Virginia Tech's Own "Rudy"
by Cary Whaley
TSL Extra, Issue #12

When #30 put on his jersey and took the field for the Virginia Tech Hokies against the University of Central Florida, it wasn’t with heroic aspirations. He never even played in the game. However, in the case of redshirt senior kicker Matt Felber, it was noteworthy, since it was the fulfillment of a five-year quest for a seemingly unattainable goal….to wear a Virginia Tech football jersey.

Much like Notre Dame’s legendary Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, Matt Felber’s story is one of a fierce determination to overcome obstacles and criticisms. His goals are to wear the maroon and orange jersey of the Hokies and to continue to be a part of a team that he now regards as family.

Felber's five-year career as an unrecruited walk-on has suffered many setbacks. He had to try out for the team, was cut from the team three times, and spent four years on the team without a jersey number. In spite of all of this, he has continued to display a steady work ethic and an inspiring dedication to the Hokies.

Making the Team

Matt Felber walked on to the Virginia Tech football team in 1997 with the dream of playing college football. During his high school years at Randolph Macon Academy, he was a kicker and played on the soccer team. While many colleges didn’t recruit him, he decided that whatever college he chose, he would try out for their football team. He had no other reason in mind than to reach for a dream that seemed beyond his grasp. With that in mind, Matt Felber chose Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech football has a storied walk-on program that has produced several NFL standouts, such as John Burke and John Engelberger. However, the Hokie football coaches specifically recruit most of the walk-ons. The remaining few players are selected from tryouts that the Assistant Athletic Director conducts. Most of these players are with the team for a short time, only a couple of months.

Felber attended the tryout with about 30 other football hopefuls, eight of which were kickers or punters. The tryout did not go well for him. He turned in the slowest time in the 40-yard dash. His first couple of punts were shorter than those of the other punters. He was given one more chance to punt and kicked it 55 yards. That punt was good enough to catch Coach Beamer’s attention, and Matt was called over to practice with Tech’s special teams.

Imagine if you will, an 18-year old dressed in a t-shirt and shorts lining up behind 10 players in full pads, blocking another 10 players rushing in to block the punt. Even with that pressure, Felber managed to make punt consistently and received a locker and a spot on the team.

Keeping Up

Making the team was only the beginning. For a tryout player, nothing is automatic. A player can be cut at any time. To remain with the team a walk-on has to give it his all in every workout and practice.

Felber spent his freshmen year as a placekicker and punter for the scout and jayvee teams. In the jayvee games, he was very nervous and inconsistent. After just his second jayvee game, he was cut from the roster. His dream of playing for the Hokies had ended, or so he thought.

After the 1997 Gator Bowl game, place-kicker Shayne Graham called Felber to see if he wanted to work out with him during the off season. Felber agreed to join Graham at his daily 7 am workouts. Felber was asked back during the first week of spring practice and punted 3 times for an average of 38.3 yards during the 1998 Spring Game.

Instead of going to summer school, Felber spent the summer working as an instructor for two kicking camps. When he returned to Blacksburg in the late summer, he learned that one of the realities of Division 1 football is that the summer workouts are extremely important. Players who had worked out the entire summer were less than pleased to see Felber return from a summer "break."

He spent his sophomore year kicking for the jayvee team. He kicked a 41-yard field goal and three extra points in a 24-21 jayvee win over Fork Union Academy. He traveled with the scout team to the Music City Bowl that year but he still didn’t dress for the game. However, he didn’t complain; being with his friends on the team and seeing them hold up the trophy was reward enough for his efforts that year.

While Shayne Graham and Jimmy Kibble solidly held down the kicking and punting chores, Felber continued to work hard in the weight room. He regularly attended Assistant Athletic Director of Athletic Performance Mike Gentry’s 6 am winter workouts. In spring practice in 1999, he was bettering Jimmy Kibble’s average distance. He stayed for the summer workouts, and a transformation began to occur. He was becoming an athlete.

Other players, including former Hokie quarterback Dave Meyer began to notice, "During the summer, you could always find Matt Felber with his bag of footballs out on the practice fields practicing his punting and kicking," Meyer remembers.

The Sugar Bowl Season

On the brink of what was to be the Hokies’ greatest season ever, Felber was cut from the team.

The Hokies had brought in two recruited walk-on freshmen, Bobby Peaslee and Carter Warley, to August two-a-days. Felber was offered the opportunity to continue to workout with the team in t-shirt and shorts. He was officially listed as a redshirt but wasn’t assigned a locker and had to watch every game of the 11-0 season from the stands.

At the final game against Boston College, Felber was sitting with his kicking coach in the first row of the bleachers on the home side of the field. A Tech graduate assistant, Bill Houseright, saw him in the stands and told him to come down onto the field and join the team for the fourth quarter.

A month later, he watched the Hokies play for the National Championship in the Sugar Bowl on television. Again it appeared his days with the team had come to an end.

However, the next spring he was asked to rejoin the team for spring practice and challenge Bobby Peaslee for starting punter. He outdistanced Peaslee’s 37-yard average with a 41.7-yard average. He stayed in Blacksburg throughout the summer with the hope that he’d get to start in the fall. Instead, Coach Beamer invited redshirt freshman Peaslee and scholarship true freshman Vinnie Burns to the August two-a-days. Felber, who was a redshirt junior at the time, was again told that his services would not be needed and was cut from the team.

As the start of the season neared, Coach Beamer decided to redshirt Burns and gave the starting job to Peaslee. Peaslee got off to a slow start, so after the second game, Felber was called to rejoin the team. He kicked an extra point in a jayvee win over Fork Union and punted four times for a 38.8-yard average for the JV team in a victory over Hargrave Military Academy. He traveled to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl and kicked with the scout team. All the while he had never appeared in a team photo or dressed for a game.

Getting a Uniform

Last April was Felber's last chance to impress. He went into spring practice thinking he had a good shot at challenging for punter. Coach Beamer had indicated that the position of punter was up for grabs, with Peaslee and Burns in the mix. However, during the very first day of practice, Felber was switched to placekicker to challenge Jon Mollerup, because returning starter Carter Warley was out all spring with a lower back injury.

The competition between Mollerup and Felber was head-to-head, with both listed on the first team of the depth chart. Mollerup had the strongest leg of the two, but Felber was more accurate and consistent.

Mollerup won the job as the backup to Warley, but Felber’s strong spring performance as a placekicker lead to a couple of personal firsts: he was asked to join the team for the August two-a-days, and his picture and bio were included in the preseason media guide. He had made the team.

With his dream within his grasp, Felber continues to display the work ethic that has kept him with the team. Prior to this season's Connecticut game, Felber had his appendix removed. Despite that, he was back at practice after just a few days, with tape holding his surgical stitches in place. Last month he was given Virginia Tech Jersey #30, which he proudly wore during the Central Florida game on September 29th. Last Saturday against Boston College, Matt Felber was in uniform for only the second time in his college career.

Getting Respect

While his name seldom appears on depth charts, and he can hardly be called a difference maker, Felber’s determination and dedication to the team have earned him the respect of the players and coaches alike.

"The guy uses all the physical, God-given abilities he has to the max," recounts Meyer. "There is no questioning this guy's heart and desire to be on the Hokie football team."

While he hasn’t gained success on the field, Felber has gained success in the classroom. He will graduate with a degree in Management Science. After college, he’d like to keep playing football on the side and plans on trying out for an Arena football team.

Will He or Won’t He?

While his hard work has earned him jersey #30, whether or not Matt Felber will get to play for the Hokies has yet to be decided.

As with many things in his football career, conventional wisdom says he won’t. He’s listed as the 3rd string kicker behind Carter Warley and Jon Mollerup. If Warley’s back injury is aggravated, Felber could be useful in extra-point and short field-goal situations. It is possible, but not likely that he could see some late-game action in a blowout. Kickers have only a few opportunities to play in each game, and it’s important for the starters to get in as many plays as possible.

Even if he never plays a down for the Hokies, fulfilling his personal dream has rewarded Felber in many ways. He has built friendships with many of the players and coaches, been transformed by the Virginia Tech's strength and conditioning program from a wiry walk-on into an athlete … and more importantly, into #30 for the Virginia Tech Hokies.

In the end, the most important thing that Matt Felber has accomplished is the fulfillment of a dream that even Rudy Ruettiger would approve of.



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