Sept. 29, 2015
By Denise Skwarcan
Oftentimes nowadays, successful athletes — in any sport — begin their journey at a young age. It’s not uncommon for position-specific mentors, nutritionists and strength and conditioning coaches to enter a young athletes’ life before middle school when they’ve narrowed their participation down to one sport. University of Notre Dame captain Matthias Farley has clearly been an exception to the rule.
A standout soccer player at Christian High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, Farley wanted a change of pace when he decided to give football a shot as a high school junior –a very common occurrence by today’s standards.
Perhaps what he could not have imagined was that the decision to switch from playing soccer to football change the course of his future in ways he never thought possible.
“The football team at Christian had a lot of success my first two years there, but the soccer team was pretty terrible,” Farley says. “I wanted to be part of a winning team, and I was kind of burned out on soccer because I had played the sport my whole life.
“I really wanted to be coached by (former NFL safety) Eugene Robinson, who is an assistant coach for the team. He played for a long time in the NFL and he also coached my brother. So that was important to me too. After just one season of playing football, I was surprised when coach pulled me into his office and said, `I don’t know where but you have an opportunity to play football at some level in college if that’s something you want to do.’ So that definitely came as a shock.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly was among those who were interested in the green football player who was athletic and possessed good size at 5-10 and 194 pounds. Kelly recruited Farley first while he was still the head coach at Cincinnati and then extended the offer after he took the head job at Notre Dame.
Farley turned down offers from UCLA, Wisconsin and N.C. State, among others, and headed to South Bend where he has become a constant contributor on defense. In 2014, Farley’s best season in a Notre Dane uniform, the cornerback shared the team lead in interceptions while finishing second in sacks and fifth in tackles for loss.
The fifth-year senior is quick to point out that his journey hasn’t been without its share of challenges. Strong mentors and hard work, however, have been the keys to his development.
“I was very, very raw when I started playing in high school and it was tough to get adjusted to the game,” says Farley who helped his squad to the 2010 North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association state football title as a senior. “But Coach Robinson took time after practices to explain things to me that I wasn’t understanding and that really made a difference. Then I started having some early success, which was something new, and then there was the dynamic of the locker room. It was different being on a team with 40-50 football players who were supporting you as opposed to 17-18 guys on a soccer team.”
Farley faced a tough transition his freshman year when he arrived on the Notre Dame. With only two years of high school playing experience, he was still learning the game and spent his freshman campaign on the scout team as a wide receiver. His lack of playing time, coupled with the academic load and being away from home, challenged Farley in many ways that he also saw as beneficial to his overall growth as a player.
“Not knowing much in the grand scheme of things about the game was a big adjustment in addition to the speed of the game, which was huge,” says Farley who has grown about an inch and filled out to 205 pounds since his freshman season. “I also came in as a wide receiver, and to conceptually understand an offense was very difficult for me. So there were a lot of day-to-day challenges for me.
“But I think it forced me to grow up faster than a lot of other guys in terms of time management and coming to work every day with the mentality of giving other people the best look possible to prepare them for games. All those were factors that made it a difficult year, but one that I also saw as beneficial.”
Following his freshman season, Farley looked forward to the start of spring ball and the opportunity that it would present him with the chance to further settle into the offense and hone his skills. Instead, the Irish coaching staff asked him to make a switch to the defensive side of the ball. Given the challenges Farley already faced that first season, he easily could have become disgruntled about the request. But instead had the opposite reaction.
“I was excited about moving to safety,” Farley remembers. “I had wanted to play defense pretty much all along. I had played wide receiver and safety in high school and, since I was still new to the game, I guess I wasn’t set in my ways. After figuring out how hard it was to learn the offense, I was really excited when they asked me to make the switch.
“Certainly it was a transition, but I think I picked up things on defensive quikder. And all my close friends like (former teammates) Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth all came in as offensive players who were switched to defense. So they were all in my corner because they had gone through a similar transition. That helped make the learning curve a lot (more simple).”
Now seemingly settled on the defense, Farley was just hoping to make a contribution to special teams in 2012 as a sophomore. But he quickly leap-frogged Dan McCarthy on the depth chart and then became the starter when Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season due to an injury. Farley started 11 games during that campaign, including the national championship game versus Alabama, and racked up 49 tackles to go with one interception.
“That season was kind of nerve-wracking at first but it also was wild,” says Farley of the undefeated regular season that led to the title tilt. “Everyone was very supportive of me, but the success of the season also made it easy to stay positive (about my play at the new position).”
In 2013, Farley nursed a nagging shoulder injury throughout most of the campaign while still producing similar numbers from the previous year. That was followed by yet another position change – this time to cornerback – which some speculated to be a demotion due to his struggles in 2013 and the depth of the Irish roster at the position. It turned out, however, to be a spark for Farley’s career as he emerged as one of the bright spots last season for an Irish defense decimated by injuries.
“Everybody plays banged up across the country, and it’s obviously not what you want,” says Farley who tallied 53 tackles, 6.5 tackles for losses, 3.5 sacks and four interceptions in 2014. “So it really just comes down to staying positive and knowing that we have a next-man-in philosophy here. That was established the year before I got here (when Kelly arrived), and guys have really bought into it. So, while you need time to physically recover, that takes away from the mental strain.”
Coming back for a fifth and final campaign was an easy, early decision according to Farley. It could turn out to be one of his best seasons playing in a Notre Dame uniform. Farley’s healthy and he’s found a niche as the team’s top nickel back. And the veteran earned the title of team captain little more than a week before the season opener against Texas, allowing him to follow in the footsteps of his mentors Jackson (2013) and Collinsworth (2014). Farley knows and understands the importance and the responsibility of taking young players under his wing as others did with him.
“There were a handful of guys who took extra time that they didn’t have or didn’t need to do to care about where I was at (with my football progress) which, I think, has made all the difference in my career so far.
“So there’s a couple of things I try to pass on to the younger guys,” he says. “First, they have to realize that they were the best players where they were from, but then they get here and realize everyone is the best player at the school where they played. I encourage them not to get down about that but to use it as a tool to push and to motivate themselves every day. Secondly, they have to understand that they are young and as freshmen and sophomores, they are going to make mistakes. They just have to stay positive because you never know what can happen when your number’s called. So don’t dwell on mistakes…learn from them.”
Farley, who graduated in May with a degree in film, television and theatre from the College of Arts and Letters, has his sights set on a career in the National Football League once he has played his final collegiate game. With his time at Notre Dame in short supply now, Farley, however, is focused only on the next practice and the next game.
“Obviously I’ve worn a lot of different hats, so I want to add depth wherever and just contribute,” Farley says. “I want to exemplify what Notre Dame is all about and to do whatever is asked of me. I want to continue to be a positive influence on this program and to represent the team and the school in the right way. It’s definitely been a long journey, but it feels like it’s happened in the blink of an eye. It’s been surreal.”