Every kid has a dream of pitching in the World Series, or being the next Steph Curry, or catching a touchdown pass from Tom Brady, but for most it remains as just that – a dream. For Matt Lengel, his dream from his days as a second grader in rural Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania became a reality, with a little help from Northeastern.
“I woke up and I had a dream that I was just playing football and it was really fun and still remember to this day,” Lengel remembered. “I told my dad I wanted to play football and I’ve been playing ever since.”
He continued to follow his excitement for football into high school where he would start to see his career of pursuing football take shape.
Like most prominent high school athletes, he wanted to play at a top tier Division I school. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Lengel’s ideal school was Penn State, a powerhouse football program that continues to dominate in Big 10 football. Unfortunately for Lengel, this opportunity did not arise, but he did receive an offer from another Division I program.
This program was Northeastern University. They gave Lengel an opportunity, and that is all he could have asked for – an opportunity to prove himself.
“Once I accepted it I really gravitated towards the university and towards the coaching staff for accepting me and seeing something in me,” he said.
Lengel redshirted his freshman year, but unfortunately never got the opportunity to play a game as a Husky. After the 2009 season and 77 years of football, Northeastern University’s program would be disbanded. This came as an unpleasant shock for the players, who finished the season on a high note after beating Rhode Island to cap what would be their final season.
“We met right on the basketball court, and we went in there and the athletic director told us that they’re dropping the program,” Lengel said. “To be honest, we all thought the coaching staff was getting fired, and that was our initial reaction because that happens more often than a program getting dropped, so that’s what we figured. But once they officially said the program was getting dropped, it got pretty heated and words were said.”
Lengel was forced to go through the recruitment process again, a trying task for someone who had received just one Division I offer and had never played at the collegiate level. Fortune struck and Lengel received an offer to play football for Hofstra University only to get blindsided again.
A week later, Hofstra also disbanded their football program, leaving Lengel back in the cycle of finding a place to the play the sport he loved all his life and wasn’t quite ready to give up on yet.
“I did go through a period of ‘do I even want to do this?’” Lengel said. “It was getting too stressful, but I always had my mind set on going somewhere and going to play again as soon as I could.”
Lengel received a few Division II offers, but nothing that sparked his interest and offered similar opportunities to what Northeastern had – until Dean Hood and Eastern Kentucky University came in and gave Lengel the chance he had been waiting for. Soon after a visit to the school, Lengel accepted began his new college career with the Colonels.
Lengel transferred to Eastern Kentucky for the 2010 spring season and continued in the footsteps of his dream of a football career. He lead all tight ends on the team that season in receptions and receiving yards and continued his prowess into the 2011 season, when he ranked third on the team as a whole in receptions, one of which was a 55-yard touchdown.
Tragedy struck at the beginning of the following season as Lengel tore his ACL and was forced to sit out for the rest of the season to recover. Heading into his senior year, Lengel was naturally eager to make up for lost time. Calamity struck again when only two games into his final season he tore his ACL again and was forced to miss the remainder of his senior year.
Fortunately, Lengel was granted an extra year at Eastern Kentucky and he made the most of this opportunity.
“I still remember sitting in the locker room before our first game,” he said. “I teared up a little bit just because it had been a while, and I couldn’t believe I was getting to play again.”
Lengel put up career numbers in his final season at Eastern Kentucky, hauling in his most receptions of any season with 16, beginning to make a name for himself as his college career came to an end, but hopefully what was not the end of his football career.
“All I wanted was an opportunity to put a helmet on for an NFL team and get some kind of tryout, some kind of opportunity,” he remembered. “I didn’t think I was going to get drafted.”
An undrafted free agent in 2015, Lengel was quickly picked up by the Cincinnati Bengals and signed to their practice squad, where he remained for a full year, until the New England Patriots came calling and signed him to their 53-man roster.
Lengel was not known for running go-routes down the field, but seen more for his blocking abilities which the Patriots desperately needed. He appeared sporadically throughout New England’s season, playing six games prior to the team’s Week 16 home contest against the New York Jets.
With his family in town to watch for the first time all season, Lengel lined up in the slot at the 18-yard line beside Malcolm Mitchell, with Julian Edelman motioning behind him. The Patriots were up 13-0 with just over two minutes remaining in the first half and in need of eight yards to transform their second down back into a first. The ball was snapped, and suddenly Lengel found himself on the ground in the end zone with the ball in his chest, being bombarded by teammates and cheers from the crowd.
“Brady… touchdown!” came the announcer’s call. “Matt Lengel! The first catch of his career and it’s from Tom Brady. A memory forever.”
“You do everything with the intention that it could happen and it could result in me getting a ball,” Lengel said. “I always wanted to be there, especially for Tom, I’m not one to let him down. Once I turned my head and I saw the ball coming and I remember thinking to myself, holy crap, he threw it to me.”
After spending the remainder of the 2016 season with the New England Patriots, where he provided multiple receptions and a touchdown – and earned a Super Bowl ring – with household names including Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Lengel was released by the Patriots in September 2017.
Lengel was quickly picked up by the Cleveland Browns and made the team’s 53-man roster. He spent the 2017 season in Ohio and was released by the Browns this month, but was picked up by the Houston Texans on April 14, 2018.
“I’m excited,” Lengel laughed. “Always nice to have a job.”
Lead photo courtesy Northeastern Athletics