The sun starts to sink behind the San Gabriel Mountains as the Oregon Ducks' kick return unit takes the field for the start of the 81st Rose Bowl. It’s Jan. 2, 1995, and Oregon’s opponents, No. 2-ranked Penn State, are heavy favorites.
This was the school’s first Rose Bowl in history, and only sixth bowl game since 1958, which only seems strange because of the sustained excellence that the Ducks have displayed in the years since -- five conference championships, and appearances in five BCS bowl games, including the 2010 BCS championship. Although the Ducks ultimately lost this game 38-20, the final score hardly matters in retrospect. This was the moment in which Oregon announced that it now belonged in games like this, and would be back.
Lined up on the Ducks’ kickoff unit is No. 89, Matt Reinhardt, a redshirt freshman from Littleton, Colorado. Reinhardt has seen action on special teams in every game of the season, although finding playing time elsewhere was a struggle. He’d shown enough, though, that the Rose Bowl appeared to be the start of big things for Reinhardt on the football field. It was easy to imagine him growing up with this surging program. The dreams of where things might have ended up -- back on the field at the Rose Bowl, hearing his name called in the NFL Draft, playing in the NFL -- are familiar, but not especially far-fetched.
However, rather than a start, the Rose Bowl marked the end of Reinhardt’s career. Eight months after leaving Pasadena, with little warning, Reinhardt informed his coaches, friends and family that he’d decided to leave Oregon, leave football, and leave college altogether. His reasons had nothing to do with failing classes, torn ACLs, NCAA violations, arrests or any of the other things that traditionally cause promising young football players to abandon the sport. While his teammates dreamed of NFL stardom, Reinhardt decided that his Sundays would best be spent in pursuit of another ritual.
“I love football,” Reinhardt says. “It wasn’t a decision between something I don’t like and something I really like. It was kind of like choosing between what I felt like were two loves.”
Matt Reinhardt is talking to me at a small café table next to the fountain in the middle of New York City’s Bryant Park on a bright afternoon in June of 2013. The sun is starting to work down behind the towering buildings lining the park to the south. Young men and women lounge around on the grass, soaking up the final rays of a perfect afternoon. Reinhardt is filling in the gaps of the last two decades.
When Reinhardt lined up at tight end for the Heritage High Eagles back in Littleton more than 20 years ago, a much younger version of me was split out at receiver down the line of scrimmage, a scrawny kid in a No. 82 jersey. In the football locker room, on the track team bus, and even in Ms. Kapostins’ German class, Matt (or “Rhino” to his friends) and I spent large portions of four years together.
Most of us on that team dreamt of playing college football. But Colorado is not a recruiting hotbed, and the level of play does not match programs in Texas, Florida or other big football states; the odds, for that reason and many others, were against us. Rhino was the exception, and became the only player on our team to play Division I-A football. He became the embodiment of our goals and dreams. He was the one who made it, and we knew he deserved it.
After departing for college, Rhino and I went opposite directions, almost literally. He traveled 1,000 miles northwest to play football in Eugene; I went 2,000 miles southeast to run track at Florida State.
The last time I remember seeing Rhino’s face was during that 1995 Rose Bowl. Back in Littleton on winter break, a few of us gathered to watch the game and cheer him on. We clapped for him as he ran down the field for each kickoff. We hooted when a close-up sideline shot of head coach Rich Brooks included Rhino standing behind him. We cheered like deranged relatives rooting on an "American Idol" contestant; one of our own had made it to the biggest stage in sports. There was nothing to do but cheer.
A few months later, when I next heard Rhino’s name, a mutual friend told me he had quit football and dropped out of school. In the absence of facts, there was much unfounded speculation on what drove him to do something none of us who dreamed of playing college football could imagine, but few answers. In the pre-social media world of the mid-'90s, all I heard of Rhino were third- or fourth-hand updates provided by friends.
After that Rose Bowl, he essentially disappeared from my life. He became more myth than man for me, a story to tell at sports bars that starts, “This guy I played football with in high school …”
But the man sitting at the café table with me in Bryant Park is no myth. After nearly two decades I tracked Rhino down in 2013. His hair has thinned, but he still looks much like the young man I knew in 1993; to outward appearances he’s just another businessman escaping the office for an afternoon meeting. Reinhardt is not that, though. He has a different boss, and works for a different purpose.
On that sun-splashed afternoon and in subsequent conversations, I finally gained some insight into why he left the life so many of us wished we could have had, and chose the one he currently inhabits.
Littleton, a sleepy suburb just south of Denver, is a world of endless subdivisions populated by middle- and upper-middle-class families, most of whose breadwinners do their breadwinning in Denver, 15 miles north. Ed and Pat Reinhardt, who grew up in Nebraska, moved to Littleton in 1972 and had six children -- five boys, John, Ed Jr., Tom, Paul and Matt, and a daughter, Rose.
John, the oldest son, was the first football player in the family, graduating from Heritage and, after inheriting a maniacal devotion to Big Red from his parents, walking on at the University of Nebraska. He played defensive line on the fabled 1983 squad that featured Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mike Rozier, dual-threat quarterback Turner Gill and All-American wide receiver Irving Fryar -- a team that fell a single two-point conversion short of winning the national title against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
The next oldest son, Ed Jr. (or Eddie), earned a football scholarship to the University of Colorado. As a sophomore tight end, his 10-catch, two-touchdown performance on opening weekend in 1984 against Michigan State made Eddie one of the leading receivers in the country. Matt was in the stands that day. “I remember being at the game as a 9-year-old,” he says, “and hearing his name on the announcements all the time -- ‘That’s my brother. He caught a touchdown!’”
Late in the second game of that season, on Sept. 15, 1984 against the Oregon Ducks in Eugene, Eddie caught a short pass and rumbled a dozen yards before two tacklers brought him down awkwardly, his head striking the ground. He got up and struggled to the sideline, but after only a few seconds he passed out. The hit burst a blood vessel in his brain.
Rushed to the hospital, Eddie underwent immediate emergency surgery. He survived, but remained in a coma.
The Reinhardt family raced to Eugene after the accident and found Oregon assistant coach Neal Zoumboukos, who had earlier tried to recruit Eddie to play for the Ducks, waiting for them. Given his existing relationship to the family, he acted as their liaison during the time in Eugene.
Eddie remained in the Oregon hospital for more than a month, deep in a coma. Matt was in fourth grade, so while his parents remained in Eugene, Matt tried to return to school and some semblance of normalcy. After several sleepless nights, he returned to Eugene. “I was up there for a month at his bedside while he was in a coma,” he says. “I’d read letters to him. All of the fan mail that would come in or the well-wishes.”
Seeing his brother immobilized was frightening, but in the midst of the fear, what Matt remembers most is something else -- the strength of his mother, “[My mom] was a spiritual force in our family” Matt says. “Seeing her faith in action with Eddie’s accident was, for me as a kid, a way to see that in tragedy or when things get difficult in life, God is always there for you.”
Pat Reinhardt remembers, too. “I don’t know how anyone goes through tragedy without something to lean on.”
Eddie was finally transferred back to a Colorado hospital, and after 62 long days, emerged from his coma. Doctors told the family that even though Eddie had beaten the odds and survived an injury that kills 90 percent of the time, he suffered severe brain damage. The prognosis was that Eddie would live the remainder of his life in a vegetative state.
Enlisting family, friends and an army of volunteers, the family focused on proving the doctors wrong. They embarked on an aggressive rehabilitation plan, providing the kind of constant care and attention that over time helped Eddie re-learn much of what he had lost -- the ability to walk, talk, read and write, and all those other things that everyone else takes for granted. The man predicted to live his life completely dependent on others eventually learned to live something close to a normal life. On the 10th anniversary of the accident, Eddie’s inspiring story was documented by a long profile in Sports Illustrated.
“I got a lot of satisfaction in helping with this therapy and giving of myself to help someone else get better.” Matt says now, “It really got me out of myself. It helped me see there is a lot more joy in giving than in receiving … Adolescents just think of ourselves … [but helping rehabilitate Eddie] was something to help me get out of that.”
One day, as the family focused on rehabbing Eddie, Father Robert DeRouen, a retired Jesuit priest, arrived at the Reinhardts' door. “Father Bob” asked if the Catholic family had been able to continue to attend Mass given the all-consuming effort focused on Eddie’s rehabilitation. Ed Sr. replied that they tried to attend when possible, some going to morning Mass, others in the evening -- whatever worked around the rehabilitation schedule.
Feeling it was important for the family to focus on faith as a unit, Father Bob began coming to the Reinhardt home each week and, for the next six years, delivered a private Mass at their dinner table. “It helped me and my family … to come to grips with why this happened. To find answers. I found a lot of truth in the gospel when it comes to that accident.”
Whereas many of his classmates defined their childhood as playing with their friends, sports, school and fun, Matt’s upbringing overnight became much more than that; a testament to the power of faith, sacrifice and service. Unbeknownst to those attending class with him, the foundation for his future was being laid every night and morning while helping Eddie.
“Even back then, I thought, 'Wow, it would be great to do something in my life that would be helping others,” he told me. “To see that there is something bigger and even more important than that in the world and in life. So that was the two things, the spiritual and the service.”
It would have been understandable, in the wake of the accident, if the Reinhardts turned their back on football entirely; if Matt looked at his brother lying prone in a hospital bed or learning how to spell simple words and decided not to play. But a short time after the accident, Ed Sr. and Pat sat their younger children down and he told them he would encourage them if they chose to continue playing. Matt recalls, “I remember them saying, 'Look, this is a difficult sport. It’s a tough sport. It’s a dangerous sport and everyone plays it at their own risk.'”
The following season, Tom, a promising defensive lineman, earned a football scholarship to the University of Colorado and Matt played organized football for the first time. “In the mind of a fifth grader I just said, ‘OK, I will play because I want to play.' [My neighbor] was playing on that team; I wanted to play with him. A couple other friends I knew from my school were playing. It was more of a social thing, I think, than really reflecting on, ‘Hey this could happen to me.’ There was a disassociation there."
By the time Matt entered high school, he started at tight end and defensive end on the football team, played basketball, threw the shot put and was named captain for all three varsity teams. On a run-oriented Heritage team, Matt’s all-around athleticism and family pedigree still stood out, even if his stats did not. Offers to play Division I college football started coming in.
Neal Zoumboukos had continued to recruit players from Colorado for the Ducks and remained in touch with the family to monitor Eddie’s progress. Eventually that led the school to look at Eddie’s youngest brother and ask themselves if he might fit as a Duck. When Oregon decided to offer Matt a scholarship, Zoumboukos led the recruiting effort. Despite options closer to home, Matt’s choice came down to the University of Arizona or Oregon.
He was already familiar with the culture and people of Eugene, but Arizona was intriguing enough that Matt made a recruiting visit to Tucson. His on-campus host, who later went on to a prominent NFL career, took particular pride in showing off the stacks of empty beer cases stretching from wall to wall around his apartment. Compared to the familial atmosphere he saw in Eugene, the experience made Matt’s decision easy.
In the small world of Colorado high school football, Matt’s decision was big news. On national signing day, the Denver Post highlighted Matt’s decision on the front page of the sports section. While some, including his own mother, found it difficult to imagine that he would choose to attend school in the city where his family endured such heartbreak, Matt says that he didn’t think of the tragedy when he thought of Oregon. He thought only of the care and concern of the community in the days afterward.
“I wanted to leave Colorado. Partially to get out of my brother’s footsteps,” he says. “[But] I was really drawn to Oregon because of the coaches.” Even today, he thinks of the coaching staff as a family.
While that may be the oldest cliché in the recruiting handbook, the Duck’s coaching staff had a degree of continuity rare in college football. Rich Brooks, the head coach of the Ducks at the time, had been the head coach since 1977. When Brooks left for the NFL in 1995, he was followed as head coach by Mike Bellotti, who served as head coach through 2008, when he became Athletic Director for a year before moving to the TV booth. Of the coaches on staff when Reinhardt signed with Oregon 20 years ago, five still coached in Eugene in the 2013 season. Although Zoumboukos left the Ducks coaching staff in 2007 to act as a Special Assistant to the Athletic Director before retiring, he still lives near the university.
People that come to Eugene tend to stay. That was what brought Reinhardt there, as much as anything else.
Reinhardt arrived at Oregon in the fall of 1994. “They redshirted everyone in that freshman class,” he says. ”Unless you are a De’Anthony Thomas, you don’t play your freshman year. “ But that wasn’t necessarily bad news for Reinhardt. It allowed him time to adjust to the newfound freedoms that defined living away from his family for the first time.
“My first year I was exploring, ‘Hey, what do I want to do? Is this really who I am? Is this really what I want to do?’” After years of disciplined focus on school, sports and service to Eddie, he had the opportunity to see what else was out there. Like every other 18- or 19-year-old, he was trying to define himself, and he enjoyed some of the spoils of being an athlete at a large campus; loud parties, pretty girls and seemingly bottomless beer.
While many students fall into the rabbit hole of a collegiate social life and never find their way out again, Reinhardt responded differently. “I remember having that moment: 3 o’clock in the morning, laying on my bed, thinking, ‘OK, I am playing college football. I’m getting good grades. I have a scholarship. I have great friends. Kind of the American dream, having everything you want. But why is there still something missing?’ And it is something deeper. And it’s not going to be filled by having more parties or having more whatever … [I did feel a] kind of a yearning within me for something more.”
Searching to fill that deeper need, he joined Athletes in Action, the local chapter of a national organization that unites Christian athletes in their faith. He then found a local Catholic Church and became a regular at Sunday Mass. While he continued to enjoy his independence and having fun with his friends, the Church took on an increasingly prominent role in his life.
After one season as a redshirt, in 1994 Reinhardt looked forward to returning to live game action. He missed the opener versus Portland State with an ankle injury, but earned a plane ticket to the team’s second game at Hawaii. Just like his brother, the events of the second varsity college football game during his second year in college would shape his future.
Late in the game, Oregon kicked off. Hawaii’s Carlos Anderson gathered the ball at the goal line and burst up field. At the 16-yard line, as Anderson slowed to cut, Oregon’s Curtis Moore hit him from behind, causing Anderson to turn, just as Matt arrived at a full sprint. Reinhardt launched forward, striking Anderson helmet-to-helmet. Anderson’s helmet went flying. He crumbled to the turf, face down, and did not get up.
Although a similar hit may well earn a penalty today, at the time it caught the eye of the defensive coaches and resulted in a few cameo appearances on the defensive side of the ball for Reinhardt later in the season. But, in the moment, Matt didn’t know that. All he knew was that a player lay motionless on the turf, an eerie quiet had descended on the stadium and an ambulance was coming on the field. The parallels to Eddie’s accident were frighteningly obvious.
Anderson suffered a concussion, but was released from the hospital before the game had even ended, the news of which was relayed to Matt by the coaching staff. After the game, Coach Zoumboukos sought Reinhardt out. “It was a concern to me … right after the game he and I got together and talked about it; then talked more about it the subsequent week.”
Reinhardt won’t draw a direct line from the hit to his decision later that year, but it is hard to not see it as yet another marker pointing him down a path. While Anderson still lay on the field being attended to by medics, Matt had quietly walked off alone on the sideline to kneel and pray. Later in that same game, Oregon receiver Kory Murphy suffered a spinal injury that ended his career.
“That was kind of a wake-up moment,” Reinhardt says. “There is more to life than football. There is definitely risk involved … It made me think a little bit.”
The Ducks lost to Hawaii, one of two losses in their first three games, but they then rallied to go 8-1 through the end of the regular season including an upset win over No. 9 Washington. That victory allowed them to claim the Pac-10 title and book their first trip to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl since 1958.
Reinhardt continued to play on special teams and -- due to the big hit versus Hawaii -- occasionally on defense. “We were looking for ways to get Matt on the field,” says Zoumboukos. He was battling three other tight ends for playing time, all of whom would ultimately make the NFL, but the coaches wanted to ensure a gifted athlete wasn’t stuck on the bench. In his junior year, Reinhardt was almost certain to get significant playing time, if not at tight end, then somewhere else. He knew that when he decided to give it all up.
Scott Goldie, a high school friends who remained close to Reinhardt after graduation recalls that Reinhardt, “began to socialize less and less and become more insular” before his junior season, as he started spending more time at church. “I think it was his way of preparing for the break in friendship.”
As Reinhardt’s interest in pursuing a role in the church grew, in June of 1995 he visited a retreat in Connecticut to validate his faith, a process called “test your call.” There he joined more than a hundred other young men wearing identical black cassocks, all working toward the same goal. While the scope of their mission differed greatly in concept, in one sense it was similar to committing to a football team. The appeal to Matt was obvious. “I went and visited for a week or so and thought, ‘Hey, this is where I need to be.’"
The Church wasn’t going anywhere; Matt could have finished his college career before leaving. There was no earthly compulsion that made him make the decision he did, when he did. But faith is not necessarily a practical thing.
“This is the moment where I think it is time to do it,” he explains now, ”I had this sense that if I wait three years until I finish, I don’t know if I will really want to take this step anymore. So I kind of felt like a calling at that moment.”
“There is a sense that when you feel a call from the Lord, [you] go immediately,” he continued. “When you read about how God calls, sometimes it is, ‘I really feel like I need to start something new in my life, turn a new page.’ Sometimes there is a moment that comes and that this is the moment.”
His brother’s injury and the Hawaii game were significant, but Reinhardt doesn’t believe any singular occurrence led to his decision. “I felt like in my heart, that it was time at that moment, to say, ‘Hey, I’ve given 10 years of my life to football. Among all of my brothers and family, we have probably given 30 years. It’s been a good run. I am going to try something else.’”
At the end of the summer Reinhardt returned to Eugene to begin his Junior year, but after only a few days he called his parents to inform them he had chosen to enter the seminary immediately and study for the priesthood. He already had a plane reservation. He asked them to meet him during a layover at Denver airport. Surprised by the suddenness of the move, his parents agreed, but they insisted he also inform his coaches in person before leaving Oregon.
Zoumboukos still recalls the meeting. “He came in and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ In my mind, I knew it was for the right reasons. Sometimes kids come in and say, ‘I am leaving school,’ and you question their motivation. In Matt’s case, I didn’t have that question simply because I knew how strong the faith of the family was. It made perfect sense to me.”
The following day, the Reinhardts drove to the Denver airport to say goodbye. The meeting was brief but emotional. Matt was certain of his decision. As his mother recalls, while she stood next to her husband with tears in her eyes, Matt walked down the ramp to the plane, looked back at her through his own tears, and made the sign of the cross before turning away and walking on.
Reinhardt landed at The Seminary of the Archdiocese of Monterrey; a large, modern complex isolated on the hills outside Monterrey, accessible via a winding dirt road. Over the course of his year-and-a-half years there, Reinhardt pondered the precise path to best heed his call. One led to the ordained priesthood, an eight-to-10-year journey. Another led to the role of permanent missionary as a consecrated layman in the Regnum Christi organization.
As Matt describes it, Regnum Christi is a sect of the Catholic Church aimed at helping “ordinary people become more aware of their spirituality in the Catholic Church and share that spirituality with others.”
At the core of Regnum Christi are those known as consecrated men and women who take the same vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as ordained priests, but live and work as ordinary members of society. Eventually, Reinhardt chose to become a consecrated man.
“We focus on having the person in the center and try to prepare people to live their Christian faith. We help them develop their spirituality and we also help them go out and try to share that spirituality with other people,” Matt says. “So, that’s kind of like what I lived as a kid. We had this priest coming over and I was growing my spirituality and then with this work with Eddie was giving this spirituality to him and to the other people.”
Reinhardt moved to Regnum Christi affiliated Anahuac University in Mexico City to complete his education. There, he boarded with other missionary students to ease the social and cultural adjustment, creating what he calls “kind of like a fraternity life with a strong Catholic identity and spirituality.”
When not in school studying toward his business degree, Matt visited Mexico’s poorer regions on missionary trips. “We did a lot of work with the poorest of the poor,” he says. “Some of my classmates were the richest of the richest families in Mexico. The next weekend I would be going out and working with people living in shacks in the hill country.”
After graduation, Reinhardt’s role as a permanent missionary allowed him to serve as a teacher, counselor and mission organizer at Regnum Christi schools, initially in Mexico and then Georgia and Texas. “I have a commitment to go where I am needed in our movement,” he says. Working in schools enabled him to help young people discover their larger purpose, just as he had during his own childhood after Eddie’s accident. “Food drives, visiting old folks’ homes, door-to-door missions. Everything you can imagine to help kids get out of themselves and do something good for the world, we have done it.”
At the same time, Regnum Christi started re-examining its own purpose. In 2006, a wide range of misdeeds by its founder came to light, ranging from fathering children with young women to alleged sexual abuse of boys. “It gets kind of ugly, but it’s the truth,” Matt says. “There are a lot of great people in the organization, but you know what they say, ’Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”
As a result, a Cardinal assigned to oversee Regnum Christi’s renewal determined that the group needed a closer level of leadership. Once again, Matt Reinhardt answered the call to service and he was tapped to take on an increased role, serving as regional director for all Regnum Christi men in the United States and Europe. “This role … is a brand new position because of this renewal process. We saw that we needed more attention for the guys doing what I am doing.”
Today, while he helps reshape the mission of Regnum Christi, he also yearns to return to his work with young people. In 2013, he received a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and is currently commuting to study at a small psychological institute in Washington, D.C. “For 11 or 12 years, I did a lot of counseling with youth and parents, but I didn’t have the technical training,” he says. “So that is where I would like to go in the future -- more of an official counseling role.”
Reinhardt’s three decades in pursuit of his calling served to put considerable space between himself and the life he’d known, and he is only now closing that distance. His visits to see his parents and family -- including Eddie, whose remarkable recovery continues -- have just started to become more substantive in recent years. Friends he said goodbye to in 1995 now have families and children that he has never met. Only in the past few years has social media enabled him to reconnect with high school friends like Scott Goldie, who, in 2013, he saw for the first time in 20 years.
We tend, with varying degrees of intensity, to regret the mistakes we made as youths; it can be difficult and even painful to imagine that the person who made those lousy decisions is still somewhere in the older and ostensibly wiser face in the mirror. Yet, Reinhardt, who answered a call that altered the course of his entire life, admits to no such regrets. “It is kind of like in sports,” he says. “If someone misses a tackle or misses a catch, what their mind has to do is say, ‘I am leaving that and I am going to do the very best I can on the next play.’”
The coach he left behind in Eugene also sees no reason for Reinhardt to second-guess his decision. “The call to any kind of a spiritual life is very special,” Zoumboukos says. “And for that reason, I have the utmost respect for Matt. But beyond that, the call to serve young people whether it’s as a teacher or as a counselor is, I think, a very selfless act. It takes a special person to do that sort of thing.”
After an hour in the sunshine on that early June New York afternoon, Rhino and I get up from our chairs. In the span of a single short hour, 20 years of distance melted away; we agreed to get together again with some other friends on his next visit to Colorado later in the summer.
We parted ways, finally. I turned up Sixth Avenue, heading home. Rhino took his turn on 42nd Street, and I watched him go, his large rolling suitcase trailing behind him. He was off to the airport for a flight to Rome and meetings at the Vatican. I watched him for a bit, weaving through a crowded sidewalk, against the rush of people walking in the other direction, before he finally disappeared.
Images courtesy of Matt Reinhardt.