Logan • The broken foot came as a shock. The knee injury simply was heartbreaking — and potentially career-ending.
Matt Austin missed two years of football recovering physically and emotionally. The knee injury was so bad that doctors said they never had seen anything like it.
Yet, on Saturday against UNLV, Austin will take the field at Romney Stadium as Utah State’s top receiver. He’s back fulfilling the promise that made him Gary Andersen’s top offensive recruit of 2009. NFL scouts have made the trek to Logan, and he has at least a fighting chance to play professionally.
“I love the game so much more now,” Austin said. “Going through what I went through has given me a new appreciation of everything. I don’t take anything for granted anymore.”
Austin never had been seriously injured until 2009. He came home from a workout with what he believed to be nothing more than a tweaked foot. When the pain persisted, an MRI told a much more difficult story.
“It put a wrench in everything,” is how his father, Phillip Austin, put it.
The next year was worse.
The Austin family gathered around the living room television for the 2010 season opener at Oklahoma. For a half, Austin was great. He caught a pass for 59 yards. A quarter later, he caught a sideline route from Diondre Borel. His knee buckled, rupturing his patella tendon, tearing his quadricep muscle and dislocating his knee cap. In the days following, he fell into a deep depression, wondering how his Division I career possibly could end essentially before it started.
To this day, his mother, Melissa, refuses to watch him play for fear that he will suffer another injury.
“It had me questioning a lot of things,” Austin said. “The second injury was definitely much harder to take.”
Andersen preaches words like toughness and resiliency, traits he demands of himself and his players. It can be argued that nobody, not even the great Robert Turbin, has shown more of both than Matt Austin.
He’s a sixth-year senior now, 24 years old, a team captain and a major cog in Utah State’s surprising 3-1 start to the 2012 season.
Austin caught six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in a 31-19 win over Colorado State on Saturday. Already with a degree in sociology and a second on the way in general studies, he is the definition of a student athlete. As the Aggies’ top threat on the perimeter, Austin has drawn double-teams in each of USU’s four games.
He would have it no other way.
“I was hurt for two years in a row,” Austin said. “Believe me, it was the worst feeling ever. I was only supposed to be here for two years.
“A lot of people would’ve given up. But I wanted to prove that the coaches knew what they were doing when they recruited me.”
For years, Phillip Austin served as what you call the “all-time” quarterback, slang children use for street pickup games, where one player serves as the signal-caller for both teams. That player usually is a father, or perhaps an older brother. Phillip Austin was the chosen one for his son’s particular group.
A confident man with a strong voice and stronger convictions, he used to tell 9-year-old Matt to run as far as he could, turn and look for the deep ball.
Then he intentionally would overthrow him.
“Matt would get angry all the time,” Phillip said. “He would run into the house and say that he wasn’t playing anymore. It was frustrating for him.”
Eventually, Matt Austin kept running. And kept running. The day came when Phillip Austin couldn’t overthrow him anymore.
Father and son both credit those times when asked how Austin has become the player he is. Today, he’s one of the most difficult receivers to cover one-on-one in the Western Athletic Conference. At a sturdy 6 foot 3 and 200 pounds, Austin is the master at catching the fade route. It’s the reason that he could have a professional future as a possession receiver.
“He’s somebody who must touch the football,” Andersen said. “He’s our best receiver and he’s a playmaker and a leader.”
Austin has three touchdown catches in four games. When the injuries occurred, Austin didn’t know whether he would play another down.
The days following the knee injury were the worst. Phillip and Melissa called. Their son was slurring his speech, in so much pain that the painkillers weren’t working. They asked Matt what time of day it was. He told them he didn’t know whether it was day or night.
Phillip and Melissa were on the next plane to Utah from Pasadena, Calif.
“We knew we had to go up there and help out,” Phillip said. “We got there and he had trash bags over the window. His laundry wasn’t done.
“His room was dark. No wonder he didn’t know what time of day it was.”
Austin eventually recovered emotionally. That was the first step.
Then he recovered physically. His football life became much better.
He played all 13 games in 2011, leading the team in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns. He caught a pass in 13 consecutive games.
He hooked up with Adam Kennedy for the game-winning touchdown passes against San Jose State and New Mexico State.
Matt Austin doesn’t know whether or not he will make the NFL. But he plans to play the game as long as it will have him. No regrets has become a motto for him. He eventually wants to become a firefighter.
“He’s done everything that I’ve asked of him,” Melissa Austin said. “I’ve been very proud of him. He promised me that he would graduate from school and he’s done that.”
Matt Austin file
2007-08 • Played at Mount San Antonio junior college in California. Had 71 catches for 1,134 yards as a sophomore
2009 • Broke his foot in a workout in his hometown of Pasadena, Calif. Missed the entire season
2010 • Ruptured his patella tendon in the first half of a season-opening loss to Oklahoma. Missed the entire season
2011 • Led Utah State in receptions, yards and reception touchdowns. Caught three game-winning touchdown passes. Was granted a sixth season of eligibility
2012 • Has three touchdown catches in four games