As a retired sergeant of the 75th Ranger Regiment and having done four tours of duty in Afghanistan, Matthew Fletcher has had a tough time adapting to a civilian lifestyle.
But playing football again – a lifelong dream of his – has certainly helped him along the way.
“The brotherhood is the biggest thing,” said Fletcher, a redshirt junior linebacker for the Coastal Carolina football team. “For me, what’s crucial and what really kept me going all those years was the men on my left and on my right. Once I got out [of the Army], I didn’t have that anymore. My best friends are still in the Ranger Regiment, getting up and taking the fight to the enemy every day. But I got that sense of brotherhood here; I have something to devote myself to.”
His transition from the battlefield to the gridiron came full circle ceremonially last Saturday.
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With the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks last weekend, Coastal Carolina head coach Joe Moglia talked to his team about terrorism and the importance of the military. He then thought of the perfect way to honor Fletcher – suiting him up for the first time in his short NCAA Division I football career during the Chants’ 49-10 win over Florida A&M in the home opener.
“We all appreciate him,” Moglia said, “and I immediately thanked him for his service.”
While Fletcher cannot play while redshirting, Saturday’s experience was a nice appetizer.
“Saturday was great. The atmosphere, just from running out with all the fog and the crowd out here; it really is like a dream come true,” Fletcher said. “This year, I’m taking my redshirt year so I won’t be able to be actually on the field playing in the games. But this is still a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to do this since I was 8 years old.”
A native of Dekalb, Ill., Fletcher had thoughts of playing football in college at an early age, but his grades were an issue as his senior year approached.
He had a huge decision to make. Give up football and enter the workforce, or join the military and hopefully pursue a career in football down the road.
Fletcher never wavered in his decision.
“It was something when I was 18 years old, I looked to the future and said, ‘I’m going to do my time, I’m going to get my G.I. bill. Then they’ve got to let me [play].’ I know I could make it and that really pushed me. I wasn’t going to give up on it,” he said. “Being that I was joining the military, I wanted to do the hardest, most physically demanding and dangerous job I could do so the recruiter told me that would be the Army Rangers.
“So I was like, ‘All right, give me that.’ And I did everything I had to do to get through and make it to Ranger Regiment and I did my four deployments.”
During his tours of duty in Afghanistan, Fletcher and the 75th Ranger Regiment – a direct-action raid unit – was given high-value targets and had to “go get ’em.”
It wasn’t easy going from putting his life on the line every day to living out his dream of playing football, but Fletcher keeps things in perspective.
“It was really hard to adjust. It still is, just being able to tone it back a bit,” he said. “In Ranger Regiment, you come in to work at 5:30 a.m. and you’re going 500 mph and you can’t make any mistakes. You’re almost shaking, you’ve got to be that way because it’s life or death. Out here, if you do that in a civilian atmosphere, people are just going to think you’re a weirdo. It’s hard to kind of turn it off. Even just trying to relax in my home, I’m constantly on-guard. Here on campus when there’s so many people around, I’m hyper-alert.
“The biggest thing is learning to relax and kind of just know you’re done with the war and can actually enjoy the freedom we all fought for.”
But when it was time to come home, his grades still lingered and Fletcher couldn’t immediately join a Division I football team.
He looked into playing at the Junior College (JUCO) level, and ended up at the College of DuPage, the only JUCO program in his home state of Illinois. Fletcher played sparingly his freshman year, but was credited with 16 tackles (two for loss). His sophomore season was a different story, as he helped lead the team to an 8-2 record, a No. 4 ranking and a berth in a bowl game.
Fletcher then earned a walk-on opportunity with the Chants, and – through some connections – was quickly on his way to the Grand Strand.
“You come up with a recruiting list, a list of schools you have your coaches at the JUCO level contact for you. Right off the bat, I was looking at locations and saw Myrtle Beach. And I saw the school and it was near the beach and thought that was pretty cool,” he said. “… I talked to my coach and he used to coach with [offensive coordinator Dave] Patenaude. He got me in contact with him and as soon as I talked to him, I said, ‘Yeah, I’m down. This is where I need to be.’ Showed up here, got going right away.”
But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for the retired sergeant at the beginning.
“We were talking a lot because he was going through some [personal] stuff when he first got here and I helped him best I could. He definitely was down a little when he got here, but he’s picked up tremendously,” Chants linebacker Shane Johnson said. “But even if he’s down, you’ll never know unless you really pay attention to the guy. He always puts everybody else before him, so if he sees you down he’ll come to your aid with smiles and everything. The best way to describe him is just a great teammate.”
In the lead up to Saturday’s game, Fletcher delivered an inspirational message to his teammates after Tuesday’s practice.
“Everybody talks about honoring the fallen, but a lot of people don’t really know how to do that. It’s my philosophy that if you want to honor the fallen that you continue to fight and keep fighting,” Fletcher said. “Whatever you do, whether you’re a student, a teacher, a football player, a reporter – just anything you’re doing, just get up in the morning and fight all day for it. When you get knocked down, you get back up. You keep pushing no matter what. That’s basically what I told [the team].”
And while Fletcher is working hard to become a mainstay on the Chants’ defense, he still has a long way to go.
“He’s still pretty green in terms of football. He’s still learning the system, he’s still learning to play,” Moglia said. “He’s probably more of a Ranger than he is a football player, but we’re honored to have the guy on our team. He put his life on the line to defend our country. We’re honored to have him on the team, but he still has to become a little more comfortable [playing] football.”
Johnson said Fletcher is doing his part to move forward.
“All he wants to do is learn,” Johnson said. “He’s one of those guys that he doesn’t really know everything about football, but he’s always going to give 100 percent and keep going.”
And Fletcher won’t let his “brothers” slow down, either.
“Right now, my biggest thing is just effort and going 100 mph. When everyone’s tired, I just try to pick them up,” he said. “I have brothers in the locker room. If I come in feeling down or anything like that, or I’m starting to feel depressed – they give me a purpose. A lot of [veterans] are losing that when they come home. So the biggest thing is the brotherhood.”