By JOHN GORALSKI
The Blue Knight wrestling team was on a roll in the winter of 2001, and whispers were already beginning to ripple through the crowd at home matches. Could this be the year? Will this be the season that Southington finally secures a second state crown?
Then, the bad news crashed down like a block of ice. Town inspectors, surveying the high school basement for an upcoming project stumbled into the wrestling practice room. Codes had changed since it was originally constructed.
Suddenly, the Knights were out in the cold.
“The school gave us the auxiliary gym, but that’s only about two thirds the size,” said Blue Knight wrestling coach Derek Dion. “The team really didn’t have an adequate place to practice just a few weeks before the postseason, and we had a team that was one of our best in years.”
It was a difficult challenge to coaches, and it should have spelled the end of Southington’s chances…if Mat Florian didn’t step in. The local contractor had already donated time and money to build the room initially, but now he rolled up his sleeves and attacked the project again. Every step seemed to encounter a new obstacle, and the season’s clock was ticking down.
“Mat came in with his crew of guys, paid for it, did it himself, and he got us up to code,” said Dion. Southington rallied for a second place finish at the state meet, and that would have been impossible if it wasn’t for Florian. “He came in and paid for it out of his own pocket. He basically got us back into the room to give the kids a chance. That’s about as unselfish as you can be.”
That’s what people have come to expect from Florian and his crew. When there’s a project—whether it be a wrestling room at the high school, a state of the art fitness center, or an historic downtown building renovated for the art community—Florian is usually at the center, working for free, and shrugging off the credit.
“I don’t know that there’s anybody in the town that has done more for the kids in this school than Mat has,” said Dion. “Whenever a coach needs anything, they go to Mat. And he has their back.”
For Florian, it’s a way to give back to his hometown. He grew up in Southington, one of eight kids, and chock full of energy. He chopped wood in the mornings to clear his head for school, and he credits sports as the way that he finally harnessed that energy.
“We’d stay outside until dark, and we’d go home and have dinner. That’s sort of what we did every day when we were young,” he said. “Probably because I had so many older brothers and sisters, I sort of had success right away. It sort of came natural because we were always outside playing with kids four or five years older than us.”
It didn’t matter what the sport was, he was a natural. As a sixth grader at St. Thomas School he competed in every season, shifting seamlessly between cross country, baseball, and even gymnastics. At the high school, he added wrestling and track to his resume. But it was football that was his true passion.
“Everything I did back then was about training myself for football,” he said. “I wrestled to get ready for football. I did track to be in shape for football. As it turned out, I enjoyed all three and actually went further in wrestling. That’s what was good about it.”
No matter what sport it was, Florian was one of the best. But it was his sportsmanship and teamwork that really set him apart to coaches. He’d do anything for his teammates and his team.
After running for almost 100 yards in the first two games of his senior football season, he agreed to shift to blocking back to make room for another runner. He started on defense as a linebacker, but dropped back to safety when the team needed to fill a hole.
On the wrestling mat, he moved up a class to wrestle at 155 pounds because that’s where he was needed. For Florian, team success mattered more than individual glory.
“That’s how he always was,” said former Blue Knight wrestling coach Bob Wittneben. “Mat wanted to make sure that other people enjoyed the same kinds of things he did, and he wanted to make sure that they had the opportunity. That’s who he is.”
It didn’t hurt that, no matter where he shifted, Florian was one of the team’s top athletes. He was a three-sport captain, a record holder in track, and a crucial component of Southington’s only state wrestling title in 1978. That year, Florian went 13-1 with nine pins as a senior, and he battled back from a shoulder injury to rally to fourth place at the state meet.
“He was a role model for the other wrestlers, and there was nothing that Mat wouldn’t do to motivate the younger guys,” said Wittneben. “He was always encouraging them. He was always supporting them. He’s the kind of guy that you wanted as a captain.”
The late Dom D’Angelo echoed that sentiment when his star football player was profiled in the Observer on Nov. 17, 1977.
“He is a gentleman, a real football gentleman. A super, super person, who works hard, does everything we ask of him, and always gives us 150 percent in every practice and every game,” D’Angelo told former sports editor Jim Senich. “Hey, what more can I say? He’s a coach’s dream.”
It’s important to realize that he was always a humble, sincere teammate—even as a high school athlete. It’s also important to realize how good Florian was as an athlete, because it helps to understand why he’s so quick to give back.
“His heart is really that good. That sort of always makes me a little bit crazy,” his wife, Michelle, said with a laugh. After all, the two have been dating since middle school, so nobody knows him better. “He’s a giving, kind man, and everything that he does is truly from the heart. Yes, he takes pride in it. Yes, he wants it to be the best it’s ever been, but he goes above and beyond to make sure it’s the best it can be.”
That’s why, when his playing days were over, Florian turned to coaching. But it wasn’t the high school or college level that grabbed his attention. It was youth sports. For 12 years, he built a Chargers midget football team that beat almost everyone they faced. Florian drove home his philosophy of teamwork and sportsmanship long after his own children had graduated to higher level teams. At one point, his Chargers had won about 50 or 60 games in a row.
“We only had maybe two times that we won by more than 20. We probably could have won by 100, but we always kept it respectful,” he said. “To me, that was the most important thing. For the kids, I really wanted it to be about fun, good sportsmanship. Nothing bothers me more to this day than when youth coaches talk about beating a team by 60 points or shutting someone out.”
Florian fostered a system where older kids mentored the younger kids, so that they would be ready and experienced to pass it on to the next group of youngsters. Once again, Florian was focused on the team, not the individual.
“When it was time to draft, there would always be kids that nobody wanted. Mat always searched for those kids,” said his wife. Florian didn’t care if they had behavior issues or even if they were good at football. “I know that’s why he won those games. It wasn’t that he had the best athletes. It was the way he coached them. He made sure that they’d watch out for each other.”
So when the high school needed facilities to build athletes, it was natural that Florian swept in to help. He renovated the wrestling room…even though his own children were going to be graduated long before it was finished. He designed, built, and financed the fitness room when it was proposed by the football team. Even when donations didn’t come in, he forged ahead with the project, donating time, money, and his crew…all at his expense.
But there was a catch.
“One of the football coaches came to me because they knew I was in building. They wanted to build a facility adjoining one of the fields,” he said. “I told them that I’d be interested in doing this only if we could do it in the school, and it could be for everybody. It had to be for the kids that didn’t play sports, and that’s what piqued my interest. I knew it was a good idea, and I knew I could help.”
Most contractors would have given up when the donations didn’t come in as promised. Most would have succumbed to the frustration of being locked out or locked in by security doors and janitorial staff. Most would have quit when problems arose with unions or codes.
Florian seemed to rise to every challenge.
“He’s just a good guy. That’s the bottom line,” said Dion. “He cares about the town. He cares about the kids, and he cares about the sports in this town. He does all of this stuff, and he asks for nothing in return. He’s probably embarrassed about all this acknowledgement. He’s the most humble guy in the world, but with all the work he’s done for this town, they should be crying his name from the rafters.”
That’s why it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Florian as a member of the Class of 2017. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, he will be honored for his work as a sports booster at a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“I think he belongs in the hall of fame because of all the things he’s done for Southington. He understands the importance of athletics to the town and for the children of Southington,” said Wittneben. “He could be inducted as an athlete, too. He’s more than just a booster. He lived Southington athletics, and he wants to make it better. That’s pretty special.”
“I’m very honored,” said Florian. “It’s a great group of people to be shoulder-to-shoulder with. It’s a great compliment. It’s embarrassing, but it’s a huge compliment.”
According to the hall of fame committee, a booster is much more than just somebody that contributes while their child is competing. It’s someone that contributes long after their kids have moved on. That’s Florian.
“He knew that he and his family weren’t going to benefit from the wrestling and fitness room at all. He didn’t say a word about it,” said Dion. “It was his guys, his dime, and his materials. He paid for everything in the weight room. I think that, if it was paid for by the town, it would have cost them $1 million…or more.”
Oh, yeah. And the booster doesn’t seek recognition. Once again, that’s Florian.
“I always saw myself as a dedicated, high school athlete. I’ve never seen myself as a booster,” he said. “When I think ‘booster,’ I think of guys like Dick Seeger. He gave his whole life, and I don’t see myself that way. That’s why this is such a huge compliment.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.