He didn’t want to come back to America.
Not even a full year after leaving his home of San Juan, Puerto Rico to play his senior season of high school basketball in Jacksonville, Fla., Angel Matias decided he was not coming back to the States.
Matias comes from a basketball family. His father played pro ball in the Puerto Rican circuit, and Matias had been a standout since he was young. He loves Puerto Rico, and talks about it with passion.
But his family didn’t live the lavish lifestyle that an NBA player would.
“It wasn’t pretty. I lived in the projects for like 14 years,” Matias said. “It was a struggle, bad neighborhood.”
Growing up Matias was aware that he had a talent that could lead him to a better life, but for Puerto Ricans that usually means playing abroad.
“Back home everybody trying to come out of Puerto Rico and play basketball. That’s like the dream…to play basketball in America,” Matias said.
When his father got a call from a family friend about an opportunity to play for a high school team in America with plenty of exposure, he didn’t hesitate.
“Coming out of Puerto Rico and having the chance to play basketball in the United States, I was just like ‘wow,’” Matias said.
He left his high school back home to come play for Arlington Country Day School – a nationally known program for prep basketball.
But at 17-years-old, his high school’s head coach, the man who brought Matias over and was responsible for Matias’ well-being, failed him.
“I didn’t learn no English over there. I didn’t [go] to class at all…it was just basketball,” Matias said.
Arlington Country Day’s coach is Rex Morgan, a famed high school coach. Morgan is one of twelve “Nike Elite” coaches in the country.
He built the school into a seven-time state champion powerhouse and because the school is private, recruiting players is alright. Even from Puerto Rico.
“The treatment in Jacksonville, it wasn’t the best. There was days when I didn’t have food all day, or I only had one meal a day,” Matias said.
Morgan paid for Matias’ housing and meals – during the season at least.
Once the season was over, Matias went back to visit his family in Puerto Rico for Spring Break.
When he returned to Jacksonville, Morgan told him that he would no longer be paying for him to live in America.
“He was like…you’ve got one week to find somewhere to stay with one of your friends or something, or I’m going to send you home,” Matias said. “Just like that. I was 17-years-old. I started crying. I was trying to fight him.”
He was mad, and rightfully so.
Morgan had told Matias and his father that he was going to have his housing and food paid until he graduated. He went back on that promise with about six weeks of school left.
“He left me hanging. Just like that,” Matias said.
He had a friend on the team who was willing to house him for the remainder of the school year. But once school was over, Matias was out.
“I went to school the last day of school, and the same day I went back to Puerto Rico. I didn’t wait for graduation, I didn’t wait for prom, anything. I was just gone,” he said.
Arlington Country Day School did not return any phone calls for this story.
Matias is 22-years-old now. He’s a 6-foot-4, 220 pound power forward and has started every game for Georgia Southern this season.
Matias is averaging eight points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
He is strong and well-defined. He wears big diamond earrings and has a precisely trimmed, full, brown beard.
Matias’ English is surprisingly good for not knowing any five years ago, even though it’s hiding behind a thick, rounded Spanish accent.
His teammates like to have fun with it.
“He’s just a funny dude,” Jelani Hewitt said. “His accent makes some of his jokes even funnier.”
One of the funniest moments with Matias that teammate Curtis Diamond could remember involved his accent and an armadillo.
“We were in Mexico (for a tournament last season). Since he’s from Puerto Rico he was trying to act like he’s from the jungle,” Diamond said, laughing.
Matias was acting tough, telling his friends that armadillos don’t bite while egging the vermin on by playing with his tail.
“We have them back home so I’m used to being around them,” Matias said. “I was just trying to catch it or touch it, and when I put my hands on it, it got aggressive.”
Diamond said Matias’ screamed so loud he lost his accent.
“He screamed and he didn’t have his accent…he screamed ‘JESUS!’ It sounded like he’d been born in Atlanta,” Diamond said.
After his experience at Arlington Country Day School, all Matias wanted to do was go back to the land of the armadillos.
The first summer that he was back on the island, he got a phone call to play on the 18U Puerto Rican national team.
This was the beginning of the journey that landed him in Statesboro, Ga.
“We went to Texas and on our way back to Puerto Rico, one of my friends on the national team…he was like I know somebody that wants to help you,” Matias said. “He said ‘Don’t stay in Puerto Rico, let me help you.’”
Matias said no. He wasn’t going back to America.
“They ain’t going to get me again. I ain’t going back,” he said.
Finally, Matias agreed to talk to a man named Todd Washington.
Washington lives in Puerto Rico, and has begun a pipeline of players from the island to American colleges. He started a team called the Puerto Rican Playmakers, and his mission is to get kids an opportunity to play in the United States.
“He didn’t charge me. I don’t know this guy…he just wants to help. He said ‘give me two weeks, and I’m going to find you a school,’” Matias said. “He didn’t say no words for two weeks. He called me in two weeks and said, ‘I’ve got you a school. You leave in three days.’”
Not even a full summer after being abandoned in Florida, Matias wasn’t too eager to go back to the States. So he prayed about it.
Matias’ family grew up Roman Catholic, like 85 percent of Puerto Ricans.
“My family is not the type of family that goes to church every Sunday, but we believe in God,” he said.
“He says that God has his plans,” Diamond said.
So after being forced to make a quick decision, Matias believed God’s plan involved him going to play basketball at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
“He got a plan for everybody, that’s one of the reasons I never gave up…any time I ever have any doubts I pray. And He hasn’t let me down,” Matias said.
He was scared.
He was going to a no-name town with nothing to do; he had no family there, and he still didn’t speak English.
“When I got to the juco…I got a surprise. One of my friends was at [MGCCC], and we went to high school together. He was one year older and he knew both languages,” Matias said.
Over the next year Matias struggled, but he made strides. He failed every single one of his classes his fall semester because he didn’t know any English. He was redshirted that year because of it.
But he listened to his teammates talk, and had his friend, Raymond Sintron, translate.
“I used to sit down by my friend and I would be on his ear all the time, ‘What’d he say?’ and he would tell me in Spanish,” Matias said.
That’s how he learned English. Bit by bit, he became familiar with the language. He started to do better in school. He started to like Mississippi, because he had hope and purpose there.
“After I got redshirted I kept working out every day. And when I got my chance to play I was just so excited…all the work I put in, all the sacrifice,” Matias said, trailing off and looking down, smiling.
In his two years at MGCCC, Matias averaged 17.5 points and eight rebounds per game. Community Colleges are two-year institutions, so he was playing for the chance to move on to better things.
Ole Miss was looking at him and Southern Mississippi was looking at him; he was playing good basketball and had a Division 1 future lined up after junior college.
But just when his story was starting to look like it was going to have a happy ending, injury struck.
He broke his foot at the beginning of his sophomore year. It didn’t require surgery, so he let it heal. Once he got back on the court midway through the season, in his very first game back, he broke it again in the same spot.
All his options went away except for Jackson State and a Division II option in Arkansas. Matias was heartbroken.
“I was like woah, this is crazy. All the sacrifice to end up like this?” he said.
“I was working out, working out. Waiting, waiting. I was ready to go home. It was the last couple of weeks and I was ready to go home,” Matias said.
And then he got a phone call.
“My coach called me and he was like, this guy just contacted me and he wants to talk to you. It was Georgia Southern, and it was Coach Peele,” he said.
Randy Peele was an assistant coach at GSU last year. He now coaches at Tennessee State.
Matias said he ignored his coach and the phone calls.
“I was like, nah. I don’t want to talk. I’m done. I decided I was going to go to Jackson State…I’m not leaving, I’m already here,” he said.
But Coach Peele never gave up.
“He saw something in me that nobody saw…I would ignore the calls but he never gave up. I thank God so much for that man because he never gave up on me,” Matias said.
“Angel is a special young man. I was really concerned about him because…[the] injury. He was the Player of the Year as a freshman,” Peele said. Peele used the words ‘humble’ and ‘winner’ to describe Matias.
When Peele was recruiting him and Matias didn’t answer any of his phone calls, Peele just kept on calling. Matias said he must have called 20 times per week.
Finally, Matias decided to talk to Peele.
It was the end of the school year and Matias was about to get on a flight to Puerto Rico for the summer. Peele told Matias that they would bring him to Statesboro for a visit, and then would put him on a flight to Puerto Rico when he was done.
“I wasn’t too happy about it but I was like, okay, I’ll go and visit,” Matias said.
With a big smile on his face, the kind of smile that a man wears when he knows he lucked out, Matias said, “When I came to visit I just fell in love. It was so crazy.”
“Back home we’re so friendly, we like to help each other out. Since I first got here they said, ‘We’re going to make sure you graduate’,” Matias said.
Coach Peele and Georgia Southern head coach Mark Byington made sure Angel knew he was a student-athlete, not just an athlete.
“He’s the type of person you want in your program. He was as good of a person as there is and is top notch…he was exactly what we were looking for when we were bringing players in,” Byington said.
They told him about study hall and classes. They told him what they expected out of him and what he had to do in order to play for Georgia Southern.
Matias made his decision that day.
“The same day I left, I called Coach Peele,” Matias said. “Coach, that’s the school I want to go to. I’m going to Georgia Southern.”
Matias has found a home away from home in Statesboro.
While he loves it here, he does miss Puerto Rico, especially his family. His dad and brother have only seen him play once in the States, when the Eagles traveled to play Stetson and Central Florida earlier this year for a tournament in Orlando.
“They brought me a big Puerto Rican flag,” Matias said. They waved it whenever he had the ball, and Matias said it was the best moment he’s had since he’s been in the US.
After five years of only seeing her son during the summer, Matias’ mother will finally get to witness her boy play basketball in America next week.
“It’s going to be the last home game, seniors’ night, and that’s going to be the first time my momma has seen me play in the United States,” Matias said. Mist was in his eyes at the thought of his mother getting to watch what he has become.
But he is still hungry. He wants to make history at Georgia Southern.
“It feels good at this moment, but I feel like I’m not done yet,” Matias said. “We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done in 22 years.”
He is talking about making it to the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament. If the Eagles win the Sun Belt Championship, they punch their ticket to history.
Matias said, “I left my home…from Puerto Rico to the United States. From struggling with my injuries and Jacksonville, now trying to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in so long here, it’s like God really does have a plan. I could have given up at any time.”