Matt Shadeed’s weight room is governed by a few non-negotiables.
It’s July, a sweltering summer day in Amherst, and the Massachusetts football team is three days out from fall camp. After some light work on the turf, the UMass defense has a quick lift to finish out the day, but before things get rolling, somebody shouts, “hallway!”
Non-negotiable number one: attitude and approach.
“Everybody’s got stuff going on,” Shadeed says. “Academics, tutors, training room appointments, practice, meetings; when these doors open, we want you to attack it like it’s the most important thing in your life. Because when everything you have on your schedule or your task list or in your daily life becomes the most important thing you have to do, and you knock it out with this ferocious attitude and this hair-on-fire work ethic and energy and enthusiasm that pours into other people, all the stuff that you think is so hard to do and complete that can be overwhelming, they become very simple.
The entire defense tears out the double doors on the near side of the weight room, shouting and jostling and slapping the door frame on their way out. Out of sight, somewhere through the halls of the glistening FPC, they start to chant, the din growing louder and louder.
Peyton Ryan, by trade the UMass women’s soccer team’s starting goalkeeper who moonlights as a strength and conditioning intern, knows what’s coming, thus she provides the warning; “you might want to take a step back.”
A few seconds later, the Minutemen come charging through those same double doors into the weight room, a mass of bodies at full sprint, converging at the one open area at the center of the room. It’s a literal mosh pit, with Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” blasting through the sound system, and at one point linebacker Tyris Lebeau is raised above their heads — this apparently happens a lot — never breaking rhythm or stopping the dance, and his teammates nearly hurl him into the HVAC system that crisscrosses the ceiling.
They return him to the Earth, and the moment Matt Shadeed calls them to gather, they gather. He runs through brief instructions for the day — he says they should know today’s workout by heart, anyways — and every point is met with a collective, emphatic “yes sir!”
Non-negotiable number two: enthusiasm.
“Everything we want to do in that room and in this program and in this building and in these kids’ daily lives revolves around enthusiasm, and we say it in all caps,” Shadeed says. He shouts the next word. “ENTHUSIASM! Because when you’re enthusiastic about things, it’s the measuring stick of how important something is to you. If you attack this piece of your day like it’s the most important thing on your agenda, you’re feeling great about yourself, your confidence is high, now you move to the next thing, you carry that energy with you into the day.”
Shadeed breaks the huddle, and before they get going, one player screams in his face and shoves him into the wall. Shadeed shoves back, screams back, and they jostle and shout as the players start to mob him, smiles all around. It’s the time of their lives.
They break into three groups and receive a bit more individualized instruction from the other strength and conditioning coaches in the room — Clayton Kirven, on loan from the hockey team, and Joel “the Wiz” Reinhardt, Shadeed’s lead assistant — while the man himself wanders over to the iPhone hooked up to the sound system. The moment Kirven and Reinhardt are finished, Shadeed cranks the volume back up to 1; Waka Flocka’s “Grove St. Party” hits the speakers and the madness resumes, the sound shaking the walls.
Non-negotiable number three: body language.
“That’s part of our environment, body language has to be at a premium all the time,” says Shadeed. “You saw that in there: nobody’s sitting down, nobody’s standing around, no hands on hips, nobody’s feeling sorry for themselves. We don’t do that, we don’t believe in it. Body language screams what you believe inside your heart, so if your body language looks like crap, I’m uninterested, this isn’t that important, I’m just ready to get it done and get out of here, well that’s not going to help us win football games. That’s a non-negotiable, we don’t talk about it, we don’t negotiate, we don’t talk, it just is what it is.”
Are the guys locked into the workout? Absolutely. Does the dancing ever stop? Not really. Shadeed moves counter-clockwise through the weight room at a brisk pace, stopping briefly at each station to coach one guy through a set, to tweak a little technique, to make sure the morale stays up. It’s chaos, but it’s calculated chaos, of which Shadeed is the composer.
Even when he pauses for a teaching moment Shadeed never stops moving, never stops coaching, never stops shouting. He’s a ball of energy with seemingly no end, even when the workout draws to a close and he’s rapping every word to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” as the players grab a protein shake on the way out.
It’s 45 minutes of pure, unmitigated lunacy, and it’s exhausting to watch from the outside, let alone to coach and control.
As the defense exits, Shadeed starts tidying up some of the equipment. The offense will be in in a half hour.
Somewhere between a South Carolina Krispy Kreme and Columbia Metropolitan Airport, Shadeed’s phone buzzes.
The Baylor women’s basketball team is hours removed from a blowout win over No. 18 South Carolina in December of 2018 — the Lady Bears would go on to win a national title a few months later — and the team is on the way to the airport, fired up after coach Kim Mulkey treats the team to celebratory donuts.
Shadeed flips his phone over and sees a text from Walt Bell. It’s one line: “Are you out of the football strength coach life forever?”
Bell and Shadeed met at the University of Southern Mississippi, the former a wide receivers coach and the latter an assistant strength and conditioning coach. It was Bell’s first full-time job, Shadeed’s second; they were only together for a season at Southern Miss, 2011, with Shadeed spending two years at Ole Miss and Bell heading to North Carolina. By 2014, they’d reconvened at Arkansas State, and within two seasons Shadeed had made a lasting impression.
It was the culture piece for Bell, the way that culture improved with Shadeed’s presence. How they worked, how they carried themselves — he just had a way about him.
“I think more than anything else, just watching so many kids have such exponential growth in their lives in terms of how they did everything was unbelievable.” Bell says, “Especially at Arkansas State, how many of those guys flourished, so many kids that we had been told couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that, they were ‘bad kids,’ just how many of those kids flourished under coach Shadeed was incredible.”
Bell moved on to Maryland and later Florida State, and Shadeed eventually ended up at Baylor, but Bell always had one name in the back of his head for what he calls the most important hire for a football coach.
“Every step along the way. That’s something that we had talked about, like hey, if this ever happens, if I’m ever fortunate enough to become a head football coach, you’re the guy I want,” Bell says of Shadeed. “It’s been in the plans for a long time.
“I would not have taken the majority of jobs in college football if he wasn’t coming.”
When Bell sent that text, he was on the verge. Within 24 hours, he’d be named UMass’ head football coach, and he had to know Shadeed was coming with him.
“I forget the exact wording,” Shadeed says, “I think I said ‘nah, what you got?’ And we started talking from there.”
Shadeed has a different sort of energy, an infectious presence, the kind of coach that enters a room fired up and has a way of spreading that feeling. After that workout in July — and after most workouts, really — he’s somehow above even his own baseline energy, talking at a million miles an hour and never pausing for a breath, speaking without commas in his sentence structure.
“How you do anything is how you do everything,” he says, “So when you get up in the morning and you rip the sheets off and you crank the shower up and you brush your teeth like it’s the most important thing in the world and somebody’s going to pay me a million dollars if I brush my teeth better than I ever have, well, then, get after it. If you really love what you’re doing, and you have a platform to inspire kids like we do every day, I mean, come on. How can you not be fired up to do this?”
Once Shadeed read that text from Bell, the only other person left to convince was another person he met at Southern Miss: his wife, Emily.
Matt and Emily only met briefly at Southern Miss, the age gap putting things on the backburner for a bit. Matt was a senior, soon heading off to LSU as a strength and conditioning intern, and Emily — she was Emily Lee then — was a freshman, aware of him but not hooked quite yet.
It took a few years, a handful of mutual friends reconnecting them soon after Emily graduated in 2012. They both have friends near Emily’s hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a beach town in Jackson County on the Gulf Coast, and a night out with their collective group did the trick.
Matt’s notoriously bad with his phone, more of a face-to-face type of guy, someone who struggles with the daily expectations of texts, FaceTime calls, phone conversations — but he couldn’t get off the phone with her.
Work is Matt’s holy ground, and he adheres strictly to a routine; in bed by 9 p.m., ready to rock at 4 a.m., but Emily was keeping him up until midnight.
“I’m just like ‘what is wrong with me?’” he says. “I never go to bed this late, but I’m going to bed this late for her.”
Matt was an assistant at Ole Miss at this point, between stops at Southern Miss and Arkansas State, and sometime after that first meeting post-graduation — Emily thinks it was the following weekend, Matt’s convinced it was the weekend after that — he made the five hour trip from Oxford, Mississippi to Ocean Springs, nearly the length of the state, to take her to dinner.
“And knowing now what I know about their lives in the football world,” Emily says, “how they have no time and the time that they do have they just want to sleep, the fact that he drove five hours just for dinner… it was good. Long-term, I think it worked out okay.”
They went to dinner at Chef Scott’s Sushi in Ocean Springs, about a mile from the beach, the food gone in 30 minutes but the conversation taking another three hours. The post-dinner activities? Two hours of laser tag.
They were engaged by July of 2014 and married by May of 2015, and it wasn’t long before they were expecting their first child. Emily’s pregnancy wasn’t so smooth as her due date approached, dealing with preeclampsia — high blood pressure, a pregnancy complication that can be potentially dangerous for both the mother and the child — having to be induced three weeks early, with a grueling 23-hour labor in front of her in February of 2016.
“I don’t know if I would’ve made it out alive without Matt, and that is no exaggeration,” Emily says. “I feel like every woman says this, like ‘I wouldn’t have survived if my husband wasn’t there,’ but I really don’t know how I would have done it without him. He just was always by my side, rubbing my back, asking what I needed, and he just handled it with such grace. It was really a good insight to how he was going to be as a father and as the leader of our family, he just took control in the room and took care of me, took care of the baby afterwards, but that’s just Matt.”
Emily calls the whole ordeal “dramatic” as she sits on the steps up to the bleachers at McGuirk at the end of practice in early September. The Shadeeds’ son, Bear, scurries across the turf, his father in tow, Matt clearly not the one deciding where they’re headed. He’s three-and-a-half now, a week away from starting preschool — Emily says she’ll start crying if she talks about it too long — a little blond firecracker of a kid who’s become a staple at practice.
“He’s ready, he’s more than ready,” she says. “I think he’s bored at home with me, and he’s getting to that age where he’s just ready to spread his wings, and it’s time.”
Emily’s a bit of a stay-at-home mom during the week. She’s a wedding photographer, with a majority of her clientele still based back in Mississippi and she heads back down about once a month to shoot a wedding — it’s a nice little setup, she can bring Bear with her and leave him with family in Ocean Springs for a couple of days — but she’s full-time mom while she’s in Amherst.
She didn’t really need much convincing in the end, with the opportunity to join Bell in building a program from the ground up an exciting prospect for her husband. A self-proclaimed “beach baby,” Emily’s spent most of her life in Ocean Springs or elsewhere down south, so she’s not exactly accustomed to snow.
Soon after he was hired, Matt came up in December to get settled and figure out their living situation, with Emily and Bear staying with family in Mississippi until February. Matt packed up the entire house in Waco, Texas, on his own in six days — the concept of paying movers seems insane to him — and drove a Penske truck all the way up to East Pleasant St. in Amherst.
“I’d rather just do it and get a semi-workout and put some cash in my pocket instead of paying somebody $8,000 while I sit on my couch and watch a movie for three days,” he says, a hint of incredulity in his voice, as if hiring movers is an absurd idea. “Just give me six days, I’ll work twice as fast and twice as hard and I’ll get it done and I’ll save the money, so I just did that. I was literally in Waco after Christmas for like six days, by myself. I’d get up in the morning, eat, move, move, move, move, move, eat lunch, move, move, move, move, move, eat dinner, move a little bit, and go to bed.”
A few weeks later, Matt finished up a Friday session in the weight room in late February and flew from Hartford to Atlanta to meet up with Bear and Emily — Matt’s father had helped them make the trip from Mississippi — to make the drive up, packing Emily’s Chevy Tahoe with whatever was left, plus Bear and the dogs: Addy, their pitbull, and Blue, their choc lab.
They made about seven hours of progress on Saturday and decided to stop early and find a hotel somewhere in Tennessee, Bear and the dogs getting a bit cranky with about 11 hours to go. They left at 8 or 9 a.m. on Sunday, and then the snowstorm hit.
“We were going 35 on the Interstate the whole way,” Emily says. “I’ve seen snow before, just like skiing with family growing up, but nothing like this. And we couldn’t stop and get a hotel because he had workouts at 6 a.m.”
They pulled into Amherst around 4 a.m., and after quickly unloading a few things, Matt took a brief shower, drove the Tahoe to the FPC, took a half hour nap in his office, and ran lifts at 6 a.m., with every ounce of energy and intensity as he always does.
“And we crushed it,” he says.
They’re settled now, and a little over nine months since that text from Bell, Shadeed’s role has continued to grow within the program — Bell calls him a great communicator, a great motivator and above all else, a great teacher. Bell talks a lot about what Shadeed does outside the weight room, beyond the programming and the technique and the nutrition.
“To me, that’s what sets Matt apart,” Bell says. “Weights are weights — every team in the country lifts weights, every team squats and bench presses and deadlifts and cleans, everybody runs, everybody gets tired, everybody goes in the weight room and works hard. Do the kids maybe do it with the intent, the attitude that’s required to improve? I think that’s where, on top of just the physical act of lifting weights, where Shadeed does a great job. But the culture piece is just as important.
“I see his job as 50-50 job: 50 percent of his life is dedicated to growing our bodies and physically developing them, and the other 50 percent of his job is to develop the mindset of our football team, and I think that’s where he excels.”
Shadeed seems wired a bit differently than the rest of us; where there should be blood running through his veins there seems to be some mixture of caffeine, beta-alanine and positivity, and Bell says he’s never seen his strength coach have a bad day. He’s never down, never reserved, never pouting, never complaining — it’s full go from the moment he walks into the FPC before 5 a.m. until he’s on the drive home after practice.
Bell says Shadeed’s biggest qualities are “two-fold: number one, he’s incredibly positive, he’s got a great attitude, and I think hopefully over the next two, three, four, five, six years that that starts to rub off on people in this building; number two, he’s incredibly mentally tough. I’m sure that in here, and in here,” Bell says, tapping his head and his heart, “I’m sure at some point he’s having a bad day, but he’s never going to let it show. He’s an incredibly mentally tough guy, he’s going to bring it every day, and that inspires me.
“There are days where as a football coach, you haven’t slept very much, you don’t sleep well, you don’t feel good, and he’s out there running around like a madman in practice, and you have no choice but to either match his effort and intensity, or look in the mirror and know that you let the team down because you didn’t bring it the way he did.”
A few days after the season opener against Rutgers, Shadeed sits in his office adjoining the weight room at the FPC, a UMass football t-shirt beneath a UMass football sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, traditional strength coach attire, an hour before the day’s first group lift. One of the players had just left Shadeed’s office after a long chat — he’s feeling iffy about his major and doesn’t want to get stuck on the wrong path — the sort of conversation he’s having more and more.
Those moments mean a lot to him; teaching moments, building young men, making an impact off the field and outside the weight room. Fatherhood has made him especially aware of that, his time with Bear shifting his perspective.
“I think I’m a little slower to be firm in certain situations, like dropping the hammer firm,” Shadeed says. “I feel like I’m much more empathetic, much more patient, much more careful of not so much the message but my tone. Just being aware of the time that I’m spending with guys, not on the floor or in practice or on the bus, because we get so much time with them, but like you just saw right here. [A guy] comes in and sits down, hey I need to talk to you about something. He’s stuck in a major he’s not sure he really wants to follow through with, and he comes to me for help.
“That type of stuff, really making sure that I’m not missing those opportunities and making sure that I’m here for it. Having a kid, it just makes you more aware of it, you know?”
Having Bear was a bit of a reaffirming of purpose for Matt. He’s always been so career driven, so focused on “climbing that mountain,” as Emily puts it — once Bear came along, the career remained of utmost importance, the drive never changed, but there was suddenly that same focus on family.
“It’s been amazing,” he says. “I’ll tell you what: if you thought you had purpose in your life without it, you just double down on it, man, it’s crazy. Knowing that there’s a little set of eyes on you, watching your every move, that wants to be just like you, and literally depends on you to survive, it’s pretty special. Getting up in the morning and seeing him passed out in his bed with his little PJ Masks toys and he’s got his stuffed animals and I’m like, that right there is why I’m going to go to work today and try and be great.”
“It’s so great to have an opportunity to be able to do a lot of the same things we do with these guys, to be able to do a lot of the same things we do with these guys, to inspire and enrich and teach and grow young men, obviously 18- to 22-year-olds here, in my house it’s a three-year-old, but it’s a lot of the same principles, same methods. It’s really cool, man, it’s been quite the rewarding process.”
He shoots a quick text to Emily; it’s been a couple of weeks since she called the first day of preschool bittersweet, and today’s the day. Matt and Emily had picked up Bear a couple hours earlier, and she’s holding up surprisingly well. He’d been asking how she was throughout the morning, reassuring her that it’d be alright, and it was. The preschool staff told the Shadeeds that their son was running around on the playground all day, such a happy, energetic kid, which sounds about right.
“I’m just so proud of her.” Matt says. “We’ve been doing this thing by ourselves. Her family’s in Mississippi, my family’s in Alabama, it was just me, her and Bear. I’m working as a strength coach, you’re putting in long hours every week of the year, and she has been a staple in raising him. Three and a half years, it’s basically been him and her, him and her, him and her — nobody to be like hey, he’s having a bad day, or I need a breather, or I need to grocery store can you watch him, it was just her. So I’m just excited that she has some time to just be a human now. She has 12 hours a week now and she doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Over the next few weeks Emily and Matt will meet plenty of other parents and have to explain his name again, something they’re used to — a child named Bear doesn’t come along as often as an Emily or a Matthew — and not particularly shy about. It’s not a family name, he’s not named after legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a common question in Matt’s home state of Alabama. They couldn’t agree on a name for months, with Emily’s preference for a non-traditional name making things a little bit tricky. She’d love a name and he’d shoot it down, he’d love a name and it’d be too standard, and it took months to reach a resolution.
Emily has no clue where the name came from. They were sitting on the couch, Emily four or five months pregnant, and the name just came to her. Emily and Matt remember all of their major stories almost identically, and they both recall Matt’s reaction: “are you serious?”
“And I’m like here we go again, another name he doesn’t like,” she says. “And Matt’s like, ‘are you being serious? Bear?’ I’m like, ‘yeah,’ and he goes ‘I love it. That’s it. That’s the name!’”
They can’t imagine him having any other name, and to an outside observer it fits. He’s Bear, always has been, always will be. He’s always running around during practice, crashing into tackling dummies and trying to scale fences. His best friend in the world is Emma Paschall, Luke and Lauren Paschall’s three-year-old daughter, and the two are attached at the hip during practice.
“[Emma and Bear] actually didn’t even really meet until February and they’re already like brother and sister. They fight like brother and sister and they play like brother and sister,” Emily says. “They see each other every day because of practice, and when they’re not together they ask about each other the whole time. He’s asking about Emma the whole day, Emma’s asking about Bear, ‘are we going to see Bear today?’ They’re so funny.”
Emily comes to practice with multiple shopping bags filled with toys — Bear and Emma love the toy trucks, and spend most of their time playing in the gravel under the stairs at McGuirk. They rarely leave each other’s sight, and routinely come running onto the field after practice wraps, their fathers often giving chase.
“Together, they’re a fearsome twosome,” Bell says. “They get after it, they like to have a good time.”
When practice ends, Matt Shadeed the coach gives way to Matt Shadeed the dad, as he chases Bear around the field before they meet Emily, Lauren and the other wives behind the south end zone. Matt will chat with some players as they leave the field for the day, but his focus has shifted for the rest of the night.
“I think the biggest thing when you see him with Bear — when he’s with Bear, he’s with Bear,” Bell says. “He’s 100 percent invested, he’s playing with Bear, it’s dinosaurs, there’s Octonauts, there’s PJ Masks, their building blocks, they’re wrestling — I think he has a great way about him to compartmentalize the task at hand, and when it’s time to be a dad he’s an unbelievable dad, when it’s time to be here he does his job a million miles an hour.
“Maybe we have a bad day at the office, he’s going to go home and he’s going to have a smile on his face and he’s going to have a great time with Bear and Emily.”
Emily grew up in a broken home, her father absent from her life, and finding the right man to raise her children was really important to her. Matt’s been that: dedicated, caring, loving and enthusiastic beyond reason.
“I am so lucky to have him as a husband, and I truly mean that, but Bear is so lucky to have him as a father,” Emily says. “I’ve always thought the greatest gift I could give to my future children was to marry somebody who was just going to be a really great dad, and Matt has just exceeded all my expectations. I truly couldn’t pick a better man on Earth to be a father.”
Matt has one real flaw as a parent: he cannot stop buying toys for Bear, and it’s driving Emily insane.
“I threaten him before he goes to the store, like I will take the credit card away if you buy Bear one more toy,” Emily says. “He has a problem. He can’t stop buying toys, especially Legos. He’ll go to a gas station and come back with a Lego set, like ‘oh the gas station had these by the register.’ He has a Lego problem.”
Bear’s going through a big Octonauts phase at the moment, a British children’s cartoon about undersea explorers, so the toy collection has had some recent non-Lego additions. Still, Emily’s about three Lego sets away from losing it.
“Listen, if we’re out, and the Legos look good, and you want some Legos bro, and you want to build because that’s something that we can do together and we can bond, I want to do that,” Matt says. “It’s not like we’re aimlessly walking through Walmart and cleaning up the store every Friday, but if we’re walking through there and he’s well-behaved and he’s had a good day — something about the Legos man, it just calls me over there, and we’ve got a fairly serious collection at our house. Legos are actually relatively cheap, you can buy the bags with the little sets for like $3, so we tend to hit some Legos if we go to Target.
“But yes, I have a slight problem.”
Back in April, on a freezing spring day in Amherst, two big red circles — think giant hula-hoops, big enough to fit 15-20 players — were set out on the sidelines, one on each side of the field.
Every now and again a whistle would blow and the players had to sprint to one circle or the other, with up-downs the consequence if they didn’t do so correctly.
What does “correctly” mean? Nobody really knows. It didn’t seem to have that much to do with how quickly anyone got to the circle, and the theory among the assembled media was that Bell, in his fourth or fifth official practice in charge, just wanted to see who’d do it without being told why.
As the routine wears on, some players start to lag behind, and a bearded figure comes flying across the turf. It’s nearly two hours into practice, temperature dipping below 30 degrees with the wind chill, and he’s in shorts and a longsleeve t-shirt, knees coming up high, arms pumping, at a dead sprint and screaming.
“Let’s go! Let’s go!” he shouts. “Move! Move! Move!”
How anybody could possibly have this much energy at the end of practice in freezing weather is unclear, but that’s Matt Shadeed.
“You’ll hear him say it: if it’s not worth overdoing, it’s not worth doing,” Bell says.
“How you do anything is how you do everything, and he only does things one way.”
Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.