BLOOMINGTON — When Indiana wide receiver D.J. Matthews ran a punt back 81 yards for a touchdown Saturday against Idaho, his biggest fan wasn’t in the stands but cheering a few states south as she watched her dad on TV.
Matthews’ 1-year-old daughter, named Seven because she was born on a Sunday, was with her mom in Georgia on this particular game day.
“She sees highlights,” Matthews said. “She still pretty much doesn’t know what’s going on right now because she’s still young. But she’s definitely watching, and she knows when her daddy is on in screen, and she’s happy.”
Fatherhood has changed perspective for Matthews, a one-time blue chip recruit out of Jacksonville, Florida, who was expected to achieve stardom at Florida State. But through three coaching changes and questions about whether his body would hold up playing Division I football, the 5-foot-11, 160-pound Matthews found himself being forced to prove himself every season in front of a new collection of coaches at FSU.
“It’s definitely a challenge. Just looking at me, I never pass the eye test for anyone,” Matthews said. “They look at him, and they say, like, ‘That guy is too small. He doesn’t even look like a football player.’ ”
The anxiety came to a head in 2020, when Matthews opted out of playing at FSU due to COVID-19 and put his name in the transfer portal. But it also was a blessing, Matthews said, because it allowed him to spend more time with his newborn daughter.
“I really found peace with myself last year as I was dealing with things I was dealing with, but she brought so much joy to my life. I was happy,” Matthews said. “You know, I just found myself again.”
Matthews gushes when he talks about being a dad and taking his daughter out on fishing and canoe trips.
“She likes music,” Matthews said. “She’s a very musical person. She likes instruments and stuff like that. I just try to do everything with her. I never want to keep her just, like, in one section. So I try to do a variety of things with her.”
The year away from the game also allowed Matthews to reasses his football future or, in his own words, “save my career.” He found two coaches who wanted him in IU head coach Tom Allen and IU wide receivers coach Grant Heard. The Hoosiers were in need of a slot receiver after Whop Philyor declared for the NFL Draft last January. The fact Matthews also was dynamic on special teams, having returned a punt 74 yards for a TD against Miami in 2018, was a bonus.
Matthews agreed to come IU in the spring semester of 2021 as a graduate transfer and immersed himself in a new playbook. He was named one of the most outstanding offensive players during spring drills.
“It was different concepts, different names,” Matthews said of the playbook. “But when you want to get on that field, you’ll learn.”
Matthews continued that strong play during fall camp, winning the starting slot receiver job, displaying speed, good hands and toughness.
“Genetics didn’t do him well,” Heard said. “But he’s not afraid to put his face in there, and you know what? That’s all we can ask him to do, get in the way, and hopefully we get the ball where it needs to hit. But he’s definitely not scared.”
There were some rocky moments for Matthews in his IU debut. He had a pass from quarterback Michael Penix Jr. carom off his hands and body, which led to Iowa returning the first of its two interceptions for TDs during a 34-6 loss. But Matthews bounced back in Week 2, making four catches for 21 yards against Idaho, including a diving 10-yard catch on a third-down conversion.
“Everything is not going to go as planned,” Matthews said. “You walk into great situations and a lot of things happen, a lot of adversity happens. It allowed me to just trust the process, just trust what God has given me, follow his steps and just see everything through.”
Matthews said his daughter will remain with her mom in Georgia while he keeps the focus on football this fall. But Matthews said any free moment away from the football facility is spent on FaceTime or Skype, so his daughter can see and talk to her dad on screen. It brings Matthews just as much joy.
“Not everyone is going to have a perfect day,” Matthews said. “You’re not going to have perfect practices. Your coaches are going to come out and chew you out.
“It helps me to regain my focus back to understand that I’m not doing this for myself anymore. I’m doing this for my family. I’m doing this for my daughter. I can’t let my daughter not see me going hard. I’ve got to have a certain drive for her, so she can understand how to make it through life when life gets hard, how to push through that adversity.”