Cinnaminson graduate Matt Gono is unlikely NFL draft prospect

Matt Gono -18042018-0001
Matt Gono never dreamed of an NFL career as a youngster.

Matt Gono might be one of the most intriguing prospects in the NFL draft.

He surely is one of the most unlikely.

Gono never dreamed of an NFL career as a youngster. That’s mainly because he didn’t play football until his freshman year at Cinnaminson High School.

He wasn’t recruited by a major-college program. Or a mid-major program. Or even an NCAA Division II  program.

Gono went to Wesley College, a small liberal-arts school in Delaware with a football team that competes at the NCAA Division III level against the likes of Rowan, the College of New Jersey, and Delaware Valley.

“I went with my intuition,” Gono said of his decision to play football for the Wolverines of the New Jersey Athletic Conference.

He liked the coaches. He liked the camaraderie of the team. He liked the fact the Wesley is one of the top programs in the nation at that level of college football.

He just never thought it would lead him to the brink of a chance to play in the NFL.

“To be honest, it’s a little surreal,” Gono said the other day.

He was sitting in his car outside the NovaCare complex. He had just finished a workout with the Eagles, his hometown and favorite team.

Ten weeks earlier, Gono and his roommates at Wesley were “going crazy” watching the Eagles win the Super Bowl.

Now he was just finished with a predraft workout as the Eagles – like the Vikings, Bears, and Lions – had invited him to their practice facility to get a closer look.

“I never thought this would happen,” Gono said. “It’s not something I ever thought about.”

Gono was born in Liberia. He moved to the United States when he was 3 or 4 years old, with his mother and older siblings. His father joined them two years later.

Gono grew up in South Jersey, playing soccer and basketball. He never tried football.

“I was interested in it, but I never really knew how to go about it,” Gono said of playing football.

His family moved to Cinnaminson before his freshman year. That summer, Pirates coach Mario Patrizi saw him around the school and asked him to try out.

“Big kid, great kid, just real quiet,” Patrizi said. “He was so raw. He played a little varsity as a sophomore, mainly because he was so big. He started for us as a junior and senior, but you could see he still wasn’t fully developed.”

Patrizi said he tried to get Gono some scholarship money. The lineman was 6-foot-4 and maybe 250 pounds as a senior in high school.

He had natural athletic ability and quick feet. But no colleges with scholarships were interested.

“Nothing,” Patrizi said. “I mean, we tried. I kept telling coaches, ‘There’s something here with this kid. He’s raw, but he’s got all this potential.’ But there was nobody interested. Nobody.

“To Matt’s credit, he took it in stride. It never seemed to bother him.”

Gono confirms that. He said he never thought much about earning a college scholarship, so he wasn’t disappointed not to get one.

He considered going to Rowan but decided on Wesley after developing a good relationship with assistant coach Steve Azzanesi, who recruits South Jersey for the Wolverines.

“I just had a positive vibe about it,” Gono said of Wesley.

Gono started 50 games in his four college seasons. He started the first three years at right tackle and moved to left tackle as a senior.

He was a three-time D3Football.com All-East Region selection and three-time first-team All-NJAC selection. He was named first-team all-American by the American Football Coaches Association as a senior, when he cleared the way for the Wolverines to lead the league in total yards (5,295) and rushing yards (2,477).

“He was a dominant player at this level,” Wesley head coach Mike Drass said.

Drass said Gono took a big jump after his sophomore year, when he made a major commitment to the weight room. He went from around 275 pounds to around 315, his current weight, without losing any quickness.

“He’s just so athletic,” Drass said. “He’s that big and he runs like a defensive back.”

Gono said the possibility of a professional career began to dawn on him during his junior year, when scouts would visit Wesley.

But things ratcheted into high gear in the first few months of 2018. First, Gono was one of the few Division III players invited to participate in the NFLPA Bowl in the Rose Bowl in January.

He was good during the week in practice and even better in the game.

“I’m watching the feed and the announcer is calling him the MVP of the game,” Patrizi said. “For him to go from where he started, just this raw kid with zero football experience, to where he is now, it’s unbelievable.”

Gono said his experience at the NFLPA Bowl convinced him of his NFL potential. His performance at Wesley’s pro day convinced others.

Gono did 26 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.10 seconds. And his broad jump of 9 feet, 10 inches was an eye-opener – it would have been the third-best ever for a guard at the NFL combine in the last 30 years.

Except Gono wasn’t invited to the combine.

“I’ve been going to the combine for 25 years,” said Jim Ulrich, a South Jersey-based sports agent who represents Gono. “I’ve never seen a guy his size with that kind of athletic ability.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Where would he be drafted if he went to Notre Dame?’

“I tell them, ‘If he plays four years at Notre Dame, with that coaching, with that competition, with that commitment, he would be in the first round.’”

Seventeen teams sent scouts to Wesley’s pro day on March 22. This past week, Gono flew to Detroit and Chicago for workouts with the Lions and Bears, respectively, then drove to Philadelphia to visit with the Eagles.

NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock hasn’t evaluated Gono, but has been hearing his name.

“He is generating some interest,” Mayock said in a text. “Had a good workout. Scouts love his physical traits.”

Mayock said he has  heard Gono could be selected in the late rounds of the draft, which starts Thursday. Or he could be a prize free-agent if his name isn’t called by the end of the league’s annual selection meeting on Saturday.

Gono said he’s not stressing about it. If he’s drafted, great. If not, he and Ulrich can decide where he might have the best chance to make a roster as a free agent.

Gono still is taking classes at Wesley. He still is determined to earn his degree in legal studies. He still is a student at a small college with a football team that plays at the Division III level.

But he also could be on the verge of making the NFL.

“I’m trying not to get too worked up about it,” Gono said. “It’s really not something I thought about a lot when I was younger. It’s happened fast. It’s kind of hard to believe.”