Mike Matvey
Mike Matvey

“St. John Baptist de La Salle, pray for us.”

These are the words that are branded on my brain after spending four years at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh. It was this prayer that we said before each class, whether it was religion or geometry. And it is a prayer that I often still say to myself when looking for guidance. It just pops into my head. I have the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and the many lay teachers, to thank for that.

And I have a lot of other things to thank them for as well. They took young boys and molded us into young men in four years. As the school’s website says Central Catholic “fosters a life of faith and learning and develops leaders rooted in the Gospel values of integrity, respect, service, justice and peace.”

I often look back at those days and can’t imagine that I was this awkward, 13-year-old freshman with glasses and acne who had no idea what he was doing in a class of 200 at the all-boys’ prep school.

I remember practicing the combination on my padlock days before school started so I would not forget it. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember it on the first day, and as the horn blew for the start of class, I grabbed all of my books from my locker, jammed them into my book bag, and dragged it to Mr. Emanuele’s Algebra I class. “Mr. Matvey, you will only need your Algebra textbook for this class,” he said, blowing the chance that no one would notice my overflowing bag of books.

Then there were football tryouts. Football is king in western Pennsylvania and my high school even produced the great Dan Marino, who went to the University of Pittsburgh and then on to a Hall of Fame career with the Miami Dolphins in the NFL.

We had 100 kids try out for the freshman team, and even though I was small, I thought I had a chance to make the team. I remember doing the “Oklahoma Drill” — which is universally banned now because of the potential for jarring hits and concussions — where a running back lines up behind one offensive lineman, who is squaring off against a defensive lineman. If you got a good block, you could coast past the defender untouched. I remember seeing Todd Pipkin, all 6-3, 200 pounds, lining up on the defensive side of the ball. Coaches yelled “hut” and the next thing I know Todd picked me up and slammed me to the ground. Maybe I was too small after all.

But as the days turned into months, things got better — as they always do — and I became more comfortable and started meeting guys from other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. And I didn’t mind the dress code, either!

There was the real feeling that the teach­ers cared for us and wanted to see us succeed. They pushed us to learn more, do more, play a sport (I ended up on the volleyball team with all the other misfits cut from the football, basketball and baseball teams) or participate in another after-school activity.
There was no room for screwing around or screwing up. Mr. Wheeler, the prefect, roamed the halls between classes, making sure everyone was on time. Even a second late after the classroom doors closed and it was after-school detention. Luckily, I only faced that fate once in four years. And this was all centered around the Catholic faith, which my parents, Christian Brothers and lay teachers instilled in me. I still have no idea how my parents, who were struggling financially at the time, could afford to send my older brother and I to Central. But I am forever grateful for their sacrifices.

When talking with principals and teachers in the Diocese of Albany, they describe “teaching the whole child” and the “family” atmosphere that exists. That is not only true of the diocesan schools in the Capital District but it was true at Central Catholic. The young boys that we were, soon turned into young men and I still keep in touch with a good half-a-dozen some 30-odd years later. They became my second family, I went to their weddings, Steelers games and on vacation. Even though I have two brothers, my friends at Central Catholic became my brothers and my family as well.

All those prayers to St. John Baptist de la Salle really paid off.


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