NATALIA – Natalia senior Matthew Manka had been playing football the past 10 years, forming a close-knit bond with the teammates he grew up with. In November 2018, the end of Manka's junior year, a chronic back injury arose that would prevent Manka from playing football again.
Manka recalls not knowing what to do but knowing he couldn't disappoint his teammates. He vowed to stay involved with the program by showing up to team events.
"And then just kind of whenever football season rolled around and two-a-days came I just kind of started getting into it all," Manka said. "And started helping during the spring and during the summer and like I said during two-a-days and just out of nowhere it's just like, just kinda showed up every time and started coaching and showing people what to do."
Manka attended the offseason and preseason workouts, participating in everything he was able to, knowing that he would never be play again. Natalia athletic director and head football coach Ilyan Martinez said Matt's continued attendance in team-related events is one of the most selfless things he's ever seen from a student-athlete.
"One of the things we talk about is being selfless in our program. That's a big, big pillar of our program is being selfless for somebody else," Martinez said. "Doing something for your teammates, doing something for your community or your family, doing something other than for yourself without expecting anything in return and Matt's the epitome of that."
Manka transitioned into an assistant coach for his senior season, fulfilling the commitment he made to the team he refers to as his second family.
"They had my back and therefore I have theirs," Manka said. "To be quite honest if it happened to them or anything like that, they'd do the same thing for me. So, every day I come in with the approach with the mentality like, you know, give them my all because they would do the same for me."
His continued work ethic and success on the field – which included first and second team all-district accolades his sophomore and junior seasons – enabled Manka to become an asset to the team from the sidelines.
"He knows technique," Martinez said. "He knows fundamentals. He knows kind of the inside track of the game that you would only know if you played that position and you would only know that if you've been successful at it. And it helps me. I'm just going to be honest with you, it's like having another full-time coach for free which is great for me. I'm all about it. I trust him so much that we allow him to coach a position."
This experience of coaching his former teammates and finding a way to stay involved with the program without playing has taught Manka the importance of not only staying loyal to family but making the best of a difficult situation.
"That's what helps us to overcome that adversity. That helps us be able to do things we think we can't do, but we end up doing it though."
The Natalia football team hosts Nixon-Smiley Friday, November 1 at 7:30pm. The Mustangs have a 6-2 record.