It wasn’t unusual for Providence High running back Brian Mattar to feel pain the Friday night or Saturday morning after a game. But the pain after a game late last season was different.
He tried to go to bed but couldn’t get comfortable. The pain kept him awake and it was hard for him to move.
“Usually I just feel sore, like bruised up and stuff, but it was like a different type of pain,” Mattar said. When he tried to walk, he said, “my body wouldn’t let me.”
This March, Mattar was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, causing chronic pain, stiffness and swelling in joints. There isn’t a cure, just ways to treat the pain. Mattar feels it every day, some more than others.
He first noticed pain in his right hip in March 2013. It gradually moved to his back and both of his legs, his hands and feet, and his lower ribs.
“It’s like a bruise,” he said, “and then like burning and then like someone is stabbing me in my leg.”
But Mattar, 19, refused to sit out his senior football season with the Panthers, who are 9-3 heading into Friday’s second-round N.C. 4AA playoff game at East Forsyth.
“I wanted to play,” he said. On the field, he says, he can forget about the pain.
“I just love the sport of football,” he said. “I’ve loved it since I was little. Always dreamed of playing in college ... and just love being out there with my teammates.”
Mattar sometimes misses practice or leaves early if the pain becomes too severe. He takes medication at halftime of games.
He missed part of the second and all of the third quarter of Providence’s win over Olympic Sept. 26, and missed a couple of series in the rivalry game against Ardrey Kell Oct. 17.
Mattar, a 5-foot-7, 155-pound back, has still rushed for 1,251 yards and 16 touchdowns on 169 carries.
“He’s a warrior,” said Providence head coach Justin Hardin. “If you look at him a certain way, that’s kind of what a hero is. He defies the odds and he goes about it the right way.
“He’s just a special young man. I hope other coaches ... have an opportunity to coach someone like Brian one day.”
Hardin tries to limit the amount of contact Mattar withstands in games. Last season he also played defensive back, but doesn’t this year. Hardin sometimes takes him out on passing plays so he doesn’t have to block and designs outside runs so Mattar isn’t running into the center of the defense.
“Any time he would get hit would worry me, but now my heart stops when I see him on the floor,” said Mattar’s mother, Lourdes. “What amazes me is I see his teammates go to where he is and pick him up right away.”
Mattar didn’t tell his teammates about the disease until midway through this season, after he missed a few practices.
“They said they’re praying for me and telling me that it’s OK, that they’re always going to be there for me no matter what,” Mattar said.
About six weeks ago, the Providence offensive line started wearing white T-shirts with Mattar’s No. 2 printed on them under their football uniforms. Now the whole team does.
On senior night, the team gave out about 250 of the “2” shirts.
“I thought that was amazing,” Mattar said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow that’s awesome, them wearing my number.’ ”
Mattar doesn’t know if he’s going to play football in college. One of his doctors worries that the contact is making the pain worse.
He plans to play through the pain Friday, trying to help the Panthers make it to the third round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2006.
“He’s just amazed me,” said Lourdes. “He’s like my hero. I don’t know that I would be able to have the strength that he has to play like that.”