Matt LeZotte had his feet propped up on a recliner, two dogs lying near his feet and his eyes on a 50-inch flat-screen television beaming in images of a football game halfway across the country.
The Aquinas football coach, relaxing in the house behind Trinity Hospital he shares with his fiancee, Eva Whittemore, and brother Tony, laughed during a commercial.
"This is what I do outside of football," he said.
LeZotte owns a house in the town he grew up in and has a job coaching football not even five minutes up the road. He is prepared to attack a lifestyle that can challenge people his age: sustaining in a profession with long hours, constant turnover and unrewarding results.
LeZotte, who recently turned 28, is the youngest head coach in the area. He is in his first year coaching at Aquinas, a team that annually struggles to win more games than it loses. The Irish (3-3) have made the playoffs once since LeZotte was born in 1981 and often take the field in contests that seem unwinnable, like their region game tonight at home against fifth-ranked Wilkinson County. LeZotte wants to invert those expectations, which he said can be done with the right effort.
"It's going to take a big commitment," LeZotte said. "We're ready to show the guys we are committed; we just need a commitment from them. I tell them all the time 'Guys, aim for perfection.' Because that's what it's going to take for us."
Before he was named coach at Aquinas last spring, LeZotte said he turned down the opportunity to start the football program at Augusta Prep. He inquired about the opening at Westside last year, but said the principal told him he was going to offer the job back to Gerald Barnes, who coached LeZotte at Westside and had taken a year off in part to care for his ill wife. Sure enough, Barnes was the coach on the opposite sideline last month when Westside scored the final 14 points in a 14-9 win over Aquinas.
LeZotte graduated from Westside in 2000 and played four years at James Madison, a place he remains connected to by logging on to the college town's newspaper site and solving its Sudoku puzzle each morning. He threw for more than 4,500 yards and was part of the school's 2004 national title team. The president of the university wrote him a letter of recommendation for his first job, a pharmaceutical representative based in Asheville, N.C. That job did little to satisfy the competition he craved. He joined Aquinas as an assistant two seasons ago.
LeZotte played football as early as 8 yards old. He recently asked his team if anyone played football before middle school. No one raised their hand. He wants the team to embrace football well enough to run a college-style passing attack with multiple quarterback reads and a complex defense, because he said the school doesn't have the speed to line up and play easy-to-teach man-to-man defense in the secondary.
"We want (the players) to care about football as much as we do," said Tony LeZotte, who was an All-America defensive back at James Madison. He helps coach the Irish defense.
Before his team's game at Lincoln County earlier this season, Matt LeZotte shared his 28th birthday cake with his team at a meal catered by a local steakhouse. The creamy frosting had been replaced with Cool Whip, so it would be easier on players' stomachs. LeZotte, eating at a table with assistant coaches and Whittemore, was concerned about what his team was facing. They were debuting a system that relayed play calls in via the quarterback's armband instead of hand signals, because they were concerned Lincoln County's large and respected coaching staff would easily pick up on play calls.
As players scattered to change into uniforms, Father Mark Van Alstine arrived to deliver mass. After exchanging greetings, Van Alstine offered a thought that seemed to be lingering on everyone's minds.
"Maybe we can beat Lincoln County?" he said.
"That would be very nice," LeZotte said.
About four hours later, LeZotte was absorbing a stinging 37-0 defeat.
It was the first time his team failed to score a point, the latest reminder how far they have to go to reach their expectations.
"I want to prove to myself we can do this," LeZotte said. "Winning football games will produce that. Winning earns you respect."
Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.