By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
As a young St. Michael-Albertville student, Matt Spaeth had a dream of someday becoming a professional athlete. While the 29-year old has made a living the past six seasons as a tight end playing in the National Football League, Spaeth admits, his original dream didn’t picture him wearing a helmet and pads.
“When I was younger, I always wanted to play in the NBA,” said the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Spaeth. “I liked football, but I played hoops year round. That was the sport I really loved playing the most.”
A 2002 STMA graduate, his 1,359 career points still ranks first all-time for the boys basketball team. He also holds the school’s career rebound mark with 804 – 55 more than his older brother Chris, who graduated in 1998. Spaeth also holds the single-game record for most rebounds in a game with 23.
Even with eye-popping statistics on the hardwood, college recruits came banging down his door because of his skills possessed on the gridiron.
Spaeth, ironically, had less than eye popping football stats. His senior year he only caught 22 receptions for 294 yards and three touchdowns. But it was his work on the defensive side of the ball that impressed most college scouts.
“It wasn’t like I was some prized tight end coming out of high school,” Spaeth said. “I was being recruited to be a defensive end. In high school, I loved playing middle linebacker and my first year when I red-shirted at the University of Minnesota they wanted me at end.”
After registering 203 solo tackles, eight interceptions and five forced fumbles, Spaeth was named First-Team All-Metro his senior year with the Knights. His achievements didn’t go unnoticed. He eventually landed a full-scholarship playing football at the University of Minnesota, ultimately killing his dream of being a professional basketball player.
“I had some Division-II and some small Division-I colleges recruiting me for basketball,” he said. “Once I was getting recruited by good Division-I football programs, I told myself to go big or go home. But I still believe it was my hoop skills that helped me be the player I am today.
“Too many kids want to make it big in one sport and so they just play one sport. You’re better off playing as many different sports as possible and that will help make you an overall better athlete.”
FROM BLUE AND GOLD
TO MAROON AND GOLD
After red-shirting his freshman year, Spaeth was asked by the Gopher coaching staff to bulk up for his first-year as a defensive end. Spaeth, however, had other ideas.
“They wanted me to put on weight and I didn’t,” he said. “So they moved me to tight end and I felt so much more comfortable there.”
The move turned out for the better for both Spaeth and the Gophers. He was named to the 2004 All-Big Ten Freshmen Team. In 2005, he was selected All-Big Ten First Team after catching 26 receptions for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
His senior year – on a pass friendly offense that featured starting quarterback Bryan Cupito and current Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker – he wound up breaking Ben Utecht’s career mark for both receptions (109) and yards (1,291). He enjoyed his best statistical year hauling in 47 pass receptions, 564 yards and scored four touchdowns. His efforts earned him the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end and ultimately saw him get drafted that summer in the third round (77th overall) by Pittsburgh.
“I’m still close with a lot of the guys from the U,” Spaeth said. “I still hang out with some of the guys in the off-season. I came home this summer for about 2-1/2 weeks for my charity golf tournament and to train at Larry Fitzgerald’s camp. I’m a full-time resident of Pittsburgh, but I love being back home.”
BACK TO STEEL CITY
While the dream of being a professional athlete came true, Spaeth’s role from go-to offensive tight end in college quickly diminished into a role player/back-up tight end in the pros.
Despite catching only five balls his rookie year in 2007, Spaeth made each reception count – hurling in three touchdown catches, including a 5-yard TD pass in his first career game against the Cleveland Browns.
Spaeth enjoyed his best year offensively in 2008 when he started in 13 of the 16 games and hauled in a career-best 17 pass receptions for 136 yards. He also started in all three playoff games and enjoyed his most memorable sports moment when the Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII.
“Football has blessed me with a lot of great memories,” Spaeth said. “Winning the Super Bowl and getting that ring is my greatest memory to date.”
Two years after winning the title, the Steelers and Spaeth went their separate ways and the former STMA standout was signed in 2011 as a free agent by the Chicago Bears. In two seasons in the Windy City, Spaeth caught a modest 13 receptions for 78 yards and three touchdowns. Spaeth said it was a 13-yard touchdown pass he caught on Nov. 25 at Soldier Field from Bears quarterback Jay Cutler that also ranks high on his memory list.
“Being from Minnesota, everyone including myself is a Vikings fan growing up,” he said. “So catching that TD against my hometown team with my family and friends watching made it extra sweet.”
Unlike three of the four years in Pittsburgh, Spaeth missed the playoffs both years playing for the Bears. After his contract expired this past summer, the Bears released Spaeth and shortly after, the former Steelers tight end latched on with his former team signing a 2-year contract in March worth 2-million over that span.
“Chicago wanted to keep me, but they wanted me to renegotiate and take less money,” Spaeth said. “I liked my time in Chicago, but I had a few teams after me and I wanted to test free agency. I wanted to come back to Pittsburgh, but wasn’t sure if they were interested. Once they wanted me back, it was an easy decision.”
With starting tight end Heath Miller recovering from off-season knee surgery, Spaeth likely will see more training camp reps and could possibly be the starter in week one.
Either way, he said he’s just happy to be wearing the black and gold again.
“Playing for the Steelers is all I know,” he said.