November 30, 2011

Mission Possible: BYU's Matheson Finds Maturity in Fiji

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

It took time for Pat Matheson to acclimate to wearing a sulu during his two-year Mormon mission in Fiji, but the experience has made him a better lacrosse player.

Pat Matheson meant well. It's just that sometimes a big old Utah boy doesn't always easily transition to the Fiji Islands.

Fijians aren't unfamiliar with 6-foot-6, 235-pound guys like Matheson – they can grow 'em pretty big out there – but when you get an interloper who isn't familiar with wearing a "sulu," the traditional Fijian attire that resembles a skirt, sometimes things get lost in translation.

"You sit cross-legged on the floor, and I'm not the most flexible dude, so my long legs kind of exposed some things," said Matheson, with a chuckle. "The Fijian people are the most loving people you'll ever meet in your life, but at the same time, they're not afraid to be open with you about your mistakes."

Matheson's wardrobe malfunction was one of the few uncomfortable moments during his two-year Mormon mission to the island group, which is located roughly 1,300 miles north of New Zealand. Yes, there were also a couple of early attempts at speaking Fijian that resulted in inadvertent curse words. "That was embarrassing," admitted Matheson. "But other than that, it was a great time learning the people and the culture."

His time in the tropics has also paid dividends for Matheson upon his return to the states. After a two-year immersion in the language, Matheson now teaches Fijian at Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, giving those students who are about to embark to Fiji a two-month crash course on the country's language, culture and customs. It's a good campus job, and Matheson, now a junior, is teaching seven individuals, including a former member of the BYU football team.

Being on his own in such an unfamiliar part of the world has also given Matheson the gift of maturity. During his years playing lacrosse at Olympus High School in Holladay, Utah, and his first year at BYU in 2008, Matheson was a tough match-up in the midfield because of his size and his skill, but he possessed a hair-trigger temper that made him a liability at times.

"I was a hot head, man. I would get back up in your face at any time," Matheson said. "All an opposing team had to do was get under my skin and I was basically worthless. Serving the mission taught me how to keep my cool. I came back on the lacrosse field after my mission and I was slow, my stick skills were slow and my left hand was non-existent, but I learned how to be in control of myself mentally. It allowed me to be a better lacrosse player."

BYU head coach Matt Schneck, who was an assistant for the Cougars during Matheson's freshman year, describes Matheson as one of the nicest players on the team with an outsized personality off the field. It's one of the reasons he is the only underclassman captain this spring. Still, even though he handles his temper better now, it constantly smolders beneath the surface when he puts on his uniform.

"This is a guy with a huge smile and a lovable personality, but that doesn't mean that the teddy bear can't get a little mad when he's out on the field," Schneck said. "There are times when you've got to give him his space. He's always respectful, and he has never blown up at a coach, but at the same time you've got to know how to read him. There are times when you can see it in his eyes and in his face that he is not happy about something, so you just let him do what he needs to do to cool down and then he get backs after it. He gets heated. When he plays, he's a competitor."

Even Matheson admits he still has to fight the demons sometimes.

"To be competitive isn't a bad thing. That's what drives us to be our best," he said. "But there are times when someone gets under my skin and I am ready to pop someone, but you try to channel it as much as possible. If you can use your passion for the benefit of the team, it can be a good thing."

At 6-foot-6, 235-pounds, Matheson is a match-up nightmare for MCLA opponents. His size, along with a year of strength-training, could make him one of the premier midfielders in the country.
© Cecil Copeland/The Athletic Image

It proved to be a very good thing for the Cougars.

Rotating among the top two lines last year (Schneck's middie platoon was determined by the faceoff man and not a set line), Matheson scored 19 goals and dished out 11 assists during BYU's title run. In the national championship game against Arizona State he scored a pair of goals, including a diving, one-handed shot in the second half that gave the Cougars a three-goal lead. Matheson has already been penciled into the Cougars' top midfield line in 2012 along with Jared Houghton (who, at 6-foot-3, 215-pounds, gives BYU one of the beefiest midfield units around) and Drew Shumway.

Although Matheson's leadership is a result of the maturity he gained on his mission, it was this same chrysalis that almost kept him from coming out for the team when he returned from Fiji. After doing missionary work for two years, rejoining the lacrosse squad seemed inconsequential in his expanded world view.

"You start to examine your life and ask, 'What's really important?' Sometimes you can start to question your hobbies," Matheson said. "Are my hobbies something that God wants me to do? For a while, I was confused about that. I got home and started thinking about it. Then Coach Schneck called me two days after I returned and said, 'Welcome back. You need to come and play.'

"[Schneck] basically said, 'Look, God is the God of love and he wants you to be happy, so if he has given you the talent to play and the strength to play and it makes you happy, glorify him by playing lacrosse.' Right from there, I decided I was going to play and I was going to give 100 percent because I didn't think it would be selfish or a hobby. God has given us the talent and gifts to do it, so we're just giving thanks back to him."

Schneck admits to the hard sell when Matheson returned, as well as fending off calls from the BYU football office inquiring about whether Matheson might take a stab at tight end. But along with explaining how the sport complemented his faith, the head coach had to explain how the program was different from when he left. Jason Lamb, Matheson's coach in 2008, was no longer with the team, and there had been some changes.

"Pat was one of those guys we had to help understand that things were a little different," said Schneck. "His experience before he left on his mission was one that caused him to believe he really didn't want to play lacrosse again. We've had that with more than one person, and we've had to build things a little bit differently. We're trying to build a different culture. This is, in no way, an offense to Jason, but some guys clicked with him and some guys didn't. Pat was one of those guys, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to play anymore."

Fortunately for the Cougars, he did, and now he could be on the cusp of a huge season.

Matheson is back to his pre-mission shape – "You leave with a six-pack and you come back with cookie dough on your stomach," he said – and is among the strongest players on the team. With the ability to connect from 20 yards and bull-dodge to the cage (as long as he doesn't get what Matheson describes as "Shaq calls" from the officials), he has the potential to be one of the premier midfielders in the MCLA.

Matheson is now a long way from living in Fiji and wearing a sulu, but without that experience, his promising lacrosse career probably wouldn't have been possible.

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