By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
As he stood on the perimeter of the school's football stadium one afternoon last week, Matt Levasseur looked like the rest of the "naps" -- newly assigned personnel -- at Massanutten Military Academy. He fidgeted slightly and nervously flashed a toothy grin at classmates as they waited their turn to participate in parade practice while older cadets marched on the grassy field adjacent to Route 11, the main thoroughfare through this small Shenandoah Valley town.
But considering the path the 14-year-old Levasseur took to get to this place, where he is an eighth-grader and a quarterback for the school's football team, he is far different from the other students here. His odyssey from his home town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, to this 109-year-old military school offers an example of the value placed on specialized youth athletic training.
Levasseur has a personal trainer and a private football coach. He has traveled to California three times this year to work with another quarterback tutor. He repeated seventh grade in part to better compete for a college football scholarship. And he came to this boarding school more than eight hours from home -- one not particularly noted for its football program -- for the opportunity to line up under center against varsity competition as a middle school student.
"For Matthew, it seems like a natural thing," said his mom, Trisha, who most weekends this fall has made the 400-mile trip each way to watch Matt play. "Would I have done it for anything other than football? No, because there are lots of great schools in Canada. There is no issue about education or anything like that. But it's his dream."
Levasseur has started just one high school game -- finishing with more bumps and bruises than touchdown passes -- but he already is well known in his home country. A reporter who wrote one of the many articles about Levasseur that have appeared in Canadian newspapers suffered a broken finger while playing catch with the youngster. This afternoon, Levasseur and Massanutten Coach Rich Chiarolanzio are driving more than nine hours to Toronto for a Wednesday guest spot on Canada AM, a popular morning show on the CTV television network.
"I thought it would be hard to leave my mom and my stepdad, but otherwise I thought it was the right decision," Levasseur said of his enrollment at Massanutten. "It was [hard] at first, but now I'm used to it."
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The plan started taking hold four years ago. Levasseur had experience running three paper routes six days a week, but he had played one season of organized football at the time. "I was a short, pudgy kid," he said. "They wanted me to play linebacker, but I couldn't run or tackle, so they said to go play lineman."
Levasseur would play catch with his older stepbrother, Justin Keith, and never made a secret of his yearning to play quarterback. One day, Trisha saw an ad online for a quarterback camp in Hamilton, Ontario, run by former Florida State quarterback Danny McManus. It was for high school players, so Trisha asked her son if he wanted to drive an hour in hope of being allowed to participate.
"I told him, 'Don't cry in the car if they tell you that you can't come, okay?' " said Trisha, whose ex-husband, Denis Levasseur, is a devoted football follower.
Her son agreed.
"So I take him and show up. I said: 'He's 10 years old. I think he can throw a football but I don't know for sure. Can he stay?' "
Levasseur grabbed a regulation-size Canadian Football League ball, backed up 10 yards, and threw it into a receiver's chest.
McManus, who played 17 years in the CFL and now works as a coaching consultant for the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, took note. "I didn't want older kids throwing to younger kids and having one take one in the face," he said. "But the first time seeing Matt throw the ball, I had no worries. The biggest was he was way advanced in his throwing motions and techniques [compared] with kids probably four or five years older than him."
Shortly thereafter, Trisha asked McManus what he thought of sending her son to school in the United States, thinking the sooner Matt made the move, the better off he might be. McManus liked the idea.
"In Canada, hockey is the number one sport, but in the States football is pretty dominant in most schools and he probably would get a coach who works with quarterbacks and get one-on-one training," McManus said. "If he wanted to be a hockey player, I would tell him to stay in Canada.
"You can never predict how successful anyone is going to be," McManus added. "Opportunities will come and go. It depends what Matt does with those opportunities. All Matt has done is put himself in position to get those opportunities."
Because Levasseur is Canadian, he needed to find an American school that could accept foreign students. Trisha, who owns a Web site directory company, and her husband, Patrick Keith, who is an investment adviser and day trader, wanted to place Matt in a military school, because they believed a structured boarding school regimen was important. They enrolled him in seventh grade at Valley Forge Military Academy outside Philadelphia for the 2006-07 school year, though dropping off their son so far from home didn't come without hesitation.
"I felt like the worst mom in the whole wide world," Trisha said. "He's crying. He's this short [5 feet 1]. And he's got his head shaved. And I'm thinking, what did I do?"
Levasseur was too young to play football for Valley Forge's teams, but a staff member, Earl Irvine, enrolled him in a local youth league. After one year at Valley Forge, Levasseur returned to Ontario for the 2007-08 school year, repeating the seventh grade at a local private school -- following a common practice of prep athletes being held back so that they can mature physically and perhaps be better prepared to earn a college scholarship.
"He will be 18 going into his senior year, the same age as Jimmy Clausen [when he was a high school senior], the same age as most quarterbacks in California," Trisha said, referencing the Notre Dame quarterback who, like her son, has worked with noted Southern California quarterback trainer Steve Clarkson. "That's who he's competing against."
Trisha first took an interest in Clarkson after reading a story online about another middle schooler who made a cross-country trip to work with Clarkson. Levasseur made three trips this past year, she said, with the initial two-day, 15-hour assessment meeting with Clarkson costing $1,200.
Though the price of schooling and private coaching is expensive, Trisha said she has "not paid a lot" for her son's instruction. "People have been really good to me," she said, noting that some services were donated and that Matt has received scholarships that have covered part or all of his schooling.
The family considered sending Matt to California for this school year, but decided that it was too far and there were few choices, with only one military boarding school in the state. The idea to send Matt to rural Virginia came up after Irvine was hired at Massanutten.
"You can tell he's going to have a big-time arm," said Mike Carubba, a Hamilton native who played quarterback at a small college in Nebraska and now tutors Matt when he is at home. "At a young age, he's making throws that a lot of kids can't make. I think [going to school in the United States] is the right thing to do. The coaching up here, you're not going to get the coaching. It's a different game as well. U.S. high school football is way ahead of Canada. I think it was good advice."
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With 161 boys and girls enrolled in grades 7 to 12, Massanutten does not have freshman or junior varsity football teams. The Colonels already had a quarterback in place for 2008, senior Marquis Jordan, before Levasseur arrived. But Chiarolanzio was happy to have another signal caller on the roster even if, at 5-9 and 140 pounds, Levasseur is significantly lighter than most of the players on the field.
"When I heard about him [possibly enrolling at Massanutten], I thought he was going to be way bigger," Jordan said. "I didn't think he was going to be that small. But the kid has heart."
After playing sparingly in the season's first two games -- both losses -- Levasseur started two weeks ago when the Colonels played Model School in Northeast Washington.
Trisha and Keith made their regular weekend trip, hopping in their car before sunrise, stopping for coffee at a convenience store and arriving in plenty of time to see Massanutten take the field for pregame warmups. Trisha eagerly anticipated kickoff, feeling completely secure as her son faced opponents who were older, bigger and stronger.
"You know what he's scared of? Roller coasters," she said, standing along the fence surrounding the field. "He has no fear of a 250-pound lineman coming at him, but don't put him on 'Pirates of the Caribbean' at Disney Quest."
Chiarolanzio's strategy was to keep things simple and let Levasseur get accustomed to the feel of the game before asking him to throw. But the pressure heightened when Model scored on its first play from scrimmage.
Levasseur erred while calling his first play in the huddle, resulting in a run to the wrong side of the field and earning himself an earful from the bellowing Chiarolanzio. After his first two passes fell incomplete, Levasseur lofted a 28-yard completion to Jordan, then sprinted to the sideline to get the next play from his coach.
In the second quarter, Levasseur screamed as he was hit on one play, clutching his right ankle. He came out for two series but returned later, only to fumble while being sacked; Model recovered the loose ball for a touchdown. The final score was Model 53, Massanutten 8. Levasseur completed just 1 of 6 passes with two interceptions. He had an ice bag on his right shoulder and walked with a slight limp.
"I can't explain how much it hurts," he said.
But there was, he believed, a small victory that was gained, having proven to teammates that their short, young quarterback was a viable player. "At first, I don't think some of them thought I could do it," he said.
Said Chiarolanzio: "Matt didn't do a bad job. He made some first-year player mistakes. We definitely learned the biggest issue we're going to deal with for him right now: He passes well, has a good arm and he's accurate, but his height hurts. He couldn't see over them."
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Although Levasseur's height is an issue now, there is reason to believe it won't be a problem for long. Matt already wears a size 13 shoe and his biological father is 6-4 and 280 pounds.
"Right now, everything he gets is just a bonus," Chiarolanzio said.
Chiarolanzio envisions a taller, sturdier Levasseur standing in the pocket and leading Massanutten to success on the football field. The Colonels' glory days are long past; its most famous football alumni are a pair of former NFL linebackers -- Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Ham and the Los Angeles Raiders' Jack Squirek -- whose decades-old newspaper clippings hang on a wall in Chiarolanzio's office.
Levasseur proclaims himself "95 percent" sure that he will spend his entire high school career at Massanutten. But there are alternatives.
"I want to stay here if I can," he said. "I'm going to look at schools in California. Wherever I get the best offer."
But before Levasseur goes anywhere else, Trisha will consult with Clarkson's staff and others, just like she did when deciding whether Massanutten would be a good fit for eighth grade.
"I think we're going to have to be realistic at some point and see what happens," Trisha said. "We figure there is no issue between now and 10th grade. We'll have to talk at some point. Clarkson has suggested that we keep him in the Northeast and not bring him to California, because there are so many quarterbacks in California. They sometimes think you're better off being the big fish in the small pond."