He’s too proud to divulge details of his own painful experiences. And there’s a good source to Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch’s pride.
He hails from Schuylkill County, a tough section of northeastern Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region.
Life’s hardships surround the county’s residents. The majority of the jobs in the region’s once robust coal industry left decades ago, leaving residents scrambling to find work. Only 13.6 percent of the county’s residents own college degrees, according to census figures.
One of Stankiewitch’s great grandmothers dropped out of school after third grade to work as a seamstress. Her family needed money because a mining accident blinded her father.
He found a way to help his family by playing violin on the street corners of mining communities. Stankiewitch’s great grandmother taught herself how to read, penning letters to friends and family members. The letters and violin still remain in the family.
The toughness spans to the family’s best athlete.
On a crisp November night in 2006, Stankiewitch vomited on the sidelines as his Blue Mountain High School team played a local rival. He refused to leave the game despite a nasty virus. He doesn’t mention this game when discussing his high school career.
“He wouldn’t go out,” Lisa Stankiewitch said of her youngest son. “Everybody was telling him, ‘You should go out.’ He wouldn’t go out.”
After the game, his parents took him to the hospital.
The nurses stuck two IVs into his large arms. Stankiewitch was treated for dehydration. He didn’t miss a play.
“Hard work really goes far in my family,” he said. “We take pride in being on time, getting work done and showing pride in what we do.”
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A virus during a football game seems trivial compared to some of the scenes his father, Michael, witnessed working at Dana Corporation, a factory that made frames for General Motors vehicles.
The factory, located in an industrial section of Reading occupied by factories and a railyard, also employed Michael’s father, who died when Matt was 6 years old, and an uncle. Michael worked at the factory before it shuttered in 2000. The factory’s demise was a methodical one, as Dana slowly decreased its workforce. Michael was one of the factory’s final 800 workers. At its peak, Dana employed more than 3,000 people.
The union job paid well and offered desirable benefits, allowing Lisa to stay at home with her two sons. But the work wasn’t for the meek.
“My father said he saved a man’s life,” Stankiewitch said. “Robots malfunctioned and my father said the man was crushed and he had to get the machinery off him and save his life. He’s telling me these stories when I’m 6, 7, 8 years old. I still remember them. It was very dark times for some of those men.”
Michael lost part of his hearing working in the factory. Lisa, who earned multiple degrees from McCann School of Business and Technology, started working in the customer service industry to help support the family. When her company moved to Honduras, she obtained a nursing degree and now works as a medical coder.
Michael’s pride didn’t let him collect unemployment. He quickly found another job before settling as a shipper-receiver at Thermo-Dynamics Boiler Company.
Their work history is typical of Anthracite Region families.
Football represents a release from the hardships, and Stankiewitch blossomed into one of the region’s best players.
Michael and Lisa, who grew up in the mining community of Shenandoah, encouraged active lifestyles but never pushed their sons into football.
Picturing the Nittany Lions’ sturdy 6-foot-3, 301-pound center as a soccer player is difficult. But before following his father, who studied the workout plans of popular body builders Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, into the weight room, Stankiewitch and his older brother, Michael, tried preventing and scoring goals instead of touchdowns.
“If you look at older pictures of me, I was very thin,” Stankiewitch said. “You could see my ribs.”
Stankiewitch’s athletic course changed in fifth grade when he was engulfed in the buzz surrounding football registration. He brought the papers home to his parents, and Michael signed them like somebody closing on their first house.
“He was so proud of me,” Stankiewitch said.
Lisa said her son’s body was changing at the time
“He was getting big and husky, and we were thinking, ‘Who knows? He might be ready to play football,’” she said.
Stankiewitch worked out at Blue Mountain High School or a local racquetball club. The limited hours restricted him, so he urged his parents to purchase a set of free weights at Wal-Mart.
The pursuit became expensive, with a full-body machine and bench eventually working their way into the family’s Orwigsburg home.
On the field, Stankiewitch developed into a player Schuylkill County’s demanding fans appreciate: a powerful two-way lineman who placed teammates before himself. It didn’t hurt that Stankiewitch committed to Penn State before his senior season. Some of Penn State’s most ardent supporters live in the county.
But the early commitment turned Stankiewitch into a scrutinized player his senior season. Smaller players looking to become Friday Night heroes tried undercutting him. Hands tugged on his face mask. For protection, he curled his fingers under his knuckles when he jumped into a pile.
After games, the same players looking to mangle Stankiewitch often wished him luck at Penn State. On a Saturday afternoon during his senior season, Blue Mountain visited rival Schuylkill Haven while Penn State was playing at Purdue. Fans cupped their hands, looked toward Stankiewitch and shouted the Penn State score throughout the game.
“The people sitting behind us would say, ‘Hey, Penn State is losing just to let you know,’” he said. “They were yelling this while on the sideline, ‘Hey, hey, Stankiewitch, Penn State is losing just to let you know.’ A lot of that stuff goes on. Good thing Penn State won that day and we won, too.”
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Engaged high school crowds helped Stankiewitch adjust to his role as the Nittany Lions’ starting center last season.
Neither Stankiewitch nor his linemates missed a workday. Stankiewitch approached all 13 games like a factory worker bracing for third shift.
“Saturdays are business days for me,” he said. “I’m not going out there to have fun. I tell my parents, I tell my family that I have a job to do and I will talk to them after the game. They understand that. I consider what I have to do a job. I want to perform my best at my job and my teammates and coaches need me to perform my best at my job.”
Off the field, Stankiewitch surrounds himself with a pair of other blue-collar players from the Anthracite Region. His roommates are quarterback Matt McGloin and guard Eric Shrive. McGloin, a former walk-on, navigated crowded depth charts to become a starting quarterback. Shrive, a once heralded prospect turned backup, has demonstrated unwavering commitment to the program. Both players attended West Scranton High School.
The bond between the stoic Stankiewitch and fiery McGloin is one of Penn State’s tightest.
“Stank has a great personality,” McGloin said. “He’s one of those guys you have to be around each and every day to understand. On the field, he’s one of the toughest guys and hardest workers. Off the field, he’s like a big bear. He’s a great friend.”
A dean’s list student majoring in business management and advertising, Stankiewitch is considered a professional prospect.
But if his playing stalls, Stankiewitch, like others in his family, will persevere.
When he packs his Jeep, which has a Dana-constructed frame, and leaves Penn State, he should be ready for what awaits. Adapting runs in the family.
On the day Matt turned 16, his grandfather, Robert Dombrosky, was transferring a car between auto dealerships for his job. A snow squall impaired visibility on Interstate 81. A tractor trailer hit Dombrosky’s vehicle and mangled his body.
He was given his last rites and taken off a ventilator. Dombrosky, who had already survived lung cancer, continued battling.
Dombrosky attended last Saturday’s against Ohio University, one of many times he has watched his grandson play for the Nittany Lions.
“We get knocked down,” Lisa Stankiewitch said, “and we find another way to survive.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy