Saturday, October 3rd, 1998 – It was Homecoming my sophomore year of high school, and we were off to an 0-4 start with a new coach and a young team. We were playing our local league rival in an annual match-up known as the Frost Bowl. Early in the third quarter we found ourselves down 24-7 and on the brink of yet another defeat. We were a run-oriented team employing a Wing-T offense that our coach brought with him from his previous venture, so we weren’t exactly well prepared to make any late game comebacks. But we had enough talent at the skill positions to make a real run at it, and I absolutely had the desire as a quarterback to leave it all on the field. Rolling out of the pocket, scrambling for my life at times, and throwing the ball downfield on the run I led our comeback charge.
With under a minute left, we had cut the deficit to 34-27 on a touchdown pass from 8 yards out. Out of timeouts, we needed to attempt an onside kick to have any hope of getting the ball back with an opportunity to tie or win the game. We teed it up and stroked the perfect effort towards the sideline. Unfortunately the ball slipped past our recovery team and shot out of bounds. 0-5…and a heartbreaker at that…
That day I learned just how truly special football could be. The beauty of the game is that you can completely lose yourself in it. There’s no time to worry, no time to panic…you just move and react. It’s all encompassing. Lost in the pursuit of an improbable comeback, I was completely unaware that something remarkable had happened to me. And then I heard the announcement come over the PA system. “Matt Deibler has just set a new county record for passing yards in a game with 416”. I had surpassed the previous mark by 82 yards. I remember having such mixed emotions. I was exhausted and hurt by the loss but I did feel a sense of pride, because I knew I had done everything I could to lead us back.
On Monday morning I was walking down the hall near the high school office and our Librarian stopped me and handed me a copy of USA Today. She said “did you see this?” I had no idea what she was referencing until she led me to the national High School Football spotlight and I saw my name and a short paragraph listed about my performance that weekend. I couldn’t believe it. The local papers were one thing, but USA Today? Maybe I could make a future out of this? That’s the moment that my dreams began to take shape…
I wanted to play Division 1 college football. I wasn’t comfortable settling for anything less. So I went to work. I put everything I had into making myself a better quarterback and a more attractive prospect for scouts. I worked on my quickness and dropped my 40 time to 4.69. I drank Ensure and whey protein to try to put on weight and I lifted weights to bulk up my frame. I recruited my friends and my father to run routes for me at the high school during the offseason. And if nobody else was free, I’d head to the field by myself and drag the round trash barrels from the concession stand to the corners of the end zone and throw fades from 15 yards out. I was committed. I had envisioned a real future in this game, and I didn’t want to let it go.
I never really received any help at all from my coaching staff as far as my college recruitment was concerned. We were a small school with a losing tradition and there wasn’t much of an effort made to help football players pursue an opportunity at the next level. In fact, my head coach gave away our only copy of the game film from my record breaking day that sophomore season, so I wasn’t even able to include any of those highlights in my profile videos…films that were put together by my father and I after analyzing hours upon hours of tape and then cutting and recording with the aid of two VCR’s. Quite a tedious process. I can’t thank him enough for his help with it.
The videos were sent out to a variety of collegiate programs across the country that I decided upon with my family. I remember the day I went to the mailbox and came back in with my first letter. San Diego State University Aztecs. Was this really happening? 16 other D-1A programs followed including Notre Dame. I’m pretty sure my mom nearly fainted the day that I walked in the house with that letter. She was a die hard Golden Domer, and my sister was an Alum. Some of the letters were one and done, but many of the schools maintained regular correspondence.
By the summer prior to my senior season, I was on the radar. I made a trip to Boston College where I was introduced to players and coaches and was given the royal treatment for a visit to watch them play West Virginia. I stood on the sidelines prior to kickoff and watched the game a couple of rows back in the stands. I remember a man holding the door for me outside of their football center that day and when I said “thank you” he said “no thank you, you’re the one who will leave blood, sweat, and tears in this place someday”. It about made me cry. I felt as though I was finally realizing the dream.
In addition to that trip I was selected for an Elite Quarterback Camp at Purdue University that was by invite only – 100 quarterbacks from across the nation. I attended the camp with a kid from Iowa named Kyle Orton whom they offered a scholarship to that week. Kyle went on to have a great career at Purdue and now plays in the NFL. That same summer I also enrolled in a camp at Miami-FL, another school from which I was receiving some attention. And I visited with Walt Harris at Pittsburgh and later John Bunting at UNC. It was the most exciting time of my life.
Then came senior year. There were high expectations, but what followed were struggles on the field. It was my least productive season statistically, and I was frustrated with our coaching staff and their unwillingness to adapt to a better suited offense for the type of players we had available. We ran the Wing-T when we were best suited for the Spread. I broke the county’s all-time passing yardage record that season in spite of the fact that we were executing such a heavily weighted run offense. Imagine what we could have done had we made some adjustments? Instead we finished 6-5 and fell well short of our goal to qualify for district playoffs. It was a disappointing, exhausting season. I remember hugging my best friend on the field after our last game..with tears in our eyes we looked at each other and said “it’s over”.
That fall the attention that I was well accustomed to receiving from college recruiters dwindled. Of course I still received lots of interest from the smaller programs, but my Division 1-A connections faded quickly. I was undersized at 6’0 to play at that level, perhaps they were hoping I’d grow? Maybe they wanted a quarterback from a stronger program with a better background? Ultimately, I was not awarded any scholarship offers from the D-1 level schools. Even Boston College decided that they were going to go a different route, and I was left with several invitations to walk on: UNC, Kentucky, and Auburn to name a few.
I had been knocked down. My confidence was most definitely shaken. And for the first time in a long time I allowed myself to lay on the field. I contemplated giving up football altogether. Maybe I would just go to college and enjoy the experience? After all, football was becoming a pressure filled mess in my life. What happened to the way it used to make me feel, when I could lose myself in the moment? I began to analyze every step I made as it related to the game, and it led to my downfall. I couldn’t throw a spiral tight enough. I could hit a receiver in the chest with a bullet at forty yards but if it didn’t look like the perfect ball I wasn’t satisfied. I was a perfectionist, and I was torturing myself.
But after months of deliberation I decided to give it one last shot. Searching for my best opportunity to make it to the D-1A level, I investigated several JUCO programs. And I quickly learned that the best part of the country for that level of play was southern California – the Mission Conference. These teams were factories for national programs looking to fill vacancies in their rosters. Year after year countless players from the Mission schools transferred to college football’s power programs as sophomores or juniors. It appeared to be a great opportunity. So after a visit in the Spring, I settled on Golden West College. I loved southern California (it was paradise) and I was eager to leave the town where I had seen my dreams evaporate and start anew.
I fell in love with Huntington Beach immediately upon arrival. I made a couple of great friends through my connections on the team and was having the time of my life. I was 18 and I was on my own 3,000 miles away from home living the dream.
Summer camp began, and the issues from the previous fall were haunting me. My head wasn’t right for football. Remember what I said about “losing yourself” in the game and how you just “move and react”? I wasn’t doing either of those things. I was complicating it. I was overthinking every single throw that I made. I was extremely critical of myself, and the pressure was getting to me. I wanted to step off of the plane, win the starting job, and throw for 3,000 yards. But I couldn’t even get past the issues I was having with timing, accuracy, and delivery. I began to resent the game and what it was doing to me. And one day, in between practice sessions with one of my friends from the team, I decided to walk away from the sport and never go back. It was the first time that I had ever truly quit anything in my life. From one standpoint I felt relieved, but from another I also felt like a complete failure. And I knew that I had let my family down, and that hurt the most.
For the first time in my life, I recognized the power of my mind. I had allowed anxiety, pressure, and compulsive thoughts to determine the outcomes of my efforts while in pursuit of my dreams. I was struggling with something under the surface, but at the moment, I didn’t know exactly what it was…
It wouldn’t be long until it would make itself fully known to me and change the way that I lived my life forever…