Pittsburgh offensive lineman Matt Goncalves (76) plays during the first...

Pittsburgh offensive lineman Matt Goncalves (76) plays during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wofford in Pittsburgh Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) Credit: AP/Gene J. Puskar

Pro day workouts usually are all about measurables, especially for offensive linemen. How fast can a prospect run in the 40-yard dash? How high can he jump? How many bench reps can he put up?

Matt Goncalves went into his showcase late last month wanting to show the coaches and scouts representing 31 NFL teams something that couldn’t be timed or counted, though. He just wanted to prove he could do the exercises and remind them he’s still around.

They hadn’t exactly forgotten about him, of course. He’d attended the NFL Combine and the East-West Shrine Game to undergo medical evaluations and participate in some interview sessions with teams, so he certainly was on the league’s radar. But he knew that at some point, he had to prove he still can physically play the sport — both for them and himself.

And so, a little more than six months after tearing the plantar plate in his left big toe, a painful injury that ended his college playing career at the University of Pittsburgh, Goncalves — the offensive lineman from Manorville who played for Eastport-South Manor High School — did something he hadn’t been able to do in what felt like the longest half-year of his life.

He stepped back onto the field and competed.

He was able to grimace through the pain of each step he took, fight through the stiffness he still felt in his foot just three weeks after being cleared to train on it, and lumber ever-so-slightly through the various drills to which he knew he wasn’t able to give his all.

“I was happy with my results,” Goncalves told Newsday, “but there was a part of me that knew I just have to push through this. I wanted to show scouts what I can do. I wanted to show them I am healthy. I really wanted to show them I am up and running and I’m good to go.”

Matt Goncalves, offensive lineman from Pittsburgh, will be drafted in...

Matt Goncalves, offensive lineman from Pittsburgh, will be drafted in the upcoming NFL Draft. Goncalves is from Long Island. He played at Eastport-South Manor High School. These images were taken on Pitt’s pro day, March 28. 2024. Credit: Goncalves family

His numbers were good, comparable to what some of the sure-to-be first-round picks at his position posted at the Combine when he still was unable to participate. And his 6-6, 317-pound frame certainly stacks up well against the other linemen. But it was the immeasurable that stood out the most in this recent performance.

“I know he wasn’t 100% at our pro day but, as he did throughout his career, he toughed it out,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi told Newsday. “I think that really impressed the visiting scouts. The team that drafts Matt is not only going to get an excellent tackle but also someone who will be a leader in the locker room. I’m really excited for his future.”  

Long Island strong

Had he been able to play all of this past season and not just parts of three games, had he been healthy enough to go through the live position drills at the Senior Bowl and cleared for the athletic feats at the Combine, Goncalves believes he could have been a first-round prospect.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” he said. “That’s where my projections were going.”

Instead he lost the chance to show scouts and executives how he could build on his strong 2022 season. He wasn’t able to demonstrate his versatility switching from right tackle to left for a full year. He couldn’t show all the improvements in agility and strength and technique he’d worked on refining.

That toughness, though? His desire? His other intangibles? They may not be as measurable as the sprints and the lifts, but they certainly matter too. And those he was able to fully display on that March day in the Pitt fieldhouse.

That grit, Goncalves said, came from his upbringing on Long Island. He grew up in a sports-centric family and credits his two older brothers, Billy and Chris, as “the ones who beat me up when I was a kid and made me tough.” They both plied their athleticism toward baseball; Billy, seven years older than Matt, pitched for Dowling and SUNY Cortland.

Matt spent time on the diamond, too, but it became very clear as he began dominating lines of scrimmage at Eastport-South Manor as a junior and a senior — drawing the attention of many Division I programs to a small school in a nook of Long Island that rarely gets such notice — that football was his future.

He’d once quit the sport because he was too big. After starting out in peewee leagues as a running back at ages 6 and 7, he soon outgrew his competition, and rather than play up against older kids, he decided to walk away. When he returned to football in middle school, his size was an advantage, first as a tight end and then, eventually, as one of the top linemen in the state. By the time he was finished with high school football, he was an All-County and All-Long Island player and rated the fourth-best overall prospect in New York by Rivals.  

Life-changing injury

He redshirted in 2019 as a freshman at Pitt, got three starts in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, played in 13 games in 2021 and made a big jump as the starting right tackle in 2022. It wasn’t until this past year, though, that Goncalves learned how much he loves football. That lesson began on Sept. 16, 2023, in a game against West Virginia.

Pitt was on the road against its rival that day and ran a quarterback sneak. Goncalves, coming off a 2022 season at right tackle in which he’d earned All-ACC honors and was being projected as a fast riser in NFL scouting circles, was starting at left tackle. He pushed with the rest of the line. “I felt a huge jolting pain on the inside of my foot,” he said. “I didn’t want to come out, especially with it being a rivalry game, I’m a captain, we have a chance to win the game. I wanted to stay in.”

He did. Into the fourth quarter when Pitt ran a quarterback draw. “That’s when I kind of felt it pop,” he said.

The plantar plate is the ligament that allows the big toe to bend up and down.

“I didn’t think it was anything too major at first, but getting back to the facilities and seeing it was kind of a major injury, it definitely let me down for sure,” Goncalves said. “It’s definitely not as major as a knee or something like that, but it lingers and it’s something that needs to be taken seriously.''

On Sept. 25, Goncalves underwent season-ending surgery. College career-ending surgery.

But he quickly realized that he was more than just a starting tackle for the Panthers. He also was a captain, and while he could not fulfill his duties on the field, there were other obligations and responsibilities that he could handle. Soon he was helping to groom younger replacements on the line, leading film study groups, sitting in meetings and being a leader.

Saturdays, though, were tough.

“Being with my brothers and playing college football, there is nothing like going out there, especially with my love for the city of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh,” Goncalves said. “The tradition it has, being a captain that year, and not being able to go out there and lead the team and show them what I can do and just play football, it kind of hurt me . . . Watching the guys from up top from the box at Acrisure Stadium had an impact on me. It taught me how much I love football and how much I need it in my life to function.”

That need is close to being filled again.  

Second-round pick?

Goncalves is projected to be drafted somewhere in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft at the end of this month, possibly in the second or third. He is continuing to train and rehab for what certainly will be an upcoming rookie minicamp opportunity and says his toe is between 90% and 95% ready for it. He’s been visiting with NFL clubs since his pro day, having gone to see the Steelers, Cowboys and Seahawks in the past few weeks, and has several other visits lined up around the country in the coming days.

Then it will be the big wait until he hears his name called and finds out where he’ll be headed for the next stop in his career. He’ll spend the draft at home in Manorville with a tight group of family (“It’ll be too nerve-wracking” for a big watch party, he said), but there is a celebration planned at a local catering hall for the Sunday of that weekend, by which time he’ll know where he is heading.

“Just being drafted would be a blessing, any team, any round,” Goncalves said.

He still thinks a little about what might have been had he not hurt his toe in September, what that lost final season of college football could have produced and how he could have improved his positioning in this draft with a boffo few months on the field.

But, he said, he believes everything happens for a reason. Maybe it was to push him back a few rounds later than he once thought he’d be drafted, to make him hungrier, to force him to play harder and work more diligently. Maybe it was to teach him how much he would miss football.

“It’s unfortunate,” Goncalves said of the injury, “but what are you going to do?”

He’s answered his own rhetorical question as best he can.

Soon he’ll see how the NFL measures his response.

The Matt Goncalves file

Age: 23

Hometown: Manorville

High School: Eastport-South Manor

His Pro Day results:

40-yard: 5.06 seconds*

20-yard shuttle: 5.54 seconds*

Vertical: 30.5 inches

Bench press: 19 reps

*-unofficial time


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