Pitt Football: Two prized freshmen return after leaving to resolve personal issues

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Pitt freshmen McKenzie Mathews and T.J. Porter rejoined the Panthers yesterday after taking some time off to ponder their future. Both players left the team over the weekend to work through some personal issues and deal with homesickness.

The two players were welcomed with open arms by the coaches and their teammates, who voiced their support for them.

"It was great to have both of those guys back and both of them made some nice plays today, so that was encouraging," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I realize that things like this happen. They happen every year in college football and they happen in the NFL. There is always that fine line -- you try and keep all the players you can but you can't compromise anything from a team standpoint and this had nothing to do with football.

"These were just some personal issues involving some young kids and that's all a part of it."

Mathews, a highly rated defensive end from Syracuse, N.Y., left the team after Thursday's practice and missed Friday through Sunday. He had told teammates he was homesick and he wasn't sure that he wanted to play football anymore.

Porter, a heralded receiver from Pahokee, Fla., left the football complex Sunday morning and did not return for practice that afternoon. He told coaches he needed some time to sort through some personal issues.

By Sunday night, both players had a change of heart and told coaches they wanted to return to the team. Both arrived early yesterday for their morning meetings then participated in the afternoon practice.

Pitt director of football operations Chris LaSala said it isn't uncommon for young players, particularly those from out of state, to go through some rough times and the team has support systems in place to deal with such issues. He said there are people to mentor the freshmen on everything from academic issues and life skills to campus life as well as life as a football player in a major college program.

He said camp is often the toughest time for freshmen because the players come to a new environment and do nothing but football-related activities for about three weeks. Because there are few students on campus, the opportunities for social interaction and activities are limited and so some players deal with loneliness as well as homesickness while they are struggling with the pressures of trying to earn a position.

"The majority of the freshman class [when school starts] will be going through what all of these [freshman players] are going through now," LaSala said. "The difference is our guys are going through all-day football -- but that won't be the case come the regular season. There is no campus life right now, but in a couple of weeks they'll see what a vibrant place campus is than what it is during two-a-days.

"It is a different situation altogether once school starts, because it will be one practice per day and we will be preparing for a different team each week, so it is a fresher approach. Right now, it is kind of like Groundhog Day for these guys."

Pitt senior linebacker H.B. Blades said he remembers how quickly reality set in the first day he arrived for training camp as a bright-eyed freshman on a campus hundreds of miles from his home.

That's why it was easy for him to understand the plight of Porter and Mathews and why he knows there isn't anybody on the team who is looking down on them. He said every player has gone through similar struggles and the tough part is finding a way to survive them.

"[Quitting] comes up in every player's mind when you are a freshman," Blades said. "At some point, every player considers it, especially when you are away from home and you have no family. You are in a new atmosphere with new people. It is tough at first, but we've all been there and you have to grind through it.

"We need T.J. and we need McKenzie. We need them to be here and contribute if we are going to be an elite team."

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Pitt freshman McKenzie Mathews, above, and T.J. Porter rejoined the team yesterday after taking some time off.
Click photo for larger image.
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Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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