There will never be another Aztec like Jesse Matthews

Jesse Matthews celebrates Mekhi Shaw's touchdown. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Jesse Matthews brings in a pass against Idaho State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Among the stranger sights at SDSU’s practices, this spring is players wearing the jersey of recently departed Aztecs. For the past three years, Keshawn Banks made #2 a fixture among the defensive line. Now, a slimmed-down Jaylon Armstead dons the number in running back drills. Kicker Gabriel Plascencia has relocated Michael Shawcroft’s #46 among the specialists.

One jersey that kept the same address with the wide receivers but has a different owner is #45. Made famous by a hometown hero and star, the number now belongs to Nino Remigio. A 5’11, 165 lbs walk-on, the Saddleback Junior College transfer is a fitting reminder of the legacy of the number’s previous owner.

With all due respect to Remigio, who was part of a 4 x 100 relay team at Mater Dei High School that ran 1.09 seconds off the national record, there will never be another Aztec like Jesse Matthews.

Jesse Matthews on Senior Night with Brady Hoke. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Matthews came to the Mesa from nearby Christian High. During his junior season, when schools make their recruiting boards, he was a role player. Even though he showed terrific hands, route running, and body control on his way to 57 receptions, 915 yards, and 16 touchdowns his senior year, he did not garner much attention from teams at the next level.

“I had almost no recruiting,” Matthews said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast. “There were no scouts coming to talk to me. … my senior year, I had a pretty good season stats-wise. I was a leader and captain of the team, but still did not a lot of attention from college scouts. … I had no DI offers, obviously. I had no DII offers. I had a couple of DIII coaches talk to me, and that was really the extent.”

“But, I sent in my film to San Diego State, just a shot in the dark and seeing what they would think about it, just more of like an evaluation to see if I had a shot at playing that the next level. That was really my goal. I sent my film over, and luckily they got back to me and would take me as a preferred walk-on. It was my foot in the door, and I kind of ran with it from there.”

How would history have been different if SDSU had not done its due diligence and trusted what it saw on film?

Matthews came into the program not expecting quick success but found it anyway. He earned Scout Team MVP during his redshirt season. The following year, he started all 13 contests and was second on the team in receptions (48) and yards (633). A week following the final game of the regular season against BYU, then head coach Rocky Long awarded him a scholarship at a Monday afternoon team meeting.

“It was about to wrap up, and then, coach Long called up Juwan Washington and all the seniors, and he said, ‘I think we have one more announcement we’re going to make,’” Matthews recollected with a smile. “Juwan stood up there, and he was reading from a letter and said, ‘this letter is awarding an athletic scholarship for the 2020-2021 academic school year.’ At the very end, it said, ‘congratulations to Jesse Matthews.’ All the guys jumped on me. They’re going crazy, water is being thrown.”

Jesse Matthews’ hands are an elite NFL skill. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“I still just have those emotions, and it gets me choked up thinking about it still. Just feeling validated for all that work that you’ve put in and being rewarded so quickly. I would have never imagined it, but I serve a very giving God. He’s blessed me with a lot of things. … experiencing that so early in my career was something very special to me.”

Over the next few years, the program closed Jack Murphy Stadium, switched coaches, labored through a global pandemic, played exclusively on the road for two seasons, and opened Snapdragon Stadium. During his time on the Mesa, SDSU transitioned from a run-first offense to a more balanced approach. The move did not always go smoothly, with a different QB leading the offense each of the past four seasons.

Matthews was the one constant through it all.

He was instrumental in the success of the Aztecs and, unquestionably, the best offensive player on the team over his four seasons. He joined Will Blackwell and JR Tolver as the only players in school history to lead the team in receptions three consecutive years. Without him, at this critical juncture in the changing landscape of college football, it is doubtful SDSU would be such an attractive conference expansion candidate.

“That’s great for the program and for the whole school,” Matthews said when asked about SDSU’s potential move to the Power Five. “We live in the best city in the world or in the country at least. I think we’re a destination that’s very attractive to recruits. The only thing we’ve been missing is that Power Five dynamic. That title holds a lot of weight for recruits. I think it’s going to happen, and when that does happen, it’s going to be a huge shift for the program, something that changes the trajectory of our program. I’m really stoked for that possibility and to see where we go as a school and athletic department. Very exciting times at San Diego State and to be an Aztec fan right now.”

Jesse Matthews tries to hurdle a Hawai’i defender.  (Don De Mars/EVT)

What makes Matthews special is the unique blend of humility and confidence that he possesses. Personally, he is inviting and every bit the same kid from Christian High. He also shows the comfort-in-his-own-skin mentality that is often a byproduct of stardom. It is this mix that will serve him well at the next level because he will keep the edge and effort of an underdog while knowing he can be the best player on the field.

Matthews was invited to the Hula Bowl to showcase his talents in front of NFL personnel. There he was told that he has the look of “someone who is going to stick around and make the team.”

He was not invited to the NFL Combine, so his next opportunity to impress scouts will be SDSU’s Pro Day on March 17. There he plans to show that he has gotten stronger and faster since his time as an Aztec. He has been working out in Florida with other draft prospects perfecting the drills he will run on that day. Like a true gamer, Matthews is focused on the task at hand but is anxious to get back to playing real football.

No story about Matthews’ time at SDSU would be complete without mentioning his relationship with former wide receivers coach Hunkie Cooper. Cooper evaluated the film that Matthews sent in when he was unsure if he had a future in football and offered him the preferred walk-on spot. Over the past five years, the two have formed a bond that can only be described as beautiful.

“I don’t say this lightly,” Matthews said with tears in his eyes. “I think (Cooper)’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s such a special person. He’s done so much for me and for so many of these guys. He’s done a lot and he’s a great guy. I know whatever his next step in his life, wherever God’s leading him, I know he’s going to do great things. I know he’s going to be a huge impact on these young kids and young men.”

“That’s what he does. He changes young men, and he changes their lives outside of football. I really can’t say enough good things about him. Obviously, it gets me a little emotional thinking about it. He’s special. He’s someone who is going to be in my life forever. I’m very fortunate to have someone like that in my life that is so supportive and sees so much in me, and really just poured his knowledge his support into me. I’m not here without him. That’s just a fact. I don’t develop into the man I am, the receiver I am. I don’t get a shot at San Diego State without him.”

SDSU’s new offensive coordinator Jeff Horton flanked by WR coach Hunkie Cooper and QB coach Ryan Lindley. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Cooper’s legacy will continue to live on in his prized pupil, who, at his core, is a San Diegan. Matthews lists Ha-Seong Kim as his favorite athlete, narrowly beating out Fernando Tatis and Manny Machado. Despite being an elite athlete, he relished the Padres’ NLDS series victory over Dodgers from inside Petco Park just like every other native born and raised in America’s Finest City. On the road training for his NFL dream is the first time he has been away from the city of his birth for an extended period of time.

It is this rootedness that is at the heart of what makes Matthew’s story so compelling. He was not the first walk-on to earn a scholarship. Others, most notably Mekhi Shaw, have already followed in his footsteps, but he raised the consciousness for every prep athlete in the city without college offers.

During his time on the Mesa, Matthews carried himself with class and dignity. If anyone had the right to complain about the difficulties in the passing game, it was Matthews. With more consistent play from the position, he could be leaving SDSU as the school’s all-time receiving leader. He did not just take the high road, he created it for the team.

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His refusal to air his grievances publicly is why the throwing struggles did not divide the team. If the star wideout is able to weather the storm, bounce back, and continue working as if the Aztecs were the Greatest Show on Turf, everyone else on the offense had to do the same.

He could have transferred away from the problems but instead chose to uplift his hometown school when it needed him most. Matthews was rewarded with his favorite memory as an Aztec, SDSU’s comeback victory over Boise State to end the 2021 regular season, and the opportunity to open Snapdragon Stadium the following year.

Whether it was the circumstances that created the legacy or the person who stepped up during the most unique time in program history, this much is clear, there will never be another Aztec like Jesse Matthews.

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