Mathewson, Willard groom players of future

MYAL duo transform Colts to Mustangs

by John Beisser, Sports Writer
   Why do they do it? Why do these two middle-aged men spend so much of their time blowing their whistles, repeating drills and pouring over game plans? Beginning in the broiling heat of the summer and continuing through the growing darkness of the fall, with the wind and cold biting at their extremities.
   For the love of the kids – for the love of the game.
   Walt Mathewson has been the head coach of one of the most successful programs in Manville for the past 16 years. He’s the leader of the local Pop Warner team, the Midget Colts. Throughout this fall, you’ve been reading accounts of their games thanks to the outreach of Mathewson’s daughter Alison, who dutifully supplies the details of all things Colts each week. The Colts sported a 6-3 record this season and appeared in a special bowl game in Pennsylvania this past weekend vs. a team from Buffalo.
   It’s high time Alison’s father and long-time side kick/defensive whiz, Bobby Willard, had a little bit of light shed on their loyal and meaningful contributions to the Manville community.
   Mathewson, 49, has been involved with the Manville Pop Warner program for the past 16 years, 12 as an assistant under former head coach Bubba Petrone and the past four as head coach. Willard’s association with the program goes back even further. For the past 20 years, Willard, 53, has been toiling on the sidelines, helping to direct three two-hour practices per week and giving up a chunk of his Sundays in the fall – game days – to give back to the community and the town where he lives.
   Like so many Manville residents, family and loyalty run deep for Willard and Mathewson. Willard is a lifelong Manville resident. Ask him what year he graduated from Manville High School, he replies, “1972”with more than a little pride in his voice. He played football in high school under the watchful direction of former long-time head coach athletic director Ned Panfile.
   Willard first got involved with the Pop Warner program when his son Rob was 11 years old in 1987. Rob’s 31 now and two decades removed from his Pop Warner days. Bobby Willard? He’s still trucking along, demonstratively extolling his defense to come up with a stand, drawing up Xs and Os, hugging, cajoling and leading his young players. His reward?
   ”Oh, it’s great when I’m walking down the street and someone comes up to me and says, ‘hey coach, how ‘ya doing,” Willard said with a laugh. “Sometimes I get, ‘hey, you coached me in Pop Warner when I was a kid. I like that.
   ”I just like being around the kids,” Willard added. “It’s a good age to coach. Their personalities are formed by then and you can speak to them a certain way and know they’re not going to run home to their mothers. There are always new kids to learn and you learn how to coach each one of them. Some you can be harder on. Others, if you raise your voice, you might lose them. Each has to be coached a certain way.”
   Mathewson, like Willard, has a son (Eddie) who played Pop Warner football. Both Mathewson and Willard enjoy attending the Manville varsity games on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. They take a special pride when a former Colt, all grown up now as a full-fledged Mustang, makes a big play
   ”When a kid I coached makes a good tackle, for example, it feels good,” Matthewson said. “I think to myself, maybe I had a small hand in that. Maybe I taught him that.”
   Mathewson grew up in Hillsborough and was a member of former head coach Joe Paulino’s program in the early years of Raider football. Hillsborough’s teams went undefeated when Mathewson played from 1973-75.
   ”Sometimes you get lucky,” Matthewson quipped humbly.
   More than 250,000 youngsters across the land participate in Pop Warner Football each year. Just who was Pop Warner? He was a legendary coach from 1895 to 1938 who coached at the University of Georgia, Cornell and the Carlise Indian School in Pennsylvania, where he coached a pretty fair player by the name of Jim Thorpe.
   During his four decades as a coach, Warner brought many innovations to college football, including the screen play, single- and double-wing formations, the three-point stance, numbering players’ jerseys, and the use of shoulder and thigh pads. But to many Americans, Warner is best remembered for starting the Pop Warner Youth Football League in 1929.
   The mission of Pop Warner Football is “to enable children to benefit from participation in team sports and activities in a safe and structured environment. Through this active participation, Pop Warner programs teach fundamental values, skills and knowledge that children will use throughout their lives. To inspire youth, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin, and to practice the ideals of sportsmanship, scholarship, physical fitness and fair play.”
   Manville Pop Warner is a member of the Raritan Valley Conference which also includes Bound Brook, Clark, Kenilworth, Metuchen, Middlesex, Roselle Park and St. Cecilia’s. The Colts compete in the Midget league, designed for kids ages 12-15 with a minimum weight limit of 95 pounds and a maximum of 160 pounds, recently upped from 145. The Pee Wee Division, where Willard coached for many years, is for ages 9-12.
   The number of participants is down as compared to previous years. A couple years back, the Manville program was suspended for a year due to a lack of numbers. There are 18 youngsters on this year’s roster, down from the mid 20s of years ago. Matthewson theorized that kids today have so many more options than years ago.
   Willard was more succinct – “Video games,” he said.
   Matthewson works for his family trucking business and often times arrives at practice just in time for the opening whistle. Willard’s career as a producing planner for a local company provides him a bit more flexibility as he is usually the first coach to arrive at the practice field.
   Both Matthewson and Willard noted the particularly strong teams from four and five years ago. The core of the successful bunch stayed together through high school and were prevalent in Manville making the NJSIAA playoffs in 2006. In fact, the quarterback of the Colts and last year’s Mustangs, Mike Knitowski, is serving as an assistant coach with the Colts this season.
   Manville High head varsity coach Brett Stibitz played for Matthewson and Willard as well. Matthewson and Willard have a high degree of mutual respect for one another.
   ”He’s the details guy,” Willard said of his head coach.
   ”Bobby? He keeps it real,” Mathewson said. “He’s a real guy. The kids, they might not all like him at first, but he kind of grows on you. He’s a damn good guy.”
   Manville Pop Warner is fortunate to have two damn good guys looking over their program, leading the Colts of today, the Mustangs of tomorrow. From Colts to Mustangs – from boys to men.