Secret ingredient in James Madison Dukes' rise to championship football game in Frisco: Peanut butter

Published on Saturday, 7 January 2017 22:51 - Written by Chuck Culpepper, The Washington Post

FRISCO, Tex. - He gained 60 useful pounds at college, from 255 to 315, and to the question of how a human might do that, he replies, "I'd say peanut butter, a hundred percent." He played guard all along but also defensive line as a sophomore, an edifying quirk he calls "my study-abroad program."

After a Division II program told him he was too small to play guard, he moved up a tier in college football as a walk-on, and he rocked a mullet to make himself stand out to coaches. Now he's a fifth-year senior joining teammates he clearly loves in an outright dreamscape, and he's about to spend the winter and spring seeing if he might get a place in the NFL.

"It just seems like a perfect ending," he said.

Matt Frank, from Fairfax High School in Northern Virginia, is a reminder that the wildly imperfect thing we Yanks know as college football churns with lives and biographies and stories in all its tiers, and that these stories often shine with steep upward arcs. On Dec. 9 in a Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal, he and the James Madison Dukes took the team that spent the season ranked No. 1, Sam Houston State, and throttled it, 65-7. On Dec. 16 in a semifinal, they outdid themselves, going into the fearsome forest of the Fargodome, tangling with the beast coming off five straight national titles and beating North Dakota State, 27-17.

Come Saturday here in the upper right corner of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the Dukes (13-1), who lost this year only at North Carolina of the top tier, will play for a national championship against Youngstown State (12-3), whose head coach, Bo Pelini, used to coach Nebraska, and whose president, Jim Tressel, used to coach Ohio State. In one 315-pound case, it's a testament to determination, confidence, novelty, mullets and peanut butter.

"I told my [younger] brother [Daniel], 'I'm gonna be 300 pounds in college,' " Frank said. " 'I'm gonna hit that mark.' He said, 'I don't believe it.' Because no one in our family's even close to it."

He had food-foraging obstacles. Without a scholarship until last year, he had a standard 19-meal student plan, so he held jobs - at a Boys & Girls Club, cleaning homes for a man who rented them out - to help get the extra snacks and meals he so achingly required.

Turkey and chicken help, he said. "Cheeseburgers probably aren't the best way, but they're efficient, trust me," he said. But of the mighty peanut butter, he said, "That's something that will really help you keep weight on, and add it." He recommends it to younger players and feels for those with nut allergies.

He got to 320 at one point, pared to 300 and, with the current training staff, re-reached a 315 that feels less heavy, with more endurance, than his former 315.

"This recent [staff], they've been helping me kind of fix my weight a little bit," Frank said. "So it hasn't been bad weight, but they're kind of moving it around, with [coaches] Big John [Williams], Coach Markus [James], they've been working so that I'm able to hold the weight in a way I should. I think that's why this year, I've had the year I've had."

Further, a player who can't remember missing a practice in five years has smartened, more comfortable in the unsung position of guard. His rare detour through the defense helped.

"So with defense, it opened my eyes entirely," he said, "because I had been the offensive lineman for two years, and it's like, 'I didn't even realize this was why the D-tackle was crossing on this blitz, because the D-end's coming to fill his gap, so he has to go.' So on the offensive line I'm saying, 'If I know that D-end's coming across, if I know he's going B-gap, I know that the D-tackle can't go B-gap as well, so I might as well fit the A-gap because I know he's trying to come."

Eventually he took a deepened knowledge of the 22-man game - he raves about offensive line coach Jamal Powell's help - into that impossible Fargodome, where North Dakota State had never lost in 18 previous FCS playoff games. By then, and particularly after fifth-year center and fellow former walk-on Kyle Rigney got hurt in the first quarter, Frank could guide the freshman and redshirt freshman alongside him. Running back Khalid Abdullah rushed 23 times for 180 yards against the Bison and said: "I probably could have put my mom in. She could have run through some of those holes that big Matt Frank created."

It was a long way from P.E. class at 14, when a teacher he remembers as "Ms. [Jenny] Bonk" saw him run once and remarked that the last big guy who ran like that had ended up playing for the Redskins. That had been Will Montgomery at Centreville, and ever since then, Frank had a feeling that if he put in the work, who knew?

A batch of schools rang - New Hampshire, William & Mary, Penn, Franklin & Marshall, others - and when Frank chose James Madison as a walk-on, a coach told Doug Frank they couldn't get Matt much, maybe a laptop. Now Matt has crushed the adjective "undersize" and zoomed clear to Frisco and to age 22, comfortable in his skin, accepted into James Madison's graduate education program, yet eager to find out first if he might play football for a living.

First there's this whopping game, and there's the enviable sadness of the ending of the good, as when Rigney noted on the team flight that they just held their final practice at Bridgeforth Stadium. All through the vast quilt of college football, you run into cases of journeys where it all worked out, though seldom so smashingly as this.

 

Author Information:

Chuck Culpepper covers national college sports for the Washington Post.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Chuck Culpepper