When the St. Thomas University football team takes to the field on Saturday, they will be facing the toughest defense in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). The Bethel Royals are No.1 in terms of points allowed (15) and average yards allowed per game (284.7), and have an athletic, veteran defense that tackles well, thinks smart and plays as one. While many are playing a big role in the success of the Royals defense, two members of this group really standout.
Lineman Will Van Duzer and linebacker Landon Mathis are two of the primary foundations upon which this team is built. The duo is a ferocious and tenacious combination that attacks ball-carriers with a passion that is only surpassed by their love for their families, friends and teammates. They are an outstanding pair of young men who are personable, witty and joyful about life. They are the kind of guys that laugh at their own mistakes and would share their last dollar with a person in need, but don’t get the wrong idea about them. When they take the field Saturday, they are going to battle like true warriors in a “take no prisoners” mentality that has made the pair two of the most fearsome defenders in the conference.
Mathis has quickly established himself as a playmaker who flows to plays and gets himself into position to make tackles. While he credits Van Duzer and his defensive line mates for “cleaning up the garbage so I can make plays,” the truth is that the junior linebacker finds ways to be involved in virtually every snap. Mathis is fourth in the conference in tackles, averaging better than eight tackles a game and is the leader in a group of highly-active ball-hawking linebackers that are quick to the ball.
Mathis’ Coach, Steve Johnson, says his linebacker has a “high-motor,” and of that there is no doubt. Van Duzer strongly agrees. “He has an incredibly high-motor. When other guys may be slacking off, he is always going 100 mph. He fires up the defense and I know that I can always rely on him.”
Reliance. That is one thing that the junior has established as a trademark. He is tenacious in his pursuit of the play, but doesn’t do so at the expense of his teammates. He knows his role and always counts on his squad of outstanding defenders to fulfill theirs. “All of us are on the same page,” he explains. “The coaching staff creates strategies, and we trust each other to make those strategies work. We know that if one guy makes a mistake on a play that he can be counted on to bounce right back in the next.”
Mathis has certainly proven that when his team needs someone to step up, he is more than happy to set the pace. October 4 was the team’s toughest contest to this point, a battle against the then undefeated Concordia Cobbers. The Cobbers have a brutal triple-option running attack that is a real challenge for any defense, but Mathis rose to the challenge, having his best game of the season in terms of numbers with 13 tackles and a quarterback hit. He used his intelligence and quick reactions to get into plays and played a pivotal role in the Royals defeat of Concordia.
While Mathis is a high-motor guy who uses his speed and athleticism to make plays, Van Duzer is a fearsome beast on the line who, according to him, “just loves to hit people.” His coach describes him as “relentless,” and the way that he attacks offensive lineman from the nose guard position demonstrates how true that characterization is. The Bethel Royals are first in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, at just barely over 80. That is a testament to how truly dominant this defensive line is, and Van Duzer is the one who sets the pace.
The nose guard is one of the most grueling positions in football to play, because it requires a strong-willed person who can withstand constantly being double-teamed, yet still be able to push through that to make tackles. No one enjoys the challenge more than Van Duzer. “There is nothing better than dominating your opponent, when you are able to push him back or out of the way. One of the best parts of playing defense.”
The two are fiery players who found themselves needing to play a more integral part in the leadership of the team when the season began. “A lot of our leaders from last year graduated, leaving a real void for us this season,” Van Duzer explains. “That left a lot of questions as to who would step up and take a more active role in leading the team. Who was it that was going to be the big-time players and who was it that was going to be the big-time leaders?”
The two were a natural fit, and because of their character, commitment to the team, and non-stop dedication to improve themselves, they established a model that they expected everyone to follow. A new identity to the team was formed around the two, as well as through other strong leaders on the team, and this has enabled the Bethel Royals to push toward another conference championship. A pathway that now has the St. Thomas Tommies in the cross-hairs of these two Defenders of the Royals Realm.
The two are outstanding leaders and very good football players, but that is such a small part of who they are as people. These are two men with jovial spirits, who seem incredibly welcoming to others, and who also embrace the primary foundation upon which Bethel football is based – love.
It is not often that two defenders would talk about how much they have grown as friends and how they truly love each other. Can anyone imagine Houston Texans lineman J.J. Watts saying he loved fellow lineman Jadeveon Clowney? Clearly Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Alex Karras or “Mean” Joe Greene never uttered such words in an interview, but the two talked openly about their love and respect for each other as easily as if they were talking about the weather outside. The love is truly genuine and plays a big-part in why the two are so tenacious on the field.
“We want to do our best for each other,” Mathis shares. “It’s not about big numbers or accolades. It’s about the ten other guys on the field. I want to give my best for those guys.”
Van Duzer could not agree more. “It’s not about the win column. That’s just superficial. We are a brotherhood here, and it’s more about growing together. It’s the love that we share as a group that makes us so good here. Everyone wants to see each other do well.”
One of the most interesting responses given was when they were talking about how it felt to be in the shadow of the Tommies. Bethel is as quality a program as St. Thomas, yet they do not get nearly the same recognition from local media outlets. Neither seemed the least bit bothered by that, and the senior lineman’s response epitomized the character of these two in particular and the team as a whole. “If Bethel is not known for football that is great with me. I want Bethel to be known for faith, not for football.”
The two specifically chose Bethel University because they wanted to go to college in an environment that would help them grow in their Christian walk. That faith has been able to flourish at the campus and on the team. It is something that has meant a great deal to the junior linebacker. “I had never been in an environment like this as a player, but it has been perfect for me. I want to do my best here for my teammates and for His (God’s) glory.”
The two are outstanding young men who are happy to give credit to the two sets of people that made them into the men of character that they are – their parents. Mathis has been incredibly thankful to have parents that were so supportive in his choices in life. “They have always supported me, been there at all my practices and games. They come to all the games here. My family is absolutely amazing.”
In developing who he is as a person, the junior found it easy to explain how he came to be the man he is. “My dad is a real quiet guy. A guy of real of quiet strength. I can see that in myself in games when I can draw on my inner strength to push myself. I feel his influence on me.” As for his jovial spirit and ability to enjoy life, he gladly credits his mom. “She is always so happy. Incredibly encouraging. She is always smiling and has a great joy about life.”
Van Duzer credits his parents for being the single greatest influence on his life. “My dad is such a humble guy. I am just starting to learn all the sacrifices he has made for me, and he never said a word about it. That is just the kind of guy he is. Now that I am engaged (Will became engaged to his sweetheart Shanna earlier this week) I look to my dad as the kind of husband and father I want to be.” While his father has brought out a very mature, high-character man, he is very pleased to speak about how his mom has influenced him. “My dad would shake his head at how goofy I am sometimes, but my mom would tell me to go ahead and be you. She is the kindest, most loving person. Incredibly supportive of all I do. I definitely have the best of both worlds in them.”
Bethel Royals Coach Steve Johnson has a saying, “What you practice is what you will be good at.” Clearly Landon Mathis and Will Van Duzer have spent a lot of time practicing to be great football players and amazing leaders. It is also apparent that they have spent even more time practicing to be men of great character, integrity and love. When they enter the field on Saturday they will be warriors. When they leave the campus one day they will be world-changers. They already practiced doing so at college and on the football field, so there is no doubt they will be great at it beyond the campus walls.
By Robert Pannier