The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

December 6, 2013

TD Club HOF Series: Hatchette cut it

Tireless work ethic carried former Jefferson great all the way to the NFL

These days, Matthew Hatchette keeps himself busy as an entrepreneur, a businessman, a movie producer, an actor, a philanthropist and a coach.

But a decade ago, Hatchette made the grade as an NFL wide receiver.

Several years before that, he played quarterback for the Jefferson Falcons.

It is in that last capacity that he will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame on Monday at Our Lady of Peace.

Hatchette had played in the Jefferson Midget Football League for the Steelers before gravitating into the Jefferson junior high football program. Still, it was a bit of a shock when then-Falcons coach Joe Kearney elevated him into the starting lineup as a quarterback for the Jefferson varsity as a mere sophomore in 1989.

Hatchette, who also played basketball for the Falcons, justified Kearney’s faith, and, as a senior, led Jefferson to a 7-3 record. By then, he was also starting in the defensive backfield.

“The last couple of years, I was never off the field,” Hatchette said recently from his home near Los Angeles.

As a 6-foot-3 180-pound senior in the 1991 season, Hatchette connected on 62 of 134 passes (.463) for 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns and ran the ball 78 times for 366 yards with nine touchdowns and four 2-point conversions. His rushing average was 4.66, but it must be kept in mind that in high school, sacks are considered rushing attempts. Otherwise, the average would be higher.

He also caught three passes for 50 yards, intercepted seven passes, blocked a field goal and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown, returned 15 kickoffs for 335 yards (22.3 average) and five punts for 64 yards (12.8 average).

Not surprisingly, Hatchette was named 1991’s Star Beacon Ashtabula County Offensive Back of the Year after the season and was special mention all-state.

His favorite receiver, Ryan Banks, pulled in 29 of those passes for 778 yards (26.8 yards per catch).

“Ryan Banks was my go-to guy,” Hatchette said of the teammate who has remained a good friend and actually breakfasted with him in Ohio (Columbus) over the Thanksgiving weekend.

 “Richard Fisher was our running back. Jason Janson was a good linebacker.”

When Hatchette was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round in 1997, Kearney took the opportunity to praise his former player.

“Matt was always someone who would go the extra mile,” Kearney told the Star Beacon’s Don McCormack. “I can remember after almost every football practice, Matt and Ryan Banks would stick around for another half an hour or so and work on passing and catching.

“Matt never shied away from doing whatever was necessary to make himself better.”

Tim Mizer, who was head coach of the Falcon boys basketball team when Hatchette played, echoed those sentiments.

“The dedication he showed in high school was special,” Mizer said. “In the summers between his freshman and sophomore and sophomore and junior years, Matt used to go over to the school and do his own football workout.

“Then he’d go into the gymnasium and shoot and work on his basketball game for two or three hours. Finally, he’d show up for open gyms later that night.”

“I was a good athlete, but not that fast,” Hatchette said. “I hadn’t developed yet, wasn’t that big, strong and fast.”

That would come. After graduation, he headed to Division II Mercyhurst College, unsure of his exact position.

“I really didn’t go as a quarterback,” he said recently. “I was more of a receiver there. When I left (after one year for Langston University in Oklahoma), I wanted to play quarterback there. But when I got to Langston, they wanted to make me a defensive back. I said, ‘If I’m going to switch, I’ll switch to the offensive side of the ball.’”

Langston University was (and is) a small Division II college that plays such teams as Grambling, Central State of Ohio, Texas Southern and Arkansas Pine-Bluff, “some good classics” as Hatchette says.

“Central State sent Eric Williams to the NFL as a first-round pick,” he said. “They were sending three or four guys a year to the NFL.”

Between his first and second year at Langston, an NAIA university, he had an epiphany.

“The first year, I wasn’t doing anything but trying to find myself as a person, more as an athlete trying to figure out my strengths and get a direction in life,” he said. “I decided I would focus and put all my effort into becoming a professional athlete. I went into (serious) training and changed to six hours a day of working out. I’d go in at 10 o’clock and run routes. It became my passion.”

Rules demanded he sit out a year before playing for the Lions, but made an impression his junior and senior seasons. He caught 77 passes for 1,349 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“I was on the map,” he said.

Though he wasn’t invited to the Indianapolis combine, Hatchette was indeed on someone’s radar. The Vikings made him their seventh-round selection.

“It was pick 235,” he said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I didn’t care (when I was drafted) as long as someone called.

“I thought, ‘Just call me, just call me and pick me.’”

The Vikings had assigned quarterbacks coach Chip Myers, a native Oklahoman, the duties of scouting Hatchette on a first-hand basis.

“He went down to look at him specifically, because we had heard some good things about him,” said Brian Billick, then Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, who would become Baltimore Ravens’ head coach and lead them to a Super Bowl victory in 2000. “He came away really impressed.

“It’s hard to be a secret anymore nowadays. Matthew Hatchette, 15 years ago, is a guy that maybe only one or two teams would know anything about. Matthew is capable of making big plays for us.”

In 1997 the Vikings already had Cris Carter and Jake Reed as their No. 1 and 2 receivers.

“I was the No. 3 receiver,” he said. “I was just trying to find my way. We had a pretty good team. I wanted to go to the playoffs and play well, like a young rookie.”

That first year with Minnesota, Hatchette played in all 16 games, but caught just three passes for 54 yards, an 18.0 average. His longest catch went for 38 yards.

The next year, 1998, the Vikings drafted Randy Moss in the first round. Hatchette went from the third receiver to the fourth and saw action in just five games, but upped his production to 15 receptions for 216 yards, a 14.4 average.

On Dec. 13, 1998, he had  his best day as a pro, yardage-wise, with six receptions for 95 yards, when Reed was sidelined for the game.

“I was just happy to be playing NFL football,” he said. “They say from the first to the second year makes the biggest difference in pro football.

“There’s a huge jump physically, mentally and emotionally. They weren’t afraid to put me in the game. I was doing my thing on the team, just doing my job, blocking and making plays.”

In 1999, he got into 13 games and caught nine passes for 180 yards and in 2000 into 14 games with 16 receptions for 190 yards.

Hatchette had signed a two-year contract in his rookie year, 1997. He signed two more one-year contracts, before becoming, according to NFL rules, a free agent in 2001.

“It’s automatic,” he said. “Then you have to figure out who wants you, have to look at other teams.”

In Hatchette’s case, the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets were the teams interested.

“I thought that the Jets were the best fit for me,” he said. “I felt I was the best fit for their offense and they had the best offer on the table. They had Laveranues and Wayne Chrebet and I thought I could give them something they didn’t have (size, at 6-3, 200). They signed Santana Moss, too, so they had four receivers that year.”

Alas, Hatchette got into just 11 games that year and caught just two passes for 44 yards.

“You have your ups and downs,” he said. “It was not a good year for me professionally. Some systems are not that good for you.”

He was not resigned and went to the Oakland Raiders in 2002 to try to make the team. The Raiders had Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and Jerry Porter for receivers.

“They wanted someone else on the roster and thought that was me,” Hatchette said. But he injured a shoulder and wound up sitting out the year.

After his forced inactivity and injury, NFL teams wanted him to work out for them before they would offer him a contract. Instead, Hatchette headed for Europe to play for the Amsterdam Admirals.

He made a big impression there, leading the league with 61 receptions for 790 yards and seven touchdowns (the league high that year), finishing third in the voting for Most Valuable Player.

“I dominated, basically,” he said. “I led all receivers in yards and touchdowns.

“I wanted to go over there and do good. I did what I was supposed to do. If I didn’t go, no one would think I was serious about coming back.”

Hatchette was all business in Europe.

“I didn’t get to see the city,” he said. “I was focused on football. I would love to go back one day.”

The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him in 2003 when he returned to America. He started the season strong, with 15 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns. But then Jimmy Smith returned from a four-week suspension for violating the NFL’s drug-abuse policy.

“They stopped dressing me,” Hatchette said. “That’s one of the things the NFL does.

“I feel I performed at a solid level, when they gave me the opportunity. I was leading the team in every receiving category when they stopped dressing me, which proves I can play in this league.”

The Jaguars released him before the 2004-2005 season. Hatchette was 30. He finished with 60 career receptions for 887 yards (14.8 average) with six touchdowns. In the playoffs, he had six receptions for 39 yards and two TDs.

Those two playoff touchdowns came for the Vikings. The one in 1998 came in the final minutes of a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. In 1999 his five-yard TD catch gave Minnesota a 27-17 lead over the Atlanta Falcons. But the Falcons came back to win that game, 30-27, 12 minutes into overtime.

“The NFL is supposed to be about what you do on the football field,” he said in 2003. “But really, it’s not that clear-cut. A  lot of it is about who you are, when you were drafted, etc.

“My whole career, I’ve always been the guy to get cut out because I was a seventh-round draft choice.

“I felt mentally and physically that I had done everything I could possibly do,” he said. “My career wasn’t going the way I planned.”

So Hatchette turned to other pursuits. He became an entrepreneur, started his own movie and television production company, Hatchet Films, which has produced The Take and Playas Ball, his own sports company and launched a sports drink, Title Sports Drink. One of his productions, Cru, will be on television next year.

He has 10 acting credits, including appearances in “Boston Legal” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

 Title Sports Drink contains trace minerals and electrolyte blends with no caffeine, no dyes and no high-fructose corn syrup. The berry flavor of the drink already outsells Gatorade in south Florida.

He also serves as a defensive coordinator/wide receivers coach at Calabasas High School in California.

It would seem that his pursuits are so diverse, he would have little time for anything else. Yet he does several things for charity, including his scholarship for needy students at Langston. He also lent his name and appeared at the Matthew Hatchette Celebrity Weekend, a golf tournament and football clinic in Jefferson that raised money to build an 8,000-square foot stadium building near Falcon Pride Stadium.

“Even though it seems complicated from the outside, I’m a simple person,” he said. “I wake up and try to be the best I can be every day.

“People wonder why I do the things I do. My ‘why’ is my friends and family.”

Hatchette keeps up with friends from high school and visits his mother, Betty Hatchette, who now lives in Beachwood, frequently.

“I still come home for the holidays,” he said. “It’s just different.

“I have a scholarship in my name (for needy students) at Langston. I helped raise money for (the stadium building) because I like Jefferson. I like to give back and try to be part of charities.”

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.

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