definitely a role model. He’s the reason I came to Union City High School. I was thinking of going to [St. Peter’s] Prep, but he made me decide. If he was able to ride it out and make something of himself in Union City, then so could I. He definitely set the standards for me and now I want to be like him. I really respect his game and what he’s done. He’s represented Union City well, winning a national championship. It’s a great feeling and there’s definitely a sense of pride.”
Matias becomes the first Hudson County football player to win an NCAA national championship since Rich Glover was on the University of Nebraska team that won the national title in 1971.
“I know a lot of us from Hoboken went on to have success in college,” said Valdez, who played at the University of Miami during his playing days. “What Josue has done hasn’t been done in a long time.”
Matias didn’t know that it had been 43 years since a Hudson County gridiron great won a national title.
“There have been so many good football players to come from our county,” Matias said. “I didn’t know that it had been that long. It makes it even more amazing. It’s such a good feeling.”
Matias is only a junior, so he has another year to play with Winston and perhaps bring home another national title.
“You never know,” Matias said. “That’s the goal. But nothing can beat this feeling, because no one thought this was possible. It’s really been a fairy tale.”
Matias will eventually get the chance to visit the White House with his teammates and meet President Barack Obama, much like Glover met with President Richard Nixon some four decades ago.
“That is going to be a dream come true,” Matias said. “A kid from the Dominican Republic, from Union City, meeting the President.”
When Matias comes home after school is out in May, Valdez is hoping that Union City does something to honor him.
“I would certainly hope so that something will be done to celebrate him,” Valdez said. “I hope that’s in the plans for Union City, give him the key to the city, something. He deserves it. No one has brought the success that Josue has enjoyed to Union City. So many have gotten the opportunity to go on, but he’s the first in a long time to get a national title.”
And who knows? Maybe there’s a professional career in Matias’ future.
“That’s after next year,” Matias said. “We’ll enjoy this for now.”
As well he should.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com, You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.