Of course, I thought. He's an Eagle's fan.
It's been a minute since I've hopped on a Zoom call to interview a professional football player. And given the way the 49ers season came to an abrupt halt at the wings of Philadelphia, it only made sense that my first chat with an ELF (European League of Football) athlete came in the form of Matthew Vitale - a southwest Philly-born, New Jersey native now living in Poland, who just happens to cheer for the Eagles.
"I'm sorry about your boy Brock Purdy going down in the first drive," Vitale smirked. Even through a screen, I could feel how genuine his smile was. I almost didn't mind the subtle reminder of that soul-crushing loss in the NFC Championship Game this past NFL season.
Now, I'm not one for typically talking about auras, but the 25-year-old had this presence about him that immediately gave me a sense of comfort.
Maybe it's the fact we both hopped on a plane to chase our dreams. Vitale landed in Poland in March and I've been in Italy since October 2021. There's something pretty powerful about leaving behind everything you know and love to follow your heart into an unknown place outside of your comfort zone, though.
"This is my first time in Europe. Ever."
Vitale has been playing football his entire life. The multi-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball and track) is incredibly competitive, actually. But he always knew in his heart that he was meant to be the man at center.
Despite a bit of doubt from his coaches along the way.
"My coaches always saw my size and especially in little league, they would see my size and they'd be like, 'Nah, you're not playing quarterback.' Or the coach's son would play quarterback or something like that.
"But in my head, I would always train as a quarterback. When I was in elementary school, I used to ride my bike across town and just go to practices and try to learn their offense...so I could have a head start and learn because I knew that my size was always going to be in question."
Growing up, he'd play wide receiver, running back, safety and cornerback instead. It wasn't until high school that Vitale finally laced up as QB1 in his freshman year. After transferring to a bigger school in his junior year, he had a lot of success, even while undersized.
The Jersey native bounced around between colleges in West Virginia and California, but due to health issues, Vitale missed the 2018 season.
"In 2019, Temple gave me an opportunity to walk on. And I was moving up the depth chart all year. Going into next spring, I was competing to start, and then the sickness and COVID, it all caught up to me and I had an infection and had to have an emergency surgery in my 2020 season."
He missed that entire year and given the team's morale paired with a bit of a toxic atmosphere, Vitale left his "dream school" in Philly by diving into the transfer portal to Jackson State. After a year off to be with family and coach at his former high school, he took the field in the 2022 season under Coach Prime, Deion Sanders.
An experience the 25-year-old says made him a better person and player.
"I really went to Jackson State for something that was bigger than football when I was sick. I was in a hospital bed for 105 days. I had nine procedures and one major surgery. It was a very traumatic time for just life in general.
"But Coach Prime, before I knew he was ever going to be my coach, I followed him on social media...and I would always see his inspirational tweets or videos. I remember just sitting in the hospital bed and looking at his stuff, trying to keep my mind healthy and my mental health up. So, when I had the opportunity to go and play for him, I knew I had to be in that environment and atmosphere."
Sanders' mantra for the team is something Vitale needed in that moment, more than he could have imagined.
When Vitale spent 105 days in a hospital bed, he found solace in staying neutral. Through every pain and setback, rather than try to stay positive or completely sulk in sadness, he balanced his emotions to be somewhere in the middle.
"I had pain medicine withdrawals...I had a giant gash throughout my stomach and abdomen. I couldn't laugh because it hurt. There were some things where I could find little victories, but the majority of the day, it was a negative situation. Just because my situation was negative, it didn't mean that I had to let my being become negative and my circumstances that surrounded me become negative.
"So I just stayed neutral," he said.
During his time in the hospital, Vitale's dad suffered a stroke and lost all mobility on his left side.
"Even though it sounds like a terrible story, so many people rallied around us. We as a family came together and became even stronger in ways that you didn't know you could. Looking back on it now, we all know we got through this stuff together. And yeah, we still carry some scars with us, but it just makes you appreciate every single day more.
"Life is truly really precious."
Like the iconic Ted Lasso sign above the door in Richmond FC's locker room read Believe, Coach Prime preached a similar vibe to his players, which really resonated with Vitale during his time at Jackson State.
"It was, 'I believe.' It's as simple as that. That kind of stemmed everything in our program. 'I believe in God. I believe in all things that are working for the greater good. I believe in myself, in my teammates and my coaches, in where I'm at and me being right where I'm supposed to be right in this present moment.'
"And that was something that really helped me. Just being in the present moment and not looking ahead at things or not looking at my past and struggling with things and traumatic moments, but using them to fuel [me]."
Vitale did just that when he bet on himself by moving to Poland. He's now the starting quarterback for the Panthers Wrocław and made his debut in the European League of Football--a league consisting of 17 different teams from nine countries--tonight, posting four touchdowns.
In fact, in the Panthers' opening drive, he threw an absolute dart to teammate Tony Tate for a touchdown.
"Something my mom always wanted me to do was to travel," Vitale said.
Fun fact: Vitale's mom just so happens to be his biggest inspiration off the field.
"Coming out here, I feel like I'm making my family proud...we have very humble beginnings. My mom is from southwest Philly. She grew up in a little row home. I was born into the row home. I don't forget where I'm from, like I was playing football on a little baseball field with glass on it when I was like four or five years old.
"And then I was able to go see my sister in Venice. Just to see her in Italy was so cool. For me, I can't believe this is happening because just very shortly ago, we didn't know what the outcome was going to be with life in general. We definitely don't take it for granted as a family."
It's crazy. I had this weird feeling that I was meant to chat with Matthew, to hear his story and share his experience, because my family went through our own adversities this past year when my dad was diagnosed with leukemia.
In the moment, I couldn't talk about it either. I shelled up and hid myself from the world. It was too painful to talk to friends, too scary to look forward to the future.
One month ago, my dad walked me down the aisle at my wedding. We shared a daddy/daughter dance, something I had dreamt of my whole life, actually, and we both cried because we honestly didn't think we'd get to have that moment together due to his diagnosis.
Had I not moved to Italy, he may not have been diagnosed in time.
Vitale said it best: life truly is precious. And if you can take anything from his story today, remember to stay neutral through the negative and celebrate the heck out of the amazing moments we are afforded.
"I think my younger self would be extremely proud of myself now. I do. I still feel like I'm the same kid, I'm just grown up a little bit. And I have a lot more life lessons that I've learned, but if I told myself those things from back then, then I wouldn't have been able to experience them for what they are right now," Vitale said when I asked him what he would tell his younger self.
"I might just keep it quiet and give my younger self a smile."