The fact that TCU defensive end Matt Anderson is still playing football is a testament to his perseverance.
But his starting nod at right defensive end Saturday night against LSU is nothing short of amazing.
Three years ago, Anderson was one of three freshmen who played during the Horned Frogs’ 13-0 Rose Bowl-winning season.
The first game of his TCU career was at AT&T Stadium in the season-opening win against Oregon State, where he’ll return to the playing field for the first time in more than two years.
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“I thought maybe he’d get to where he just couldn’t, but he’s outlasted our expectations,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “It’s a success story.”
Anderson’s odyssey began during the fourth game of his senior year at Vanderbilt Industrial High School, a Class 2A school near the Texas Gulf Coast, less than 30 miles from Port Lavaca. On parents’ night against Refugio, Anderson, the team’s star running back with offers from TCU, SMU and Utah, came up limping and was forced to the sideline.
His mother, Melissa Gibbs, watched from the stands and knew it was serious when Matthew struggled to make a cut on the sideline for his coach.
Before it had barely begun, his senior season was over with a torn anterior cruciate ligament to his right knee.
At the time of the injury, Anderson was already committed to Utah, but TCU had started showing interest before the season and didn’t back down from its offer after the injury.
Upset but looking forward to playing again in college, Anderson visited TCU and switched his commitment. He wanted to be a Horned Frog.
By June 2010, Anderson had recovered from knee surgery when he arrived on campus for summer workouts. TCU recruited him as a safety, but a growth spurt gave Patterson different ideas.
“I remember working out as a freshman and Coach P coming up from behind me as I’m squatting and telling me, ‘You have the build of Jerry Hughes. We’re going to have to move you.’” Anderson recalled. “I didn’t really believe him at the time. [Former defensive end] Wayne Daniels actually confronted me in the locker room and said ‘I hope you know you’re moving, right? When he says that, you’re moving.’ I didn’t believe him.”
A week later, Anderson was in the defensive line meeting room. He was listed at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds. An injury to Clarence Leatch before the Frogs’ 2010 season opener pushed Anderson into second on the depth chart behind Daniels. He played in eight games, recording four tackles and forcing a fumble against Tennessee Tech. He was a rising star, ready to battle for the starting job in 2011.
But in the 2010 regular-season finale at New Mexico, Anderson began to chase the quarterback when he felt his knee buckle and heard a pop.
It was the same knee. His season was over with the monumental Rose Bowl announcement just a week away.
Another surgery, another long rehabilitation stood in front of him. This time, however, he wasn’t able to make a quick recovery. He missed the 2011 season while trying to recover.
But the knee never felt right. A scope surgery in January 2012 was performed to clean up his meniscus. It still wasn’t right. It buckled easily. Swelling was a constant headache. Jumping bothered it. Bending a certain way was painful.
It wasn’t worth continuing to play, was it? Another blow to a knee that had seen four surgeries?
‘You’re not taking football from me’
Anderson was sitting on an examining table in the TCU training room in the winter of 2012 with dread and anger swirling around his head. He was there for a meeting with his mom, Patterson and Dr. Joe Milne, TCU’s associate team orthopedic physician.
Milne started addressing the group, explaining that Anderson was in danger of permanently damaging his knee. Anderson lay down on his back.
“Matthew is not listening to you,” Gibbs said to Milne. “He’s shut down.”
Patterson asked Anderson to sit back up. What’s wrong, Patterson asked.
“You’re not taking football from me,” he told them.
Patterson and Milne explained that they were thinking of his health 10 years in the future.
“Dr. Milne was just looking down the road and what’s going to happen. If I keep messing up my knee I could be in a wheelchair by the age of 30,” Anderson said. “It came up and it kind of hit me. Do I want to continue or do I stop playing? I knew in my heart I wasn’t ready to stop playing, so why quit?”
Milne looked at Gibbs. “How do you feel about this?” he asked.
Gibbs had already seen all the work her son had gone through after several surgeries and the endless hours of rehab. And now, after all that, with the 2012 season unlikely, she worried about Matt’s health in the long run. She was scared for Matt and heartbroken that the game he had played since he was 6 was about to be taken from him.
“You want to protect your child, you don’t want to see your child get hurt anymore,” she said. “You understand what they’re talking about. But how do you look at your child and say, ‘I’m sorry, your dream is over.’”
So she didn’t.
“I looked at Matthew and said, ‘You’re a big boy. This is your decision. Whatever is going to make you happy I will support you 100 percent,’ and that’s what we did.”
Patterson said he would gladly accept Anderson on the team if that’s what he wanted. It was. No one was taking football away from him yet.
“I wasn’t going to settle for that,” Anderson said. “I’m probably not going to go to the league, so I might as well enjoy the time I have here. I’ve got two more years of football here, so why not continue it? If I can’t be a star player on the field I can help by being on the scout team. I can do anything to help push this team to win a championship or something. So why not try?”
Loving the game
But after a scope in January to clean out his knee, it felt better than it ever had. Suddenly, there was no pain. Anderson, now 6-3, 250 pounds, had a great spring and was listed behind Devonte Fields on the depth chart. Then, Fields’ two-game suspension in May for breaking unspecified team rules made Anderson the starter.
Gibbs struggles to find the words to match how the events in her son’s life have unfolded.
“I’m so looking forward to this game; words can’t even describe the emotions,” she said. “To see what that kid has gone through and to see him still standing there, and he hasn’t given up, and he’s going to play. The fact that that baby’s dream is still there and he’s still pursuing it? I am beyond proud of him.
“I can’t even explain how I feel about Matthew. He’s a wonderful kid.”
For Matt, returning to the field where his TCU career began is enough.
“It actually is a dream come true. It just kind of shows me that my determination not to quit and to push through the hard times was worth it, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “That’s basically how I feel right now, regardless if I am starting or just doing special teams.
“I’m just happy to be part of the team and out on the field contributing in any way I possibly can. Starting or not, as long as I get to play.”