Alexander Mattison does not just carry the potential of being the Boise State football team’s next 1,000-yard running back.
He represents hope to an entire community hundreds of miles away.
The true freshman has fanned the hype he earned before even playing a down as a highly-recruited back from San Bernardino (Calif.) High. At 5-foot-11, 206 pounds, he doesn’t look like he graduated from high school a few months ago. His physical maturity is only surpassed by a mental toughness forged by tough surroundings and a family as driven as him.
“His character is above and beyond,” San Bernardino coach Jeff Imbriani said. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy. I don’t think I’ll have another one like him. He said he’s not going to be like the culture here. His work ethic is over the top. Football, academics, it’s 24/7.
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“He opened the door for our school, the next generation to see what’s possible. It’s there because of him.”
Pearl Mattison was hell-bent on making sure her three boys had everything they needed to be successful, even when the money wasn’t there. “She wasn’t ever going to let them get off point,” Imbriani said.
Academics were paramount, and though Pearl and her husband Darrell worked multiple jobs, they scheduled them so they could take the kids to school and pick them up.
Alexander, the youngest, was put in a dual immersion program in first grade where he learned all subjects in English and Spanish, something he did all the way through high school. He was named the Boys Scholar-Athlete of the Year in June at the SoCal Prep Legends Awards, boasting a 4.38 grade point average.
“We always taught him he had to earn it, that nothing was given,” Pearl said.
That lesson wasn’t just spoken, it was evident throughout Alexander’s childhood.
While Pearl was attending school to become a medical assistant, and Darrell worked at a home for at-risk boys when Alexander was in fourth and fifth grade, the family was unable to find a comfortable living situation.
“We were homeless, but the important thing was not being separated,” Pearl said. “You might feel like giving up, but we were together. All five of us stayed in a friend’s guest room for six months, then we moved in with my sister-in-law for seven months on her living room floor. If it takes a village to raise a child, ours was pretty big.”
The Mattison boys were tough, always aware of the situation, yet guided by a strong support staff. What was outside the door didn’t make it easier. San Bernardino, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has a higher homicide rate than Chicago, 30 percent live in poverty, and the city declared bankruptcy in 2012.
“There’s a lot of gang activity. You hear the sounds of the street, but we weren’t about to let them be out there,” Pearl said. “When they were outside, I was, too, watching them play football. I actually was an all-time quarterback. We’d run routes and everything.”
Said Boise State running backs coach Lee Marks: “He’s had it a little tough, and his parents made it tough on him, too, as far as saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to get A’s in school, school’s No. 1. If you’re going to go out for something, you’re going to go full-tilt.’ ”
It was evident young Alexander had a future in football, which Imbriani first witnessed before Mattison started high school. After Imbriani was hired in 2012, a youth coach said, “You have to meet this freshman. He looks like a man already.”
Mattison was exactly that at San Bernardino, rushing for 4,074 yards and 48 touchdowns his final two seasons. He also ran track and won a league wrestling title at 195 pounds as a junior. The fact Mattison wasn’t snatched up by a Pac-12 school may seem surprising, but not to Imbriani.
“He’s one of the most loyal people I know,” Imbriani said. “Plenty of private schools wanted him, but he wanted to play for me, for our school. That meant a lot. When Boise State came around, they were in contact constantly. He was going to be a person there, not just a number. They were loyal to him, and that went a long way.”
His maturity has allowed him to hit the ground running for the Broncos. Mattison had 18 carries for 100 yards and a touchdown Friday against San Jose State and has 42 carries for 243 yards and three touchdowns this season.
True freshmen are not made available for interviews at Boise State, but his teammates have plenty to say about him.
“Having the coaches being able to trust him, as a young guy, is going to be huge for us going forward,” junior running back Jeremy McNichols said. “... He gets the plays faster than most coming in as a freshman. I know for me, it took me a way longer time.”
Said linebacker Ben Weaver: “He goes out there and acts as if he’s a senior. He approaches it the right way.”
His coaches aren’t short on praise, either.
“Alex is going to be a great talent here. ... I know he has a lot to prove, but as far as from an ability standpoint, it’s endless for him,” Marks said.
Said coach Bryan Harsin: “The kid, he’s very bright, he’s very humble, hungry, he attacks it. ... Alexander’s a guy that can punish you, and he’s probably better at receiving than most people give him credit for.”
No doubt thanks to all those passes Pearl threw. And what she and Darrell, and those relatives and coaches, did helped Alexander become the heir apparent to a Boise State running back crop that has boasted Doug Martin, Jay Ajayi and McNichols among its starters the past five years.
Martin (Tampa Bay) and Ajayi (Miami) are now in the NFL, and McNichols could be headed there, too.
“In a way, everyone gets to see the work he put in, the work people around him put in,” Pearl said. “We’re just like, ‘Wow, look at him.’”
No. 24 Boise State at Hawaii
- When: 5 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Aloha Stadium (50,000, synthetic turf), Honolulu
- TV: CBS Sports Network (Rich Waltz, Adam Archuleta, Cassie McKinney)
- Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
- Records: Boise State 8-1, 4-1 Mountain West; Hawaii 4-6, 3-3
- Series: Boise State leads 11-3 (Broncos have won five straight; won last season 55-0 in Boise)
- Vegas line: Boise State favored by 17 1/2
- Kickoff weather: Mid-80s, light winds
ONLINE THURSDAY: LIVE BOISE STATE CHAT AT 11 A.M. AT IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM