Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mathenia left it all on the field

Here is the column I wrote two days after the Bearkats rallied for 21 points in the fourth quarter to beat Eastern Washington in the 2004 NCAA quarterfinals. Still the most thrilling finish to a game I have ever seen.

Originally printed Dec. 6, 2004
The Huntsville Item

Jason Mathenia didn't look at his performance last Saturday as anything out of the ordinary. He simply stepped on the field and did what he has done all season long - catch passes.

But whether he will admit it or not, Mathenia is special and there was nothing ordinary about the way he played in one of the biggest games in Sam Houston State history - in any sport.

Mathenia was a key player in the Bearkats' 21-point rally to defeat Eastern Washington this past weekend. He caught a school-record 13 passes for 226 yards, which stands as the second-best single-game receiving mark in school history.

Oh, by the way, he did it all on a bad ankle.

Early in the game, Mathenia and the rest of the SHSU receivers were having a hard time adjusting the to 30-degree temperatures and muddy/icy grass field. He caught two passes in the first half for 37 yards, and both times, limped to the sideline after the catch.

He was hurting, but that was nothing new for Mathenia. He has been playing on a bad ankle for nearly a month now.

He finally broke loose in the third quarter. Quarterback Dustin Long hit the junior receiver on a 10-yard pass. The defensive back dove for the interception, but missed, leaving the sideline open for Mathenia to run. Bad ankle and all, he beat everyone to the end zone for a 69-yard touchdown.

His night was just getting started.

With the Bearkats trailing 34-14 early in the fourth quarter, it took Mathenia just about everything he had to keep going back on the field.

"I was just so tired and I was hurting," Mathenia said. "It was so cold and breathing was difficult. I tried to come out and coach just sent me back to the huddle. I just knew I had to suck it up."

And suck it up he did.

Long hit Mathenia four times on the Kats' opening possession of the fourth quarter. Each gain was for more than 10 yards, with two going for 14 yards. The drive ended on a 34-yard score to Corey Roberts.

34-21 Eastern Washington, 11:04 to play in the game.

After the offense got the ball back, Mathenia was in for nearly every play of a 15-play scoring drive. He caught one pass for 10 yards and was Long's intended target four other times. Robert Garmon capped things off with an 8-yard run for the score.

34-28 Eastern Washington, 3:34 left to play.

Fellow receiver Vince Cartwright blocked a field goal with less than a minute to play in the game, giving Mathenia and the Bearkats one last hope. After two completions to Cartwright and one to Roberts, Long and Mathenia took over the game.

Mathenia caught a 12-yard pass at the Eastern Washington 42 and got out of bounds with 12 seconds left to play. With the secondary of EWU playing nearly 15 yards away from Mathenia, Long looked his way again, this time for a 19-yard gain. Mathenia got his toes down inbounds and then fell out at the 23-yard line with seven ticks remaining on the clock.

"I was so tired, but at no point did I even think about coming out," Mathenia said. "It was gut wrenching, but it was almost over. I knew I had to just finish it out."

But even he had doubts that was going to be possible.

"I thought I was going to fall over when I was standing at the line," Mathenia said about the last drive. "I was afraid I would get a false start because I was just so dizzy."

Dizzy and all, Mathenia continued to be a thorn in the Eagles' side. Expecting the Kats to take a shot at the end zone from 23 yards out, once again Eastern Washington gave Mathenia more than 15 yards and the sideline to work with.

Just like the two previous plays, Long hit Mathenia for a 16-yard gain to the 7-yard line. The time on the scoreboard read 00:02.

"We really just wanted to get close enough for a hail Mary," Mathenia said. "But Dustin did a great job of getting us in position for the last play."

Everything had happened so fast, Eastern Washington evidently didn't have time to think about who the Kats would throw the ball to on the final play of the game. Because had the Eagles thought about it, there probably wouldn't have been press coverage and no help on a guy who had already beaten them 12 times for 220 yards.

But the middle of the end zone was left wide open, and after Mathenia beat his man off the line, all he had to do was catch the pass from Long. He did and the Kats live to see another week.

Completely out of gas, Mathenia had just enough strength to get to the sideline. He never made it past the 10-yard line. He took a knee and watched as Lance Garner kicked the deciding extra point.

As the players stormed the field, Mathenia just sat there and cried. It was about the only thing left he hadn't done that night.

"There was no way I was going to be able to run out there," Mathenia said. "I was just happy enough to see all my teammates out there having fun."

The Kats will be on the road again this week when they travel to Montana. A berth to the NCAA Division I-AA national championship game is on the line, and if he has anything to say about it, the Kats will be celebrating once again. But don't be surprised if No. 21 goes to one knee again just to watch.

After all, to him, it is just an ordinary game and all he did was catch a few passes to help his team win. Nothing more, nothing less.