Matt Goncalves’ stature commands your attention. His skills require you to take notice.
At 6-6 and 300 pounds, the Eastport-South Manor senior tackle cuts an intimidating figure on a football field. On the pass block he has speed and precision footwork. On the run block his power can penetrate to linebacker depth. And he understands the principles of leverage well enough to teach a class on it.
It’s everything that a quarterback or running back would want to operate behind and so it’s no wonder that the 17-year-old is accepting a scholarship to play ACC football next year for the University of Pittsburgh.
“I’ve known him since the fourth grade and he was always a great athlete, but he also had something else that set him apart,” Sharks senior teammate Blake Gohlsen said. “Matt always had a vision that he could be the best.”
Goncalves has character traits that take his game to an even higher level. He plays a brutal position, but is far from a brute. He is fiercely loyal and protective, the motivating forces that take over on every snap. He is a student of the game, constantly examining the line play on the nightly college football telecasts that play in the Goncalves home in Manorville. And he is determined, a quality that has shown through as he made his way back from a devastating knee injury that ended his junior season after two games.
In addition to his role on the offensive line, Goncalves was asked to play defensive end a year ago. In the second contest he came up with a sack but suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee that required season ending surgery. He called it “the saddest news I’d ever heard.”
“I came to love football because of the team aspect – no team wins relying on one person,” he said. “It is the best team sport and learning that you’re not going to be part of the team is heartbreaking.”
Goncalves has a joyful easy-going demeanor, but Gohlsen said the injury “took away the spark . . . and made him an almost different person.”
At home, however, Goncalves found an inner strength with his family. His mother, Dawn Goncalves-Brown, said “we all made a pact that we’d do whatever it took to get him back. He would rehab the knee, get stronger and [master] his position on the offensive line.”
Goncalves had always been a natural providing support.Around age eight, he said, his parents divorced and they sent him to a support group at the school for kids in similar situations. Before long, the director of the program was calling Goncalves-Brown to convey his exceptionalism.
“She said he was almost running the group,” his mom said. “He was talking to other kids about how they felt and hugging them to console them.”
The support was returned as he worked to get back on the field. “I had a lot of people on my side rooting for me then,” he said. “I learned a lot about overcoming adversity last year and how you can draw on the people around you for strength.”
A competitive spirit borne beneath the basket in the cul-de-sac outside the Goncalves’ home also served him. It was there playing basketball – his first love – against brothers who were five and six years older that one could see he would set himself apart.
“For his age, he always stood out, but he wanted to battle us even though we were older,” said Billy Goncalves, 23, the eldest of the three boys. “He never gave up [then] . . . and he never gave up after he got hurt. He said ‘I’m still going to make something of myself’ and that’s where we got to see how mentally tough he really is. He wanted to play at a high level again.”
Christopher Prokesch, interim head coach of the football team, planted the seed in Goncalves’ mind that he could be a big-time football player.
“I was a freshman and he told me ‘I’m going to get you to Notre Dame. I’m going to get you into Division I,’” Goncalves said. “I fell in love with football after that. I fell in love with the idea of living what he said.”
“He is what every football coach would want,” Prokesch said. “He’s a tough kid. He works hard. He is not afraid to use his pads and hit. And he understands how to use his body to physically dominate the defensive linemen.”
Goncalves would be the first Sharks player to compete at the FBS level since Sean Karl played a spectacular senior season in 2012 and went to Virginia. He is on target to academically qualify for freshman participation.
There were concerns that missing almost all of his junior season might stifle Goncalves’ chances to play at the highest level. He made up for it with his play at college camps in the summer. When he made his campus visit to Pitt and committed, he also was entertaining offers from UConn, Toledo and a group of FCS schools.
Eastport South Manor went 5-3 last season, losing to Half Hollow Hills West in a first-round playoff game. With Goncalves back for this season and senior Christian Bianco taking over as the featured back, the plan has been to again have a postseason.
But there has been some chaos. Prokesch was elevated from assistant to interim head coach after former coach Bill Ashton was removed Aug. 30 for what the school district called failure to follow safety protocols ,Newly-anointed quarterback Nico Morello suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the first practice and is being replaced by junior Joe Delan. Prokesch said “we’re hoping he can step in and handle the decision-making.”
With Goncalves heading up the line in front of him on every snap, at least he’ll have time.