In the beginning, Matt Koran’s goal was not to find his ‘A’ game but, rather, to enjoy some fun and games.
He wasn’t allowed to go outside and run around the neighborhood until his homework was done and his chores were complete. At home, he was the object of tough love. He turned a strict parental regiment into personal motivation.
And look at him now.
Koran, a recent graduate of Joliet West High School, is headed to Harvard. He will study economics and play football in the Ivy League. He will leave behind a legacy that rings to the lyrics of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, an ’80s ballad written for the movie Rocky III at the request of Sylvester Stallone.
Risin’ up, straight to the top
Had the guts, got the glory
Went the distance now I’m not gonna stop
Today, Tigers everywhere would do well to rejoice in that famous chorus, revel in the glow of the accomplishments of one of their native sons. There is no stopping Koran.
He will join the Crimson in mid-August after compiling a 4.45 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale during his four years at JT West. When he was not excelling in the classroom, he was raising eyebrows on playing fields.
Koran was three-sport standout for the Tigers—football (linebacker), wrestling (195 pounds) and baseball (catcher). For six straight seasons, from the beginning of his junior year until the end of senior year, he earned all-conference honors in all three sports, an almost unheard-of achievement in a day and age of specialization and teen burnout. All told, he racked up seven all-conference awards.
In recognition of these feats, Koran was voted the Joliet high school Athlete of the Year 2011-12 in fan balloting on Patch.
In the fall of 2010, he helped JT West knock off Lincoln-Way Central in a triple-overtime football thriller. In the winter of 2011-12, he placed fifth in the Class 3A state wrestling tournament. And, earlier this spring, he powered the Tigers to a share of the Southwest Suburban Blue Conference baseball championship.
His is a success story born out of listening to others—coaches and mentors—of mastering time management skills and of pushing himself to go above and beyond the norm. Looking back, he turned the first page in his own memory book when he started playing T-ball at the age of 4.
His dad, Kelly Koran, a civil engineering aide with the City of Joliet, was his first coach. He pulled some strings to get Matt started ahead of the rest of his peers, encouraged him to try anything and everything, including gymnastics. His mother, DeAnne, a nurse a Lockport High School, worked with her husband to make sure academics always were put on a par with athletics.
“I couldn’t even go outside if I didn’t have my homework done,” Matt Koran said. “My mom was big on that. She was a strict parent. But it worked out perfectly. I appreciate everything she has done for me.”
Koran comes across during an interview on a JT West concession stand bench as a polite young man replete with the smile of the All-American boy. He respectfully gives credit where credit is due. Ask him to name a favorite teacher or someone who he felt made a lasting impression during his days at JT West and watch him craft an answer that is fitting with his personality, that borders on all-inclusive.
He goes the extra mile in talking about three special JT folks: Janice Sheehan (English), Mark Eleveld (English) and Ellen Begler (mathematics).
“Ms. Sheehan is the loving teacher; she cares dearly about you,” Koran said. “She taught me how to read analytically. She sent me off to college well-prepared. And Mr. Eleveld as well—he’s more of the philosophical type of English teacher. Also, Ms. Begler. She was just like Ms. Sheehan, so loving. She was like a mother and cared so deeply for your grades. She taught me how to love math.”
Koran’s love for tackling problems is almost as legendary as his love for tackling football foes.
His JT sports greatest hits list begins with a trip to Louisville before his junior year to play in a national baseball tournament, the trip corresponding with the return of the a two-sports program in the school district and the return of the Tigers. He cherishes the thought of scooping buckets of sweat from his cleats at Lorado Taft, the heat-index climbing well over 100 degrees during one stretch at summer football camp.
And, he recalls, fighting through heartache. What is it they say? Nothing comes easy?
Koran reached the semifinals in the 195-pound weight class at the IHSA state wrestling tournament in February and took a lead into the third period of a heart-breaking 5-4 loss to Blake Blair of Edwardsville. Blair scored a takedown to win with seconds remaining.
Koran’s dream of walking in the Grand March was dashed. He subsequently was caught in a headlock and thrown on his back in a semifinal wrestleback and dropped a 7-6 decision to Marist’s Josh Pruitt before meeting with JT West assistant coach Bob Rucka and coming to a conclusion that would send him out in fitting fashion.
Koran pinned Glenbard North’s Dan Eldridge to win his final high school wrestling match, to place fifth in class where little separated Nos. 1-5.
“Coach Rucka came up to me and he said, ‘This is where you define great athletes, when you could be down in the dumps,’ ” Koran said. “He said, ‘Rise above that. Achieve something when you’re not in the right mindset.’ ”
JT West baseball coach John Karczewski was along for the ride through many of Koran’s most remarkable achievements. Karczewski worked with Koran for four years and watched him blossom into a power-hitting catcher (6 homers, 29 RBIs), daring baserunner (20 stolen bases) and team leader.
“It’s once in a lifetime that a kid like that comes around—a three-sport athlete and one who excelled in all three sports,” Karczewski said. “I believe it’s the first time somebody’s been all-conference for six straight seasons in our school history. And those aren’t cupcake sports. Those are the toughest of the tough.
“And he battled. I remember him coming to practice and struggling to run the bases because he was so sore from working out in the weight room. But he battled to get through it. And, for sure, he’s going to be missed.”
Koran heads out into the world as the young man who redefined the meaning of ‘A’ game at Joliet West. No doubt he will return one day with the volume cranked up, and they’ll be playing his song. For he is the Eye of the Tiger.