Big Dream: A Little Luck


Matt Taffoni
Reprinted from 1993 Mountaineer Illustrated

Matt Taffoni was going to be a football player, plain and simple. His father Joe, a star lineman at WVU who played professionally with the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants, just couldn't wait to introduce his newborn son to the pigskin. So he took a football to the delivery room with him.

 
Linebacker Matt Taffoni (WVU Sports Communications photo)

"I have a picture of me with a football, my dad and Jack Gregory, who was my dad's Giant teammate," says the younger Taffoni with a chuckle.

Although the elder Taffoni undoubtedly had grand visions of Matt performing on the gridiron, he didn't prod his son into playing the sport. In fact, he wouldn't let his son play football until he entered the seventh grade.

"My dad didn't let me play pee-wee football," says the linebacker. "He wanted me to learn the game, so he taught me how to play correctly."

It worked.

Joe helped develop his son into one of the top prep players in New Jersey while coaching at Holy Cross High School. Named the Southern New Jersey defensive player of the year by the Brooks Irvine Club, Taffoni accumulated just about every prep honor imaginable.

Sifting through dozens of college offers, Taffoni narrowed his choices to North Carolina State, Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona State, Iowa and West Virginia. As a matter of fact, he almost decided to commit to N.C. State, that is until his father convinced him to take his visit to West Virginia.

"I almost didn't even visit here," says the junior. "I was all set to tell the Oklahoma coaches that I was going to go to N.C. State when my dad convinced me to look at West Virginia. So I came down here and just loved the place. It was over. I told Coach Nehlen before I left Morgantown that I was coming."

That decision made his dad happy. And Greg Luzinski.

That's right, Greg Luzinski, the Philadelphia Phillies great. The Bull.

No bull.

"I think he (Luzinski) was happier than my dad when I decided to come to West Virginia," says the psychology major. "His daughter (Kim) graduated from here and he is a big Mountaineer fan. My family (which includes mother Susan and sister Maria) and the Luzinskis all pile into the Winnebago and come to all of the Mountaineer games."

The West Virginia coaches were also happy to land the blue chipper. Earning playing time as a true freshman, it didn't take Taffoni long to catch the coaches' eyes with his aggressive play.

"I was really overwhelmed as a freshman," Taffoni admits. "I was moved to linebacker and I didn't know what I was doing. All I did was run around and try to tackle people."

When Taffoni says he didn't know what he was doing, that's not entirely correct. For a 3.7 student with aspirations of becoming a surgeon, "not knowing anything" really means not "knowing everything."

He takes that mentality and an armful of video tapes home with him every night. He rooms with Mountaineer safety David Mayfield, another first-rate student. They spend a lot of their free time dissecting next week's opponent. It's the need to be prepared -- to know what's going on.

"We do talk about football and watch videos at home, but we don't just sit around and talk about football all of the time. If we did that we'd go crazy."

They leave that to opposing offensive coordinators. Preparing for West Virginia's attacking defense has driven many coaches batty. Taffoni attributes West Virginia's defensive resurgence to some ingenious off-season adjustments by the coaching staff.

"Moving Darrick Wiley to rush end and moving Tim Brown inside with Wes Richardson have been great for our defense. We seem to be making more plays," says Taffoni.

"Moving me to the outside has really helped, too. I have more flat responsibility, I'm able to be involved in pass coverage and I can still be close to the action. That's helped me mentally."

Things weren't all rosy at WVU for the Medford, N.J., native. Recruited as a safety, Taffoni was perplexed when he was switched to outside linebacker.

"I was starting as a sophomore, but I was in a position that I didn't know anything about," says Taffoni. "It was a very tough time because it was hard for me to accept that I was a linebacker, especially when you look at my body type and physical attributes.

"Plus the team wasn't playing well, I was injured for the last three games and I was struggling in one of my classes. It was just a tough time for me."

Instead of pouting all winter, he spent time in the weight room and added nearly 15 pounds to his chiselled 218-pound frame.

Coming back to fall camp stronger and more confident, Taffoni was primed for a big 1993 season. When a hamstring injury slowed him during fall camp, local sportswriter Mickey Furfari asked Taffoni if he was worried about losing his starting job, to which he replied, "What, is Darryl Talley coming back?"

Now that's self-confidence. And it has become contagious throughout the entire defense.

For Taffoni, his junior season has been outstanding. Ranking fourth on the team in total tackles, he has also tallied two sacks, three tackles for a loss, five pass deflections and two interceptions, three if you count the intercepted two-point conversion attempt against Maryland. Taffoni's Syracuse performance was his most gratifying. It was Taffoni who was flagged for interference on a fourth-down play that led to the winning score in the 1992 20-17 debacle.

"Being able to beat them on national TV the way we did was a great feeling for me,~ he says. "I thought I played pretty well in that game. It was a game we all wanted to win pretty badly."

Now that energy and emotion at Syracuse will be transferred into this afternoon's game against Miami.

"They are a very good team," Taffoni admits. "Miami is a little different than last year. They have a great running game and a mobile quarterback. But it will be a little different when they come up here with our fans yelling things at them, cheering for us and everything else that comes with playing on the road. I hope it's 30 degrees with snow on the ground. That's real football weather."

And Matt Taffoni, football in his arms since birth, is a real football player, much to the delight of his proud father.

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