Walk On to Starter: Matt Lehman’s Journey to PSU
Rarely is a player’s first collegiate reception a touchdown. However, for redshirt junior Matt Lehman, that’s exactly what happened.
Late in the first half and leading Ohio 7-3, Penn State was set to strike. On third-and-nine from the Bobcat 14-yard, line Lehman had his number called — years of hard work culminating into one play. Finally.
The ball was snapped and Lehman delayed for a split second, then sprinted toward the sidelines unguarded. Quarterback Matt McGloin read the play and hit the tight end. With the ball in his hands Lehman quickly dodged an Ohio defender and dove into the endzone.
“It felt awesome,” said Lehman. “It was slow motion, but it also happened really quickly. I had so much going on in my mind after the score it was hard to focus on what was happening.”
Lehman’s journey to Penn State is far from normal. He transferred schools and even got married on his way to University Park.
Out of Newport high school in Newport, Pennsylvania, he was barely recruited for football. The only interest the 6-foot- 6-inch Lehman received came from Division II and III schools, including a small school in south central Pennsylvania called Shippensburg University.
“I went there on a recruiting visit and when I was there they didn’t seem interested in me,” said Lehman. “I talked to the football people and they said I could come in the spring if I wanted to walk on.”
Despite the little interest that Shippensburg showed in Lehman, he still decided to enroll. Instead of football, though, he looked to compete on the university’s track and field team and throw javelin for the Raiders.
That all would change after a visit to Carrier Dome in September 2008. The Penn State football team traveled to Syracuse to take on the Orange. The game was a slaughter, as the Nittany Lions rolled to a 55-13 win over the Orange.
Watching the game brought back Lehman’s desire to play football. However, with Shippensburg unwilling to give him a shot, he wanted to take a shot at walking on at Penn State. He would finish the year at Shippensburg and transfer to Penn State-Harrisburg campus in the fall.
Before his first semester at Harrisburg in August of 2010, Lehman married his long time girlfriend Krista. He would spend a semester with his wife in Harrisburg before transferring to University Park in the spring. His wife, who is a year younger, remained enrolled at Harrisburg while Lehman pursued his dream 100 miles away.
“I spent my whole freshman year at Penn State Harrisburg,” said Krista Lehman. “It was a little difficult at times, especially being newlyweds and not even living together.”
But they made it work.
“It was hard not getting to see each other every day but we made it through,” Mrs. Lehman said. “Some weekends, I would come to State College and spend the weekend with him and then have to travel to Harrisburg on Sunday mornings. It was a lot of traveling but we made it happen.”
Mrs. Lehman transferred to University Park for the start of the 2011 school year to join her husband in his mission to play football for Penn State.
From the day Lehman stepped on campus, it was time to go to work. He immediately got in contact with the football office. He was told a tryout date would be announced in the Collegian. It never was. As weeks went by, he started to worry.
Lehman once again contacted the football office only to find out he was days away from missing the tryout. The walk on meeting had already happened and most of the prospects were cleared for a tryout. He rushed between the compliance office at the Bryce Jordan Center and the Lasch football building to get his paperwork turned in.
At previous tryouts, prospects were able to compete in football related drills. Lehman’s tryout was the first where football was prohibited due to NCAA rules. Once on the football field, he did not disappoint.
“They had me run a 40 yard dash and NFL shuttle and based it off of that,” said Lehman “Coach Kavanaugh pulled me to the side after my first 40 and said, ‘You’re one of the guys we’re interested in and we’ll be keeping in touch.’”
A couple weeks later Lehman found out he would be invited to join the team for winter conditioning and spring practices, with a chance to make the team if he impressed. While his performance during spring practices was good enough to earn him a spot on the team, he didn’t see any playing time during the 2011 season.
The arrival of Bill O’Brien and his tight end heavy offense gave Lehman the chance he had been waiting for. ”With the new coaching staff I had a clean slate and they provided me with the opportunity that I needed,” Lehman said.
His size and speed created mismatches for defenses that make him hard to defend.
“He’s pretty hard to cover because he’s really tall and he has some of the better hands of the tight ends on the team,” said teammate and linebacker Drew Boyce ” When you cover him man-on-man it’s kind of a pain because he’s a lot taller than all of the linebackers and because he’s got pretty good hands.”
As much as Lehman wanted to succeed on the field, he still had other obligations off the field to take care of. He spent most of the year working at Weis Markets stocking shelves.
“Waking up, going to school and then having football practice till 7:30 and then having a few nights a week to go into Weis to work at 10 till 2 in the morning was pretty tough,” said Lehman “I would get five hours of sleep and wake up and do it again. I had to have a job to make some money and support Krista and myself.”
Lehman finished spring practice listed as the third “Y” tight end a position that is primarily reserved for blocking tight ends.
During summer workout sessions, Lehman was able to climb up the depth chart. He consistently won sprinting competitions during conditioning. He also improved in the weight room, adding 20 pounds of muscle to his frame, coming in at 258 pounds officially. His hard work didn’t go unnoticed.
“The guys joke with me a lot, especially the strength staff about being married, ” said Lehman. “They always joke saying I work so hard because I have eight kids at home to support, even though I don’t.”
Lehman’s increased size and speed proved to be the edge he needed to climb up the depth chart. On Bill O’Brien’s latest depth chart Lehman was the projected starter at the “Y/F” tight end. “F” tight ends are primarily receiving tight ends.
“Now I’m just trying to make the most of it,” said Lehman.
And if Saturday is any indication, he’s off to a great start.