Pillote: A goodbye to Matthew Harris

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Gameday Editor


The end of a career is often framed as a choice, when really there’s no choice at all.

Whether its advancing age or, in Matthew Harris’ case, a collection of injuries, the decision to retire is all too often forced upon us.

Such were the circumstances when Harris, formerly a senior defensive back, announced Monday he was stepping away from football. The decision came as a result of a litany of injuries Harris compiled over his four year as a Wildcat, including a concussion sustained earlier this season.

Harris faced a difficult choice, to be sure, but that choice was probably the only reasonable option available to him. Sacrificing long term health and happiness for a final year on the football team sounds like a difficult bargain to accept, to say the least.

“Matthew and I have sat down and talked at least once a week, not only about short term but also long term,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said, discussing Harris’ decision. “I think it’s the right thing.”

As a fellow member of the class of 2017, I’ve always enjoyed watching Harris just a little bit more than his teammates. He saw the field right away as a true freshman, and was a player I could follow all through my time at NU.

Harris always impressed, making a mark right away as a kick returner and gradually growing into one of the best corners in the Big Ten. After a third-team all-conference mention at the end of last year, he was certainly primed for a big senior season. Even the National Football League seemed within his grasp.

But Harris provided some of the most haunting moments I’ve seen in football. The head-to-head hit he suffered in 2014 against Penn State sucked the air out of the 100,000-person stadium. Harris instantly went limp and lay down on the turf for several minutes; it seemed miraculous he was cleared after the game to travel home with the team.

The guilt I felt in that moment — enjoying football from the safety of a press box while somebody like Harris put his health and well-being on the line — still sticks with me. It’s bad enough to see all of the nationally-televised head-cracking that goes on every Saturday and Sunday, and it’s even worse when it happens to a classmate and peer.

Of course I continued to watch football and continued to pull (even harder) for Harris, but reflecting on that moment, I’m relieved Harris has now come to the sensible conclusion of walking away from the game.

His choice may have been illusory, but his courage is real. Many in his position might have tried to soldier on, at the enormous cost of their short-term health and long-term quality of life. For Harris to call it quits — on his own volition, if not necessarily on his own terms — shows a level of maturity we should all look up to.

I won’t get to watch Harris anymore, but I’ve never been rooting for him more than I am now.

Bobby Pillote is a McCormick senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote