Matt Lehr: Looking Back
by Neal Williams
TSL Extra, Issue #3

Joni Mitchell sang the words years ago, before Matt Lehr was even born. "Donít it always seem to go, you donít know what youíve got Ďtil itís gone."

Lehr can relate, partly.

He knows what he had, knows well.

He just canít believe it is gone already.

"It went too fast," said Lehr, whose stellar career as an offensive guard at Virginia Tech ended Jan. 1 with the Hokiesí 41-20 whipping of Clemson in the Gator Bowl. "You blink and it is over. Iím with (tackle and fellow departee) Dave Kadela now and weíve been talking about it. Itís gone before you know it."

Lehr has one more "college" game, thanks to his invitation to play in the Hula Bowl later this month. But his days as a member of the Hokies are done.

What days they turned out to be.

Lehr was part of the winningest four-year class in Tech history. The Hokies were 11-1 in both his junior and senior seasons. And the undersized lineman who was not a most-wanted property coming out of Woodbridge (Va.) High was a major part of that success.

He became a star.

He became a leader.

As much as heíll miss his days at Tech, the Hokies may miss him more.

"Definitely," said defensive end Jim Davis, who played this season as a true freshman just as Lehr did in 1997.

"Matt was a leader, just with his work ethic. For instance, in the weight room he worked with me one time. That was the very first time I came into the weight room. He showed me and ins and outs of what it takes to be an All-American type athlete. You can tell he just had a passion. Thatís something I really didnít have coming in. He set the tone for a lot of the freshmen coming in.

"I hope I can end up being like that. I will, if I work hard enough. Iím going to concentrate really hard to become like a Matt Lehr or a (fellow senior) Cory Bird."

In an ideal world, Lehrís days as a Hokie would not be over.

Heís only 21, younger than some of his teammates who are coming back next season.

Rare is the athlete who doesnít take a "redshirt" season at some point. Davis, for example, was one of only three true freshmen to play for the Hokies in 2000.

Lehr, in particular, could have used a redshirt season since he came to the Hokies (and still is in some ways) undersized.

But it doesnít always work out that way. Timing is everything and, at the time Lehr and Kadela joined the team, the Hokies were not deep on the offensive line. The team needed the two freshmen to play Ė not much, but enough to use up the yearís eligibility.

By the following season, Lehr was a starter and there was no turning back.

"There are some things Iíd like to change and being redshirted is one," Lehr said. "Other than that, thereís not much. That was totally out of my control.

"Thatís something I ask myself every day. If I had one more year, what could I accomplish? Itís weird. There really was no choice."

Lehr hasnít grown upward. He reported at 6-2. He remains 6-2.

He has gained some bulk. He says he was about 250 pounds when he showed up "if that." After preseason two-a-day practices he was down to 238 pounds. Heís carrying 285 now, which is about his max.

Lehr developed more than muscles. He earned the nickname "The Technician" for his fanatical devotion to doing things the proper way. Bryan Stinespring, Techís assistant head coach and offensive line coach, said Lehr has set a standard for hard work and that standard has been noticed.

"Pro scouts Iíve talked to say theyíve never seen a guy practice with the same kind of focus at the end as they do at the beginning the way Matt does," Stinespring said.

All part of the plan, Lehr said. If you canít outsize someone, outwork them.

"I wish I was a little bigger at some point," he said with a laugh. "I think my main strength is just not wanting to quit, always trying to work harder than anybody else, telling myself that there is no one who is going to work harder than me, trying to become a student of the game.

"Thereís a lot more to people than just size. You can overcome size."

Lehr ended up starting 27 straight games for the Hokies and earned the designation as Techís "most consistent offensive lineman" in the teamís postseason media guide.

As a senior, he made second-team All-Big East Ė something of a joke to those who saw Lehr play. He had a "first team" type season. He was also a second-team Walter Camp All-America and was named to the postseason All-America team by ESPN The Magazine. Going into the season, Lindyís Magazine and The Sporting News listed Lehr as the No. 5 guard in Division I-A.

Twice during the regular season, Lehr was voted Techís game MVP by the teamís coaches (Miami, West Virginia).

"I was just happy going to college on a scholarship," Lehr said. "I would never have imagined making all-conference and All-America and going to All-Star games."

Lehr, and the younger Davis, are prime examples of Techís recruiting successes in recent years. Sure, the Hokies love their "blue-chippers" and they pursue them hard. But not every recruit can be a big-timer, and Tech has done an excellent job of mining the next tier for athletes who can develop.

The trick in recruiting is not seeing who can do what now, itís seeing who can do what later. Lehrís offers mostly came from Division I-AA schools. Many schools saw a hard-working player who was just a bit too small. Tech saw a hard-working player who could develop, who could set an example, who could fit into what the Hokies were trying to do.

"Tech gives a lot of guys the opportunity," Lehr said. "Itís almost like they can see the future, what a guy is going to be."

With his college playing days behind him, Lehr is almost back where he started before he became a Hokie. Once again, the undersized lineman will have to prove himself.

Heís due to graduate next fall with a degree in financial risk management.

"Thatíll give me a good degree to fall back on," he said.

He may become a coach.

But first, heís going to try and become a professional football player. Heíll attend the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis before the April 21 draft. Perhaps there, someone will see in Lehr the same qualities Tech saw when it recruited him.

Just give him the chance, he says.

"Itís a big challenge, a big dream of mine to make it," Lehr said. "Itís kind of like starting college recruiting all over again.

"I want to make sure I maintain my weight, get stronger and become more a student of the game. If you go into life looking at and thinking you know everything, youíre going to get shot down. Every day, you can learn something new."

Lehr says he doesnít doubt people who say college is the best time of your life. His advice to younger players like Davis is simple Ė work hard and enjoy because it will all end all too soon.

"When is another time that you learn about life like this?" Lehr said. "You grow up so rapidly, you meet the people youíll know the rest of your life. You get to 18 and think youíre grown up. College is where you grow up, where you meet your true friends.

"This team is like my family and it is going to be hard to come back and see these guys play next year and Iím not going to be with them. It has taught me so many different things, I canít even start to explain how.

"Itís taught me how to become a person, how to get through life without waiting for something to happen, to make it happen. Itís been one experience Iíll never forget."

 

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