I thought sharing my thoughts about Frank Matrise Jr. would come easy, because writing generally does for me.
Turns out that hasn’t been the case.
On Thursday, Matrise — the longtime Kenosha football coach and Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer most known for his 19-year tenure as Tremper’s head varsity coach — died at the too-young age of 53.
I wanted to write something poignant about the working relationship I had with Frank, but how do you describe, in a few paragraphs, a man who touched as many lives as Frank Matrise Jr.?
The number of tributes from family, former players, students, peers, co-workers and everyone who was part of Frank’s life that have flooded social media the past couple of days could literally fill about a week’s worth of our sports section.
So, here I am at a loss for words, which is rare. What can I possibly say about a man like that?
Well, I’ll keep it simple.
For me, Frank Matrise Jr. possessed this incredible gift: He could always make people feel better about themselves.
I’ve been in sports journalism since I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 2000s. Truth be told, I’ve been fortunate to have had mostly positive working relationships with the coaches of the many teams I’ve covered.
But talking to Frank always felt different.
A reporter-source relationship is often a business transaction, and that’s fine. With Frank, though, it never felt that way. In fact, as strange as this sounds, I almost felt like he was more interested in asking me questions than vice versa.
Whether it was to ask my opinion on something football related or just to ask how I was doing, Frank possessed a clear interest in having a meaningful conversation.
That may sound simple, but think about it: How many people, in their daily lives, take a sincere interest in everyone they talk to on a regular basis?
Frank sure did, and I think many — myself included — could follow his example.
I don’t want to complain about work, because everyone has their work gripes. But it’s no secret that newspapers face ever-shrinking staffs with workloads that only seem to increase.
It can sometimes be demoralizing.
About a year or so ago, I called Frank for some football-related questions. As usual, we talked about other things, too, and he went out of his way to tell me he understood the staffing challenges we were facing and that we were doing a tremendous job nonetheless covering local sports.
I didn’t require the affirmation, but for him to go out of his way and recognize how hard we were working was a simple but much-appreciated gesture.
That’s what I mean when I say that Frank could always make people feel good about themselves.
To conclude, I’ll share a memory of Frank that has kept popping into my head the last couple days.
When he stepped down as Tremper’s football coach in April 2016, I wrote the story. I talked at length with Frank about the decision, and he clearly stated that he just wanted to spend more time with his family.
Frank was a devoted family man, and I could hear the pure joy in his voice over the notion that he’d get to spend more time with his twin children, Kyle and Katie, then in eighth grade.
In 2017, I covered a tight WIAA Division-4 girls basketball sectional final between St. Joseph and Howards Grove in Brown Deer.
Katie Matrise — who’s blossomed into one of the top girls basketball players in the area — was a freshman on the Lancers’ varsity team that season. And though St. Joseph lost that game at the end, Matrise hit several clutch jumpers at crucial points.
For some reason, I kept looking up at the stands to see her dad’s reaction with each one. It was total joy. Arms raised, fists pumping, Frank Matrise Jr. was the happiest man in the gym.
It saddens me — and I’m sure, of course, it saddens his family a great deal more — that Frank didn’t have the time to enjoy more of those moments.
But I suppose you never know when your time will come, and Frank used every second of his time to the fullest.
At the end of the story I wrote when Frank stepped down as Tremper’s football coach, he said “I’ve been very lucky” and “the people I’ve associated with are just super.”
No, Frank, we’re the lucky ones to have been associated with you.
So long, my friend. You will be missed.