Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor learned the news on Facebook on Tuesday, Oct. 27. His former teammate, Brian O’Malley, posted a link to the story of the sudden impending retirement after 14 years at Allegheny College of Head Football Coach Mark Matlak.

A 2005 graduate in economics, Rob had played football for Coach Matlak for three years, including on the 2003 championship team. The soldier, veteran, husband and father of two made up his mind. He wanted to make it to coach’s last home game on Saturday, Oct. 31.

When Rob was a sophomore, his father and mother flew up to see his first two home games in September 2002. It was Coach Matlak’s first season at Allegheny. Rob knew his father was ill. His dad was waiting outside the locker room to see him after the game. Rob turned back before his father saw him, walked into the locker room and broke into tears. Coach was there.

Rob’s father died in Florida a month later on Oct. 12, 2002. Coach was there again to comfort Rob in his deep grief and in the days and years that followed. He filled a void, Rob said.

I met then Sgt. Robert Taylor in Afghanistan in December 2011, when he served with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. On patrol, Rob was the infantryman at the front with a Vallon, a hand-held metal detector used to sweep for mines and improvised explosive devices. It was his job to clear the path, his responsibility to bring the men and women in his unit back safely. When he wasn’t out front with the Vallon, he was often the soldier assigned to walk in front of me, the journalist joining the patrol, in my two months in Afghanistan.

On Halloween morning, Rob left Fort Carson, Colorado, before dawn at 4:30 a.m. At noon my time, I received a text. My connection in Houston was canceled. My new flight has me landing at kickoff. I should make it by the third quarter at best.

I immediately got on the phone with a Holly, an agent in Nashville, with United Premier Service—a perk of frequent flying. I asked about the flights from Houston, which had been delayed by big storms. What about Cleveland? She asked for Rob’s confirmation number. I didn’t have it. There was a flight 6066 to Cleveland, but it was delayed, too.

Rob texted again. The Pittsburgh flight had been delayed once more. He’d be lucky to make it before the end of the game. I called Rob, explained the possibility of the Cleveland flight, which might arrive at 6 p.m.

Watching the game would be nice, but as long as I can be there to shake his hand on the field, all will be worth it, Rob texted.

Later he sent another message. The Pittsburgh flight was delayed until 3 p.m.

It’s all falling apart, he wrote. The customer service line for United is 100 people deep. There is no way I could change to Cleveland now.

I got his confirmation number and dialed Premier Service again. Kelly in Detroit answered. I explained the situation. Active military. Veteran. Trying to make it to his beloved college coach’s last home game. She said she had room on the flight, leaving at 2 p.m. The agents might have closed the doors. I borrowed my roommate’s cell phone and dialed Rob.

Where are you? What terminal? Bravo, he responded. I had Kelly at United on my left ear and Rob on my right. Get to B20, Bravo20 now. Go. Run. You’re on the flight.

Kelly put me on hold and tried to call ahead to make sure the agents hadn’t closed the doors. Several tense minutes followed. Rob said he had a boarding pass. Kelly confirmed he’d made the flight. I was standing in my kitchen, hands in the air, smiling, surprised by the tears wetting my face.

Kickoff at 5 p.m. I monitored my phone as I watched the game from the sidelines. Rob landed at 5:33 p.m. and we began our play-by-play message exchange.

End of first quarter. Later Rob wrote: On 90.

I replied: Where on 90? We’re 10 minutes into the third quarter.

Rob: I’m trying. I might make the end.

Me: There’s a timeout for an injury. Bought some time.

Then: Start of the fourth quarter. Later: 10 minutes on the clock.

30 miles. Maybe I can catch him in the locker room.

Bypass downtown. It’s blocked for the Halloween parade.

8 miles.

Game over. He’s doing interviews.

Coach is in the room by the concession stand now.

I saw Rob’s face appear in the window. He opened the door and coach turned. As Rob would later remark, he could tell by Coach’s face that it took a minute for it to register.

Robbie T., Coach said. He clutched him in tight hug.

I had to be here, Coach.

Coach pulled away, held Rob at arm’s length, looked at his tear-stained face and then hugged him again in a long, long embrace. When they let go, both men wiped away tears.

Allegheny alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak's last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny College on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and active military, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allegheny College alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak’s last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and soldier, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. He wears a Killed in Action bracelet on his wrist for his buddy who died in Afghanistan and his 2003 championship ring on his finger.Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

They went to the locker room and talked.

“This is the last place my dad was alive,” Rob said. “The same area. The same place.”

Rob found his name in his locker and took a few photos. They spent barely an hour together before Rob got in his rental car and drove to Pittsburgh. The next day he flew back to Colorado.

Rob said the last three seasons don’t reflect the kind of coach Matlak is.

“The last three seasons have been horrible for Allegheny,” Rob said. “I didn’t want him going out feeling negative. I wanted him to know he had an impact.”

He spent 15 hours traveling to reach the game. Nearly 11 more hours to get home. Twenty-six hours of travel for one hour with his college coach.

So he could shake Coach Matlak’s hand after his last home game.

“It was absolutely worth it,” Rob said. “He gave a lot to me and it felt good to go back and give back.”

Matlak remembered his 36 seasons as a football coach, including the last 14 with Allegheny.

“It was absolutely worth it,” he said to Rob. “You coming here, it reminds me of just how worth it it was.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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