Nov. 1, 2013
By: Todd Burlage
Ask Matthias Farley about the remarkable journey that life has guided him through the last five years, and the Notre Dame junior says he hasn't stopped long enough to give it any thought.
From star soccer player as a sophomore at Christian High School in Charlotte, N.C., to an unlikely scholarship recipient to play football at Notre Dame, to irrelevant scout team wide receiver, to starting Irish safety, Farley's unlikely rise defies all odds - unless, of course, you understand the principles by which he was raised.
"I had no expectation of everything turning out the way it did, and I never sat back and said, `wow, I am the starting safety for Notre Dame.' I never had time," says Farley, who only played organized football for the first time as a high school junior. "I never thought in a million years, even after my first three years of high school, that I would be playing football in college, let alone at a place like Notre Dame. It is humbling and it is a huge blessing."
To understand Matthias Farley, the sixth of seven children, it is first important to appreciate the influences around him. The Farley parents, Mark and Falinda, always put faith and education for their five sons and two daughters well ahead of any monetary pursuits.
In fact, Falinda was so committed to raising her children "the right way," she quit her job as a television producer in Charlotte to home-school her children during the formative years from kindergarten through fifth grade. Mark, a jazz drummer, was also closely involved in the educational process during a home-schooling period that spanned 11 years and included all seven children.
"We prayed about it and we planned to home-school well ahead of when the time arrived," Falinda says. "We felt like if we could provide an education that was better than what was out there, and we could do it with integrity of heart, we would do it."
And so they did, providing their children with a sturdy educational foundation and the tools to excel once they moved into a traditional school environment, and beyond. Seven children - the youngest and oldest separated only by about 11 years - have all become successful in their own fields. The oldest son, Timon, played professional basketball in Italy; the youngest son, Silas, dances professionally with the New York City Ballet; a blend of corporate and sales success shines in between.
"It's all about our parents. They always taught us how to do things the right way," Matthias says gratefully, "and do everything you can to the best of your ability."
With five older siblings, Farley enjoyed plenty of learning and teaching moments through osmosis. He had no choice. "It makes doing things the right way a lot easier when you can watch the example several times over," Farley says. "It has been awesome to grow up with so many successful brothers and sisters, learning from them right and wrong and working off of that."
Hoping to be his own man and leave his own mark in high school, Farley didn't want to be called "so-and-so's little brother" so he decided to play soccer instead of football as a freshman.
A naturally gifted athlete, Farley netted quick success. His team, on the other hand, did not. While his best buddies were playing for back-to-back state championships in football, Farley was becoming disenchanted and burned-out on a crummy soccer team.
Add to Farley's frustration a family legacy of football at Christian High School and a group of coaches chirping in his ear to give a new sport a try, he finally decided to trade soccer for football during his junior year.
"I didn't want to leave high school with any regrets," Farley says. "And I didn't want to be part of a losing team the whole time I was there."
Sporting loads of athletic talent but little appreciable experience, Farley showed up for his first football practice with his green soccer cleats and without a clue.
"It was really hard," Farley says of his transition. "There are just so many things about football that if you have never played it before, you can't really learn it from any other sport. I felt like a fish out of water."
Farley was blessed to play for a top prep program with some of the finest coaches in North Carolina, including legendary former NFL safety Eugene Robinson, a longtime Farley family friend from the area.
"To have a guy like Coach Rob, who played and dominated at the highest level, in your corner, encouraging you, was a huge benefit," says Farley. As a tribute to his mentor, Farley chose jersey No. 41 at Notre Dame - the number Robinson wore throughout his 16-year NFL career.
When Farley was only about 10 years old, Robinson recognized that this young man would blossom into a terrific athlete. Learning the finer points of football after a late introduction would be the greatest challenge.
"You could be the best athlete, but if you don't know how to play the game, it doesn't matter how great an athlete you are," says Robinson, who believes Farley has the smarts and skills to someday become a dominant NFL safety. "Matthias was a great athlete, but everybody's a great athlete, so what, who cares? What makes you the best athlete is the academics of football, and that is coming for him."
Farley's eureka football moment - the first play, of the first game, of his first high school season, in his first start at wide receiver - validated his decision to scrap soccer. Asked to run a simple "go route" - a full-sprint, straight-line dash up the field - Farley outran the defense and caught a long touchdown pass, a personal victory that finally contributed to a team victory.
"From that point on I didn't worry so much," Farley recalls. "I realized I was pretty fast and I would be able to do this just fine."
By the end of his junior season, Farley piled up 37 receptions for 900 yards (24 yards per catch) with 12 touchdowns. Farley would have added many more receiving yards if the pesky endzone didn't keep getting in his way.
Farley also started his two prep seasons at defensive back where he recorded 88 tackles and three interceptions in becoming a first-team, all-state selection.
THE NEXT STEP
In two high school years, Matthias Farley went from unknown soccer player to one the best football players along the Eastern Seaboard, drawing scholarship offers from Maryland, Wisconsin, UCLA and Notre Dame, among others.
Inexperienced but explosive, he caught the attention of Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who identified the overlooked, under-recruited Farley as a player he was sure he wanted, but wasn't sure where he wanted him. Farley barely made a blip on the Irish radar when he arrived as a green wide receiver (though he'd ditched his green cleats) and spent his entire freshman season buried on the depth chart as a scout team regular. Everything was moving so fast, yet Farley felt stuck in the same place.
"It was definitely hard to come from such little football knowledge to being in college and having everything coming at you at 1,000 miles an hour and trying to slow it down," Farley says. "It was definitely a huge jump, much bigger than what the jump was from soccer to football.
"I had to constantly remind myself that I was here for a reason. I got a scholarship because they wanted me here." With little career hope as a college wide receiver, Farley was moved to safety after his freshman season, a position swap he was "ecstatic" to make.
But with 12 safeties on the Irish roster vying for playing time, Farley started near the bottom of the depth chart. He leapfrogged them one at a time, earning more practice reps and eventually becoming the most improved player and biggest surprise on the team last season.
"There were definitely some growing pains," Farley says. "But I picked safety up a whole lot faster than I picked up offense."
As is so often the case in college and professional football, one man's misery became another's opportunity. And when starting safety Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the year because of a torn Achilles tendon just three games into the 2012 season, Farley became next man in, and he responded with 49 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception against Stanford he returned 49 yards.
"He's not afraid of anything, any challenge," Kelly says of Farley's immediate contributions. "He's got so much pride and so much confidence in himself that any task that you ask him to do he's going to find a way."
To nobody's surprise, Farley is picking up right in 2013 where he left off from last year, with 25 tackles, two interceptions and two pass break-ups through the first six games this season.
"The coaches always talk about next man in," Farley says. "I knew I had to do it. There really wasn't any other option but to do it."
It's the only way he knows. It's how he was brought up. It's what makes Matthias a Farley.