---- — DERRY, N.H. — Saturday represents far more than simply a game to Pinkerton linebacker Matt Madden.
It is the moment Madden has dreamed of each of the 371 days since he was stranded powerless on the sidelines, leaning on crutches a week from surgery, watching his Astros fall to Exeter in the Division 1 state championship game for the second straight season.
“I just felt so helpless,” he said. “I couldn’t help my teammates, and when we lost it made it so much worse. You never forget an awful feeling like that. But that’s what drove me to come back stronger. This isn’t just a game for me.”
Now healthy and Pinkerton’s leading tackler for the third straight season, Madden leads his Astros back into the Division 1 title game for the fourth straight season, as they travel to face unbeaten, top-seeded Concord tomorrow at 1 p.m.
“We can’t wait,” said Madden, also the team’s starting fullback. “It’s hard to believe that it’s really my last high school football game, but it is so I want to go out with a win. Concord is a very good, tough team. They are undefeated after all. But we feel like we match up well with them. You have to play for a reason. We all play this game for some reason, and we want to win.”
A four-year starter, he heads into the title game with a team-best 85 tackles — giving him 330 for his prolific career.
“Matt is the heart of our defense,” said Pinkerton coach Brian O’Reilly. “He has been so crucial to our success over the last three years. He took the injury last year hard because I think he felt like the outcome (in the title game) would have been different if he were out there, and that’s how great players feel.”
If Madden does take home the title, it would be his first since he was a freshman, finding his way as a varsity starter along with classmate and fellow returning Eagle-Tribune All-Star Manny Latimore.
“(Assistant) coach (Bryon) Murphy gave me a chance in the fourth game of my freshman season and I never came out,” said Madden. “I took advantage of that opportunity, and I have never stopped taking advantage. It has been great ever since.
“I have never been more nervous in my life than I was before the championship game my freshman year. We won (14-7 over Nashua North), so I feel I know what it takes to win a title, and Manny and I have tried to express it to the team.”
Madden, however, then had to experience heartbreak on the field as a sophomore when his Astros fell to Exeter in the title game despite Madden‘s nine tackles.
But the disappointment of that ending couldn’t compare to the heartbreak of last season.
A frontrunner for Eagle-Tribune defensive MVP honors with 82 tackles through 10 games, Madden’s season came to an abrupt end when he suffered a torn ACL in the regular season finale.
“(Nashua South QB) Trevor Knight rolled out and I was running with him,” remembered Madden. “He cut, I planted to cut with him and the guard blocked me. Then I just took a wrong step. I fell like a stack of bricks. I felt so much pain, but after a while it went away so I thought maybe it wasn’t too bad.”
But it was, and doctors informed Madden he had torn his ACL, and would need surgery that was set for Nov. 28. Not only was his football season over, but he would miss all of lacrosse season as well.
“All I could do was cheer them on from the sidelines,” Madden said of the 31-21 loss to Exeter in the title game. “It was awful. I felt like I let my teammates down. But it also drove me to get better. After four months I could start lifting a little and making slow cuts, then I was supposed to be cleared after six months, but I got pushed back to eight months. But I started to feel like myself again finally.”
He was cleared just in time for football season, and by the start of the year he was back at his linebacker spot.
After an early scare, he quickly began to regain his form.
“During the (season-opener) against Bedford, I got hit in the knee and it really swelled up,” he remembered. “It ended up being just a contusion, but I was afraid it would be a lot worse. I progressed throughout the year, and after a while the knee brace was the worst thing.”
By the time the postseason arrived, Madden was back to directing the defense, and handing out his signature huge hits.
“We call them ‘Matt hits’ and he is good for 2 or 3 every game,” said O’Reilly. “He came back very strong.”
Now exploring college and prep school football opportunities — he could prep together with his friend Latimore — Madden wants to end his career the way he began, with a championship.
“I have loved every minute of my high school football career,” said Madden. “I can’t believe the end is here. These are memories that I’ll have for the rest of my life. I know I will play my heart out and I want to finish with a victory.”