Burrell, Clarion product Matt Lehman grinds way toward NFL
Matt Lehman keeps a reminder of his growth as a football player pinned to the top of his Twitter page.
There, above a screenshot of an article detailing his record-setting career at Clarion, Lehman includes his own commentary: “My high school coaches told me I'd be better off playing D3 (Division III). Believe in yourself and great things will happen.”
That past slight continues to drive Lehman, a Burrell graduate, even after one of the best careers by a wide receiver in Clarion history — and especially now, as he pursues a career in the NFL after a year off following shoulder surgery.
“You never forget about that stuff,” Lehman said. “You've just got to mind your own and keep working hard and surprise some people at the end of the day.”
For his next surprise, Lehman hopes to become the latest unheralded football player to make a career in the NFL, joining the likes of Slippery Rock's Brandon Fusco, a six-year veteran who signed a three-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons this offseason, or Adam Thielen, a former Division II walk-on and now an All-Pro wideout for the Minnesota Vikings.
Lehman participated last month in the Pro Days at Temple and Slippery Rock, going through combine-style drills in front of scouts from a handful of NFL teams.
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Lehman clocked a time of 4.50 seconds in the 40-yard dash, put up a personal best of 16 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical.
“A lot of people didn't think I'd be as successful in college as I was,” Lehman said. “After I finished college, a lot of people didn't think a professional football opportunity was even possible. But once they saw my numbers, people are starting to talk to me, like you could do this or that. It's just self-driven, you know?”
Lehman's drive kept him going after he suffered a grade 3 AC sprain to his right shoulder in Clarion's 2016 season finale, his last game as a college player. The injury, which required surgery, kept him from participating in Pro Days last spring.
He spent the past year recovering, going through physical therapy and keeping his professional football dreams alive.
“It was definitely tough,” he said. “I just kept focus in what I wanted to do. My main goal was to get a fair shot at some Pro Days and see what happened from there.”
Lehman began training with Tim Cortazzo, the owner of Trafford-based FSQ Sports Training, in January. Cortazzo's other clients include Terrelle Pryor and former Pitt receiver Jester Weah.
Working for two to three hours a day, four to five times a week, Cortazzo prepared Lehman for the combine-style drills at his Pro Days. Lehman's drill numbers improved across the board, including a drop of nearly 0.2 seconds in the 40.
“He still has that rawness to him, but he's a freak athletically,” Cortazzo said. “His numbers are insane. He's running in the 4.4s, 4.5s, jumping 38 or 39 inches. He's just a freak.”
The focus now for Lehman, with the NFL Draft less than two weeks away, is on “polishing him up,” Cortazzo said. That means a heavy dose of wide receiver drills — running routes and improving footwork.
There, Lehman has some experience in improving. After catching a combined 38 passes and three touchdowns as a freshman and sophomore at Clarion, those totals jumped to 118 and 22, respectively, in his final two seasons with the Golden Eagles as he became an All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference performer. Lehman graduated tied for first in school history with 25 touchdowns — including 15 as a junior — and ranks in the top five in receptions and yards.
“Every play, and every second, he was going 100 mph just trying to improve, trying to get better,” Clarion coach Chris Weible said. “His size, obviously, is a great attribute for his position. He's a big guy, he's very strong and he makes catches that a wide receiver doesn't make. He makes one-handed grabs, crazy grabs. You don't know how he catches it sometimes.”
Weible described Lehman as a “quiet guy,” but said his work ethic speaks volumes.
That's something Lehman ultimately hopes to show an NFL team, should he receive the opportunity.
“(They'd be) getting a hard worker who just never quits,” he said. “I think sitting a year out and still committing to the dream tells them a lot about me. I never lost focus.”