As football season draws to a close and Seahawks fans are near spent from the anticipation of the game their earth-moving cheers have been driving the team toward all season, one island family has its sights set on the NFL’s other post-season game — and for good reason.
Matt Overton, a long-snapper specialist for the Indianapolis Colts and the grandson of islander and University of Puget Sound Hall of Fame football coach Paul “Big Wally” Wallrof, will play in the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii on Sunday.
“This is like a dream come true for me. Football has been my life for so long,” Overton said in a recent interview with The Beachcomber. “I’m glad that my grandfather will be able to see this.”
Wallrof, a fixture of the Puget Sound football scene both as a player and coach for nearly half a century, is thrilled, his family says.
“The night we found out, he got a huge smile on his face,” said Wallrof’s daughter and Overton’s mother, Lisa Blair. “He wishes he could go; he’d be there if he could. All of his life has been coaching and football. … Now his grandson is going to the Pro Bowl. It’s unbelievable.”
Wallrof’s declining health prevents him from being able to travel to the game, but there’s no doubt he will be watching along with family and friends, Blair said.
Though Overton’s selection to the Pro Bowl — the annual all-star game only the nation’s top players are invited to — comes after only two seasons in the NFL, his story is far from that of a fresh-faced rookie. On the contrary, Overton’s football story was very nearly over by the time the Colts gave him a chance in 2012.
“I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t made it with the Colts,” Overton said, “I’d been playing football my whole life.”
Overton was born and raised in California and played high school football as a teen. However, he spent every summer on Vashon with Wallrof.
“Can you believe that?” Blair said. “Instead of spending the summers hanging out with his friends, he was going to Vashon to be with his grandfather. They’ve always had such a really good bond.”
During those summers together, Wallrof coached Overton, took him to his college training camps and even took him to meet the coaching staff at Western Washington University.
“We were really close,” Overton said. “He was my hero and my mentor. I always looked up to him, even beyond the football.”
Overton not only met the Western coaches, but eventually played for them while attending college at the Bellingham school. But as a division II school, Western’s football program was not high on the list for NFL prospects.
Overton was nothing if not determined, however, to make it in the NFL. After graduating from Western in 2007, he went to camp with the Seahawks as an unsigned free agent, but was cut. He spent the next year playing in the Indoor Football League in eastern Washington, and the next two years after that playing in the United Football League (UFL) in Florida.
After being named one of the UFL’s top 10 players of 2010, Overton was signed by the Seahawks again and cut again, then brought back, only to be cut a second time at that same training camp — bringing the total times he was cut by the Seahawks to three.
Not giving up — a trait he says he inherited from Wallrof — Overton went back to the UFL, this time playing for the Omaha Nighthawks with former NCAA football star Maurice Clarett.
Clarett’s national title-winning freshman season with Ohio State University in 2002 led him to instant fame and then a mountain of difficulties, as recently chronicled by ESPN in its 30 for 30 documentary series. Ultimately spending time in prison for armed robbery, Clarett was released early for good behavior and was trying to make a return to football. Interestingly, it was Clarett’s return that spurred Overton on.
“I thought if a guy like that can get a shot, who’s recently been incarcerated, why can’t I?” Overton said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. After hearing Clarett’s story, Overton tried out for the Nighthawks and was signed.
With as many ups and downs and odd-but-endearing twists as a Lifetime movie, Overton’s path with Clarett didn’t end there. The two became close while playing in Omaha, rooming together and offering one another the perspectives on life and career they each seemed to be missing. They started a youth football academy together in Omaha called Led By Pros, which they still run together today, and the two remain in close contact.
Overton was signed by the Houston Texans in 2011, but cut yet again, the disappointment nearly too much then.
But the Wallrof perseverance prevailed, and finally Overton was invited to train with the Colts in 2012 after being scouted at an open training in Arizona. He was signed, and as the days and weeks went by, he stayed. It wasn’t until the Colts released their veteran long snapper Justin Snow, leaving Overton his spot on the roster, did he realize he’d made it.
The icing on this long-baking cake came last week for Overton, when he learned he’d been selected to play in this year’s Pro Bowl.
“I couldn’t believe it.” Overton said. “We’d just come off that really tough loss to the Patriots, and I was switching gears, cleaning out my locker and thinking the season was over.”
Perhaps sweetest of all is that due to the new Pro Bowl format, moving from a straight conference match-up to more of a fantasy football style game — where players from all over the league have been chosen to play for honorary NFL Hall of Fame captains — Overton was chosen to play for Jerry Rice’s team. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay area with Joe Montana’s poster on his bedroom wall, Overton says that Jerry Rice, famous for his time with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, was always his favorite player to watch.
“It’s just such a huge honor,” he said. “I’m very thankful.”
Blair, who moved back to Vashon a year and a half ago to care for her parents, will be in Hawaii this Sunday to watch her son play.
Overton said his last visit to Vashon was early last summer, before training camp.
“My family times on Vashon have always been my best memories,” he said, “Fishing with my grandfather, 4th of July, the Strawberry Festival. … Even though we’re separated now, I go back whenever I can, before camp starts or when we’re done for the season. I’m going to be back on the island in February.”
It’s a good bet that “Big Wally” will still be smiling.