Throughout his career, Eastern Illinois wide receiver Matt Judd can recall numerous coaches who shaped his development both on and off the football field.
“I’ve had so many coaches that have shown me the way about life,” he said. “I’ve had coaches who I’ve seen be a good father, be a good teacher. X’s and O’s are all important, but it’s really about how you build a kid into an adult.”
The examples his coaches provided have strengthened Judd’s post-football plans. The redshirt freshman – whose Panthers (0-2) travel to Dayton Saturday for a noon kickoff in a non-conference game – has a goal to become a teacher and coach.
“That shows how much of an impact they had on my life that I want to do the same thing,” he said. “They took a young kid who really didn’t know what was going on and turned him into a mature guy now who hopes to do the same (for other kids).”
Judd got his first taste of his future profession over the summer when he served as a coach in the Tuscola Flag Football League north of Charleston.
As a coach for the Raiders in the Senior Division, Judd guided the team of 9- to 14-year-olds to the league championship in late July.
“The most exciting thing is seeing the kids have fun and seeing the kids take your coaching and actually put it to work,” Judd said. “I’ve always heard coaches say, ‘It’s nice seeing your kids succeed.’ I didn’t really understand what it meant until it happened. They were succeeding while having fun, and that was the most important part.
“My enjoyment is just seeing them have fun and getting a win,” he said.
How it all started
Judd’s playing career began at the University of Illinois, where he noticed former teammates Reggie Corbin and Justice Williams were serving as Tuscola coaches.
“I thought it would be fun,” Judd said. “It really sparked an interest in my head my freshman year.”
After transferring to Eastern, Judd’s interest continued, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed his participation until over the summer.
“It was a natural fit,” said Jason Rahn, the founder and president of the Tuscola league, which is part of NFL Flag. “Matt is very laid back. He lets the kids have fun, but he keeps them focused, which is hard to do with 9- to 14-year-olds. He was able to connect with them.”
Judd said he has maintained connections with several of his players and their parents throughout the fall to check in on how their youth tackle football season is going.
“The kids all had a blast with Matt,” Rahn said. “The parents all appreciated everything he did. I know things can change, but Matt made the comment that he’s coming back next year.
“The parents are pretty excited about that,” he said. “It’s nice when you have some consistency with your coaches. They give up a lot to come and help us.”
The Tuscola league began in the summer of 2017 because Rahn’s son, Colton, is a huge football fan and a Fighting Illini fanatic.
However, Colton has cerebral palsy and “tackle football isn’t in the cards,” Jason Rahn said.
The first year featured 62 young athletes in the league. This summer, Rahn said 115 kids from a 30-mile radius around Tuscola – including from Charleston and Mattoon – joined the league.
When Colton needed eye surgery in 2017, his father tweeted out a message asking for well wishes for his son that he could read to him before and after surgery.
“I woke up the next morning with well over 700 messages, including from (former Illini coach) Lovie Smith and almost the entire football team,” he said. “They kind of adopted him.”
More than a dozen Illini players showed up at Colton’s youth basketball game only weeks after the surgery and celebrated when he hit the game-winning shot.
The social media trend #ColtonCourage – along with the league – took off, featuring numerous Illini players as coaches.
“The kids have had next-level type coaches,” Rahn said.
With Judd at EIU, the Panthers program now has a connection to the league.
When Rahn sought ideas for this summer’s championship games, Judd immediately thought about using EIU’s O’Brien Field – where Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo began their careers – and got Panthers head coach Adam Cushing involved.
“I thought it would be a cool idea if we had it at O’Brien,” Judd said. “I texted Coach Cushing and said, ‘Coach, what do you think about this? I think would be a cool experience for the kids. It would be an opportunity to get our name out there as well.’
“Coach said he loved the idea, so we got it worked out with the compliance office, and the rest is history,” Judd said.
On gameday, Cushing also took part in the event.
“He let me come out and be the honorary coin flipper,” Cushing said. “It was a really cool experience. They had great fan support. It’s a little bit like I started my career. I coached Little League baseball when I was 16 years old.”
For Judd, playing the flag title game at EIU provided a highlight for his team that he won’t soon forget.
“I’m getting chills just talking about it,” Judd said. “It was one of the coolest things, and knowing I had a part in it was so cool.”
As much as Judd helped his players this summer, coaching had an impact on him.
“This has taught me so much,” he said. “I saw them three times a week, and just seeing the smiles on their faces took me back to playing youth football. This is fun.”
Rahn said the benefit of having college athletes as coaches is the young athletes can relate to someone closer to their age.
“Some of these kids will talk to somebody like Matt before they talk to their parents or someone else if they have an issue,” Rahn said.
Being a mentor and a good listener for his athletes was something Judd relished.
“You could tell they were looking at me more as a coach, yes,” he said. “But there were times we’d just sit around and talk.
“I think I’ll be more of a coach that not just a football player, but any kid in the school can come talk to me about anything they have to talk about,” he said. “I hope to be that guy as a teacher and a football coach.”
Where to find the game
Eastern’s noon kickoff at Dayton will be broadcast online on Facebook Live. The radio broadcast is offered on Charleston-based Hit Mix 88.9 FM.