Unbreakable

by Justin Long

Six seniors—Guy Matisis, Travis Doering, Greg Smith, Preston Puryear, Mike Flanagan and Pat Moriarty—make up one of the tightest and most exceptional groups of student-athletes in Amherst football history. Their success as football players, while impressive in its own, is nothing compared to what they have been able to accomplish as college students.

That these six students wound up living together is no surprise to head coach E.J. Mills, who has a hard time differentiating among them. “The same great qualities permeate through these guys,” he says. “They have an amazing commitment level to everything, they’re very mature, and it is rare to find a group this focused. They’re exactly what we look for in scholar athletes.”

Still, each has his own identity. Labeled “the Crazy One” by his peers, Flanagan is the only player allowed to sit behind Mills on bus rides. Whether he is looking to talk about football or simply gain perspective on which movie to watch on the ride home, Mills has reserved a seat for Flanagan for the past four years. “I value Mike’s opinion on everything,” says Mills. “He offers suggestions and gives insight that most players don’t have.”

Mills describes Flanagan as the best player on the field, mentally speaking—a claim supported by the rest of the coaching staff. “Mike is one of the most exceptional players I have ever coached,” says inside linebacker coach Luke Bussard. “His knowledge and feel for the game are remarkable, and his passion is contagious.”

Canceling out Flanagan’s intensity is Puryear, “the Southern Gentleman.” While the Trinity football team might consider that to be a poorly chosen nickname (Puryear had an un-gentlemanly 18 tackles against the Bantams as a sophomore), the description is spot-on, according to Barry O’Connell, professor of English. “Preston has the type of manners people love to encounter,” he says. “You get the sense his parents raised a wonderful kid.”

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Standing (L to R): Seniors Guy Matisis, Preston Puryear, Mike Flanagan, Travis Doering, Pat Moriarty. Kneeling: senior Greg Smith (Photo by Sam Masinter '04)
It’s more than good manners that make Puryear stand out. “Preston is a born leader, an intense observer and a perfect learner who never calls attention to himself,” adds O’Connell. “He is a person of true and deep character, and people gravitate toward him. If we could figure out how to identify all of the Prestons in the admissions pool, we would pick them all.”

Also leaving a positive impression on O’Connell is Moriarty, “the Intellectual” (a name given to him by guys with GPAs upwards of 3.7). “From the beginning, Pat has carried himself with self-respect that isn’t common among undergrads,” says O’Connell. “He is by no means full of himself, but he knows he can do anything he sets his mind to. Pat and Preston will undoubtedly be important in the world some day.”

Described by Mills as a Johnny-on-the-spot role player, Moriarty has made life easy for outside linebacker coach Akeem Cedeno. “Pat is perfect,” Cedeno says. “He’s always doing the right thing, and he’s everything you want out of a player. If you could only bet on one guy, you’d put your money on Pat.”

Smith describes Doering, who is in the midst of his first full season after battling through three years of injuries, as “the Face Jock.” While that name implies a vanity and personality similar to that of a stereotypical football player, such is not the case for Doering, who double-majors in biology and computer science with a 3.5 GPA and hopes to attend medical school. “Travis is the computer and science nerd of the group,” jokes Smith, “but he’s also the good-looking one that girls love.”

Although Mills describes all six guys as being focused, Smith won the title of “the Focused One.” “Greg is a very disciplined, punch-the-clock guy,” says Mills. “If something has to be done, he’ll do it.” Mills notes how Smith slimmed down, improved his flexibility and athleticism, and continues to discipline himself when the rest of the team indulges in things like pizza and chicken wings. As a result, Mills says Smith is playing the best football of his career.

It’s not all business for Smith, who assistant coach Eddy Augustin describes as the backbone of the defensive line. “Other than Coach Mills, Greg is the most imitated guy on the team,” Augustin says. “There’s just something about him that other players love to imitate, and he gets a chuckle out of it every time. He’s very quiet, but he’s a lot more lighthearted than people give him credit for.”

And then there’s Matisis, “the Laid Back One.” He garners the same amount of respect and likeability as the other five, but he doesn’t fall under the “focused” umbrella in the same way. “Guy has no clue what’s beyond today,” says Mills. “He’s a day-to-day guy and doesn’t think about the future as much as the others do.”

Puryear believes Matisis’ personality is a good fit for the group. “Guy has a great attitude about life,” he says. “He’s always stress-free, and you need that in a group of such driven people.” (The day-to-day lifestyle seems to translate well on the field, as Matisis is the team’s lone All-NESCAC First Team returnee from a year ago.)
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Although they are emulated and respected by virtually everyone who knows them, it hasn’t been an easy road for these six standouts. Doering blew out his knee during his senior year in high school, battled knee problems as a first-year and sophomore, and had shoulder problems last year. Puryear broke his hand and had neck problems as a junior, and this year snapped a tendon in practice before a hamstring injury ended his season.

For Flanagan, the road couldn’t have been tougher. A torn labrum as a first-year led to shoulder surgery. As a sophomore, he was knocked out at Wesleyan and suffered head and neck injuries, leading to more shoulder surgery. A concussion during practice kept Flanagan out of uniform for his entire junior season. In the spring of junior year, a torn tendon led to ankle surgery.

Walking away from such frustrating situations would have been an easy decision for many student-athletes, but these six have been a testament to fortitude. Doering notes how he considered quitting because he is so focused academically, but he wanted to keep playing for the rest of the guys on the team. If Puryear can defer the job he has lined up, he may apply for another year of eligibility so that his football career ends on his own terms.

With two shoulder surgeries under his belt and a football-less junior season ahead of him, Flanagan put his pride aside and became the team’s manager in 2007 so that he could travel to games, attend practices and be with his fellow players every day. “I couldn’t walk away from my friends,” he says. “I didn’t want to be sitting in my room while the rest of the guys were out playing football.”

After wading through the good and the bad and all of the injuries and disappointment in between, they have become six of the most successful student-athletes at Amherst. Smith boasts a 3.67 GPA and has a job lined up at Macquarie Capital Advisors. Flanagan has interned with TM Capital for the past two summers as an economics major with a 3.6 GPA. Puryear’s 3.57 GPA has earned him a job in investment banking at Raymond James in Tampa, Fla. Doering has been looking forward to medical school since he arrived at Amherst and has applied to roughly 20 schools with hopes of attending Dartmouth.

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Photo by Sam Masinter '04

With a double major in economics and English, Moriarty and his 3.77 GPA interned this past summer with Paul Rieckhoff ’98, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the nation's first and largest group dedicated to the troops and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I wanted to help a good cause,” Moriarty says. “Paul is a great person who turned something new into something huge, and I was more than happy to help out an alum.”

Matisis is considering joining the Peace Corps in order to travel and give himself a break between Amherst and a career. He has also been talking with Doering’s father, exploring options with the FBI, CIA and DEA.

Although his plans aren’t as concrete as his roommates’, those close to Guy know not to worry. “Guy has a relentless pursuit of excellence in everything he does, and I expect him to do the same after football,” says Bussard. “He is a loyal and moral man who holds himself to a high ethical standard. While Wall Street may not be his final destination, I am far from worried about Guy.”

With all of their success, the six seniors are quick to acknowledge people like George Carmany ’62 and Rob Schur ’98 who have helped along the way. Carmany, who is actively involved in recruiting for Amherst’s athletic and academic departments, helped counsel the football players on job opportunities. Schur, now the college’s assistant director of gift planning, spent nearly every day with this group in the weight room as the strength and conditioning coach in 2005. “I didn’t fully understand what Amherst was all about until I spoke with Rob,” Smith says. “We owe him a lot.”

Looking back at all of the great wins and everything that has come with being an exceptional Amherst student-athlete these past four years, there was no greater moment for this group than when Flanagan returned to the Lord Jeff starting lineup three weeks ago as an honorary captain at Wesleyan—the last place he had suited up for a game. His three solo tackles and one pass breakup Oct. 21, 2006, at Andrus Field were impressive; his three solo tackles and one pass breakup Oct. 18, 2008, at Andrus Field were special.

“Having Mike back was almost surreal,” says Smith. “It didn’t really hit me that he was on the field playing until I heard him yelling during the game. Seeing everything he has gone through has been a reality check. No one really understands all the sacrifice he made for this program, and I always try to carry that with me whenever I play. It’s hard to describe what it was like to have him back for that game, but it was a beautiful thing seeing him playing again. It’s a game I'll never forget.”

“There has never been an Amherst player who’s been through more than Mike has in his four years,” says Mills. “He has the utmost respect of his teammates and coaches. We joke about how he went from being a leader as a sophomore to ‘Flobbo’ as a junior, but what has happened to Mike is tragic.” (“Flobbo” is Flanagan’s common nickname, one that has become the foundation of endless teasing by his teammates, but that’s another story for another day.)

These six guys have taken advantage of their time at Amherst, and they undoubtedly have bright futures ahead. They’ve shaken the stereotypes and earned the respect of coaches, players and professors. They’ve seen each other fall off the horse time and time again, only to get right back up each time. What’s left to do? “My goals in coming to Amherst were to get a job and win a title,” says Smith. Half of his checklist is complete—the other half can be taken care of with a win over Williams, which would secure this group of seniors’ first Little Three title and first victory over the Ephs.

That they won’t all be on the field against their archrival is irrelevant. The path to their final game was a rocky one, but they never quit. Win or lose, they made it to the finish line and kept each other on track the whole way, and that’s all that matters.

But it sure would be nice to win this one for Flobbo.

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