When Joliet Catholic Academy’s Matt Madrigal first walked into Rudy’s Gym, he was skinny. And he was scared.
He was in seventh grade. He was awed by the power of so many burgeoning lifters throwing heavy metal rings around the weight room. And he didn’t know if he belonged.
He will walk out of that same gym later this year armed with strength and confidence, ready to embark on the next chapter of his life. He plans to play football in the collegiate ranks and to study criminal justice.
He wants to become a police officer—just like Francis Ruettiger.
Madrigal is senior outside linebacker at JCA and one of the leaders on a Hilltopper defensive unit that will look to stop Tinley Park’s zone-read rushing attack in the second round of the Class 5A football playoffs Saturday at Joliet’s Memorial Stadium.
The two sides square off at 1 p.m.
Joliet Catholic Academy (6-4) is coming off a 58-0 victory over Elmwood Park. Madrigal racked up 10 tackles before exiting near the end of the first half. Tinley Park (6-4) edged Westinghouse 27-23, quarterback Christian Plumber scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 4-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Plumber doesn’t know Madrigal—yet.
Expect that to change in a hurry. Madrigal boasts a team-high 9.5 sacks and eight hurries. He regularly makes his presence known in the backfield. His first job is to contain opponent runners and push them and the ball back toward the middle of the field.
With 78 tackles, he has grown to be an accomplished hit man for JCA—just as he has grown in size and stature under the watchful eye of Ruettiger. He is the Joliet police officer and Hilltopper strength coach who first took Madrigal under his wing six years ago, first inspired him to consider serve-and-protect as a profession.
In fact, the two developed such a close relationship Madrigal approached Rudy to discus the idea of following in his footsteps.
“He talked to me about it two years ago,” Ruettiger said. “He watches what I do. I talked to him about what a day in the life of a police officer is and working with young kids. He said that would be something that would interest him.”
Rudy was touched by the realization he had touched one of “his” kids. The greatest compliment a teacher and coach can receive is the one of affirmation. In some way, no matter how big or small, it’s the validation stamp they’ve made a difference.
“It does touch your heart,” Ruettiger said. “That’s what we’re here for to touch the lives of these young teenagers because there are so many bad influences out there. These young kids need a good role model and a mentor.”
Rudy remembers when Madrigal was “skinny and scared to death” at the prospect of lifting in his gym.
“You know, when you come in and see all these monsters in there working out, like I tell all the young kids, you’ve got to realize where you start is not the finished product,” Ruettiger said. “These guys that you see now that are juniors and seniors are part of the finished product. You’re just a baby.
“You’ve got to take baby steps and work toward becoming a man. He is a man. He’s taken a lot of steps. He’s to the point now where he can go on his own and do what he wants in life.”
Madrigal puts three schools on the top of his college wish list right now—Western Illinos, St. Cloud (Minn.) and the University of St. Francis. JCA coach Dan Sharp has no doubt he can play football on the next level.
Sharp uses the word “tenacity” to describe Madrigal’s play.
“He never gives up on a play,” Sharp said. “He’s full-speed all the time. His motor is always going hard. So, he’s a great guy coming off the edge. He creates pressure. He also is a guy that can cover the pass. And he’s a tremendous tackler.
“He’s an outstanding athlete, but his tenacity is what really makes him a great football player.”
His leadership helped JCA survive the ups-and-downs of a 5-4 regular season. When the postseason arrived, Madrigal pitched the anything-is-possible ideal to his teammates. Of course, it didn’t hurt that JCA was tagged with a No. 12 seed under the formula the IHSA uses to bracket qualifiers.
How much did that sting? That’s anybody’s guess.
“We just had to focus,” Madrigal said. “We had to take it one game at a time and know that we’re at the bottom. We’re the underdogs. So, we’ve got to come all the way up to the top.”
He is called “Magic” by his teammates and some of JCA’s coaches, not because of some slight-of-hand wizardry that turned him into a defensive powerhouse. He is a product of his own hard work and a bit of twisted phonetics.
“Magic was short for Madrigal,” Sharp said. “And, yeah, there is a little bit of magic to him, I guess, out there on the field.”