Tyler Matakevich is a goofball in the best possible way.
"Dirty Red" is constantly engaged in the locker room, cracking jokes and cuttin' it up with his Steelers teammates. Drafted in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Temple, Matakevich has made just one career start, largely handling special teams duties as a pro.
But even for Matakevich — a guy who oozes positivity and fun — something feels different and even more exciting this year inside the locker room. Throughout OTAs and minicamp at the Rooney Complex, players talked of team chemistry and their strengthened bonds as teammates.
“I think we’re just goofballs,” T.J. Watt was telling me, even stealing my words in the process. “We hang out a lot off the field and I think that kind of builds that relationship. There’s nothing fake out here. This is all real emotion. We truly care about each and every guy out here, and I think that’s why you see us having so much fun.”
Matakevich, a guy who seemingly gets along with everyone, recognizes it all, too. I asked him if the team genuinely feels closer this year or if it's just the general excitement of getting back in the facility fueling all the laughs and camaraderie.
"For sure, bro. Everyone's definitely as close — a lot closer, actually — since I've been here," Matakevich was telling me at his locker. "Guys are just hanging around at the facility a little longer. Guys, I know at least with the linebackers, we're always doing something at least once or twice a week, sometimes more. But we're always constantly doing something outside of the building. People might not think it's much, but that is huge for the young guys."
There's proof to support Matakevich's words. In mid-May, the Steelers held a steak cookoff challenge and filmed the special event for the team's YouTube channel. Several players involved — including Matakevich, Watt, Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward — also posted about it all over social media. But Matakevich ensured me that wasn't done for PR or for the team to boost its social media engagement numbers.
That was simply the 2019 Steelers being the 2019 Steelers — a group of tight-knit friends hanging out beyond the gridiron. Oh, and before you click the video, take note of Matakevich messing with somebody off-camera as the question begins. We weren't kidding about that whole "goofball" stuff:
Matakevich, at 26 and entering his fourth year in the league, is a young guy by almost any standard. But among the inside linebackers currently jockeying for position, he holds an experience advantage. Rookies Devin Bush and Ulysees Gilbert are brand new, as is Mark Barron, who, despite owning eight years of experience at the NFL level, was just acquired by the Steelers during free agency.
As such, Matakevich has taken on a bit of a mentor role for the fresh crop, and it's something he's embracing early.
"It's huge, man. It's honestly been huge," Matakevich was saying. "All different guys — whether linebackers or different positions, safeties, d-line — they're just always asking you questions and stuff like that, what to expect. What should I do here? What do I gotta do here? It's just funny how that circle keeps going around and around. I remember asking a bunch of guys for help, what I should do, how I could do things better, and they'd give me little tips. Now guys are asking me for tips, yet I'm still asking some of the older guys [too]. Every time I see an older vet, I'm still asking him for some tips. So it's just funny how all that stuff comes around and works around."
And despite his affable nature and his team-first mentality, Matakevich understands it's time to get selfish as training camp approaches. The team will kick off the festivities July 25 in Latrobe, and from there it's a battle for playing time, and for their careers. With Matakevich having experienced this grind before, he says he feels prepared.
"The mentality doesn't change — the only thing that changes is you just know what to expect," Matakevich said. "You know what it takes and you know what you're going to get each and every day out of practice. You know what works better for you in the offseason. What can I do that's going to help me? Or, what don't I have to do that didn't help me so much? Each year that goes by, it just makes things much easier."
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