Long before he would throw more touchdown passes than anyone in the history of college football, John Matocha wondered if he’d even get a chance to take a single snap. He has thought a lot about how this sweetest of stories—and 161 touchdown passes—came so close to not happening. “I’ve been so blessed,” he told me. “None of this would be possible without God and the backing of my family.”

Just about every teacher who’s had Matocha in a class, and every teammate who’s shared a locker room with him, seems incapable of forgetting his attention to detail, competitive fire, and relentless decency.

Matocha is also one of the few remaining student athletes in a college sports era in which the NCAA has mostly dropped old pretenses it rarely lived up to in the past. He’s on track to earn a master’s degree in computer science at Colorado School of Mines, and Saturday he will play for the NCAA Division II football national championship against Harding University.

After Saturday’s title game in McKinney, the former Magnolia West High School standout faces another transition. He’ll begin working at Tyler Technologies while at the same time preparing for NFL tryouts. The five-eleven, 23-year-old quarterback is a long shot to make the league, so Matocha will step onto the field against Harding not knowing if the curtain might be coming down on his football career.

“It’s definitely a little bit sentimental,” he said. “I just finished up my last practice on this field. But at the same time, you gotta be looking forward, locked in, and prepared to go win a football game. You can’t get caught up in anything else, but every once in a while, you take a second and remember how thankful and grateful you are to be in this position.”

Back in 2019, he was a top-ten student in his graduating class at Magnolia West. He’d earned six varsity letters in football and basketball and was a member of the school’s leadership council, accompanying classmates on trips to Austin to meet with officials in the Texas Legislature and corporate leaders. “He’s just one of those really good kids,” said Todd Stephens, superintendent of Magnolia ISD.

“His parents, Keith and Cindy, did a phenomenal job raising him,” Mines head football coach Pete Sterbick said.

What John Matocha wanted more than anything else as his high school years wound down was a chance to play college football. Because he’s under six feet tall and 180 pounds, and because he’s neither the strongest nor the fastest player between the white lines, every school in Texas passed. His high school coaches told recruiters the kid had intangibles, that he had smarts and great instincts. But intangibles are a tough sell. At that point, Matocha was going to say his goodbyes to football and join his brother, Matthew, at the University of Texas. That’s when another door unexpectedly opened.

Colorado School of Mines, a 7,600-student school in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains known for its elite engineering programs, saw something in Matocha that no one else did. It was right. The Orediggers—yep, that’s their nickname—have gone 50–6 with Matocha as their starting quarterback in recent years. Matocha has accounted for 190 touchdowns (161 passing, 28 running, and 1 receiving)—the most ever at any level of college football.

“I thought he was a perfect fit,” Sterbick remembered thinking when he recruited Matocha. “I think if a guy can get into school here and we have something he’s interested in academically, and he can play ball, we check every box. The school sells itself. It’s not a fit for everybody. We look for the really specific person that can fit our culture, and this is a player-led program.”

Sterbick has 45 Texans on a roster that includes 27 players pursuing graduate degrees. It may be the only school in the nation that notes degrees being pursued in its weekly game notes. All students are required to take physics, chemistry, and calculus courses, and Matocha said the school’s academics are so demanding that the travails of classwork become another form of team-building. “We have to lean on one another,” he said. “What we do athletically, what we do academically, is special.”

Sterbick first met Matocha in January 2019. He had just arrived in Colorado as an assistant coach—he was promoted to head coach before this season—and Matocha was making his official visit to the school. “The second I met him, I could tell there was something about him,” Sterbick said. “You can’t fake that, and you hardly ever get those feelings about someone. With him, it was instantaneous. Other people see that as well. 

“He just has a galvanizing personality, and it’s been like that since his first start as a true freshman,” Sterbick went on. “All these older guys were wondering who this kid was. Some people have that ‘it’ factor.”

Matocha was inserted into the starting lineup for the second game of his freshman season and has been there ever since. He’s a finalist for a second straight Harlon Hill Trophy, which is Division II’s Heisman Trophy. First, though, Matocha has one more game to win. It was the Orediggers’ 41–14 loss to Ferris State in last season’s Division II championship that became the driving motivation for their 14–0 run this year.

The Orediggers and their opponents in this year’s final, Harding, are second and third nationally in scoring, at 49.4 points and 47.5 points, respectively. But they score those points in drastically different ways. The Mines offense is balanced, with 504 running plays and 471 passing plays. Harding, on the other hand, has thrown just 54 passes the entire season.

Before his college career took him to the Rockies, Matocha had already built a Texas high school football legend. In his senior season at Magnolia West, he accounted for 3,125 passing yards, 868 rushing yards, and 47 touchdowns. Beyond his spectacular play on the field, coaches and teammates remember him for taking his offensive linemen out for Chinese food each week and bringing them doughnuts on Saturday mornings. At Mines, he occasionally cooks dinner for teammates.

As for competitive drive, Matocha’s father saw the two sides of his son. “He’s a little bit of a nerdy kid, humble and kind,” Keith Matocha said. “But when they’re playing something with a scoreboard, a switch goes off, and he’s this alternate personality.”

As one of Matocha’s college teammates, Noah Roper, put it: “I’ve never met a more competitive person, or a person that loves football as much as John Matocha.”

Coming out of Magnolia West, Matocha was invited by Houston and Tulsa to walk on and try out. That was all the Division I interest he got. “You try to tell people what you’d be getting in him,” said J.D. Berna, who coached Matocha at Magnolia West before being promoted to district athletic director. “That fire, that drive is special. He won’t blow anyone away with the things that can be measured, but this kid, we still watch videos of the plays he made for us.

“Here’s the thing,” Berna told me. “If you brought him out and timed him in the forty-yard dash, he’d probably run a 4.8, which is nothing special. But if you put him in a game, no one is going catch him.”

At Mines, the school’s commitment to academics is even part of the football team’s uniforms. Players have their declared majors printed on their helmets. “You get run over and the last thing you see is the back of the helmet that says ‘computer science,’ ” Mines assistant athletic director Tim Flynn told Colorado Public Radio last year. “It’s a nice psychological advantage.”

John Matocha fell in love with all of it. “Mines is an amazing place,” he said, “and such a good fit because it’s highly competitive, successful, and just weird enough.” He tried on weirdness at the beginning of this season when he showed up for a team photo with pigtails, a fake tattoo on his face, and a blue mustache. “My girlfriend made those for me and a friend,” Matocha told the Wall Street Journal. “I was scheming all summer, what to do.” 

Matocha’s coaches and family members—as well as just about anyone who has gotten to know him—keep a mental list of his most spectacular plays at the high school and college levels. From clips of him spinning out of headlocks to throw touchdown passes or plowing into tackles to gain an extra inch or two, they all reflect his will to win. Depending on the moment, Matocha’s competitive spark might have him running off the field flexing his biceps, pretending to be leading the marching band, or simply screaming for the sheer joy of it.

Robbie Patty, a coach and teacher at Magnolia West, posted two nearly identical film clips on his Facebook page of Matocha leaping into the air, absorbing a big hit, and somersaulting into the end zone. “John Matocha being John Matocha,” he wrote. One of the clips is from Matocha’s days at Magnolia West, the other from Colorado School of Mines. 

Keith Matocha said his favorite play of John’s came during this year’s season opener, when Matocha drove the Orediggers 51 yards in the final 36 seconds for a game-winning field goal.

Asked about his own favorite, John Matocha had a quick answer. “I’m taking a knee at the end of the national championship game,” he said. “That’s my favorite.”