Archdeacon: ‘Big Leprechaun’ still inspiring Flyers five decades after death

It’s no different now than it was 6 ½ decades ago.

They’re still looking for Matt Dahlinghaus.

“He was just three or four and he was playing a trick on our parents,” Beth Conway, Matt’s older sister, recalled of that panicked day in their E. Fifth Street home. “The front door was open and he hid behind it, right up against the wall, for three hours!

“No one could see him. We were searching frantically and here’s this little fellow, standing back there quiet, thinking it’s great sport.”

Today, it’s Dahlinghaus’ 1972 Dayton Flyers football teammates who search for him.

For 50 years now they’ve tried to recapture and rekindle the sprightful presence, the spirit, the energy of the lanky defensive tackle with the infectious smile who left them far too soon.

In the couple of years he was at UD, he filled them with laughter and amazement and what’s proven to be an enduring sense of brotherhood.

In the second last game of the 1972 season – a Nov. 11 matchup against Bowling Green at the Falcons’ Doyt L. Perry Stadium – Dahlinghaus was severely injured on what appeared to be a routine tackle of BGSU tailback Paul Miles.

“That’s what’s so unusual about it,” John McVay – then the Flyers’ head coach who went on to NFL fame – has said. “There was no real pile up. Not a lot of contact. He chased the guy down, they rolled over and Matt never got up. It was just a terrible, terrible freak accident.”

Dahlinghaus suffered a compression injury to his neck – he fractured his fifth vertebrae – and was left paralyzed.

After six weeks in Toledo’s St. Vincent Hospital, his condition worsened and he was flown by helicopter to Dayton. Five days after entering St. Elizabeth Medical Center, Dahlinghaus died with his mother at his side.

It was three days after Christmas.

He was just 20.

The ripple effects of that devastating loss are still felt here a half-century later and will especially crest this coming weekend when the University of Dayton – and especially its football program – has a special embrace of him.

“This coming weekend is a celebration of the person Matt was,” said Dr. Tim Quinn, a defensive lineman and linebacker known as Tank to his 1972 Flyers teammates and one of the ardent guardians of Matt’s memory all these years.

“I’m sure there are other teams at the University of Dayton that are close, but I don’t know that they have the same bond we do,” said fellow Flyer Steve Siewe, the center on that 1972 team. “Matthew is that bond and we share it and it’s not going away.

“If anything, as we’ve gotten older we’ve grown even closer because of him. We check to see how everybody’s doing and when one of us gets sick, it’s a big deal. We don’t take things for granted.”

On Friday, UD will unveil the new, beautifully done Dahlinghaus memorial it has erected next to Von Mohr Field, the Flyers’ practice facility behind UD Arena.

The 1972 team, as well as the Dahlinghaus family and others, have been invited to watch a Flyers practice and then convene in the Boesch Lounge at UD Arena for a reception that will be visited by UD coach Rick Chamberlin and some of the Flyers players.

Beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday, the Varsity D club will host a tailgate gathering at Welcome Stadium and then UD will play Valparaiso at 1 p.m.

The eight-foot memorial not only salutes Dahlinghaus, but mentions the recipients of the annual Matt Dahlinghaus Memorial Scholarship that was begun by the Varsity D club 50 years ago and is still funded by it.

Tonight, as the current Flyers team meets to begin its initial preparations for the Valpo game, Chamberlin will talk to the players about Dahlinghaus and what he means to him, the program and especially those 1972 Flyers.

When the teammates of Dahlinghaus – all of them in their late 60s and early 70s – look back on him, they do so with a smile and often a funny story, rather than with sadness and a sense of loss.

To put it mildly, Dahlinghaus was a character.

While some of his teammates describe some of his antics in more unvarnished terms, Beth coats them with sisterly sweetness: “He was a big leprechaun.”

Quinn laughed and said: “I could go on for an hour with Matt-isms.”

There was the time when Dahlinghaus was determined to eclipse the NFL’s free-spirited circus act – linebacker Tim Rossovich – who was featured in a 11-page spread in Sports Illustrated.

That prompted his trick with lighter fluid and water as he jumped – ablaze – out of the third floor window at Founders Hall, while many of the other dorm denizens hung out their windows to watch in disbelief.

There’s still a debate whether he landed on a mattress or, as Siewe claimed, he had pillows lashed to his butt.

He landed like a squatting break dancer, Siewe once told me, then jumped up grinning and yelled: “OK, who’s next?”

There were no takers. No one ever outdid Dahlinghaus.

He had another trick – which he perfected with walk-on tailback Chip Bok, now an editorial cartoonist for the Akron Beacon Journal and Tampa Times – where each of them would struggle to push navel oranges into their mouths and then, looking like over-stuffed chipmunks about to explode, they’d chew and chew and chew and suddenly the orange was gone and their mouths were empty.

Dahlinghaus would do his trademark Bulldog Dance where he’d get down on the floor with shoulders back and rump raised as he went through robotic moves that got everyone laughing.

But before we go any farther, I want to share something Bok once stressed to me. He didn’t want Matt simply depicted as a “nutty jock” or an Animal House character: “That’s not it at all. You have to look at the bigger picture with Matt Dahlinghaus.”

Beth put it best: “Everybody wants to have a happy time and he just gave you that sort of feeling. When I look back, I realize how much joy he brought to everyone. He made everything a little more interesting.”

And all these years later that’s another thing that hasn’t changed, said Siewe:

“When we all get together, Matthew is still the straw that stirs the drink.”

‘He didn’t hold back’

When they grew up on E. Fifth Street near S. Hedges Street, Beth said Matt, who is three years younger, was her “soulmate.”

They used to ride bikes together all over East Dayton and sometimes beyond.

She’s told how he took her “roof climbing” atop Orville Wright School and the Hills and Dales cabins and how their mom told them to stay away from the Findlay Street Bridge because it was isolated and, she thought, dangerous.

So naturally that’s where Matt led them and soon hey were crawling all over it.

“He didn’t hold back,” Beth said. “Nothing stopped him.”

That’s the way he tackled sports at Chaminade High School, especially football, where he became a perpetual motion defender that slow-moving offensive linemen could rarely deter.

He got a scholarship to UD, which was still playing Division I football at the time.

The 1972 Flyers were 4-4-1 when they met Bowling Green.

Quinn and Dahlinghaus were roommates on the road that season.

“I think about Matt’s last game probably more than most people because I was the last person to engage with him that fateful day,” Quinn said.

“Our pregame meal was usually steak and toast and potatoes, but that day Matt and I went down and said, ‘Naaah, I don’t think so.’”

He started to laugh: “I’ll use the word ‘goofy,’ but we thought we were sort of New Age, early ‘70s people, so we grabbed some toast and honey and tea and went back to our hotel room and sat on the floor to eat.

“One of us had brought some incense, so we burned that like we were…aaah the Beatles or something. We just talked and reflected on things and had our own bonding. We felt special doing something different, I guess.”

He grew quiet, then said: “As I look back now, ‘Yeah, it was special. That was Matt’s last moment before his injury.”

In the second quarter, Bowling Green ran a sweep and Dahlinghaus caught Miles near the line of scrimmage.

“It’s just like when President Kennedy died, you know exactly what you were doing at that moment,” Quinn said. “I was on the right side that play, Matt was on the left, and I stopped real close to the pile after Matt tackled hm.

“As the different players got up, Matt was on the bottom. He was lying on his back and his eyes were open, but he wasn’t moving.

“The trainers and docs came out, but none of us really knew what was going on. We knew it was bad, but back then we didn’t know much about permanent paralysis or quadriplegia, nothing like that.”

That day, I was there, too. I was a senior at UD and my parents and I were visiting my sister who was a Bowling Green student.

I remember the hush in the stadium, the ambulance pulling onto the field.

Soon you saw the rescue vehicle – lights flashing, siren going – rushing Matt up I-75, which runs right past the stadium.

“It was a haunting feeling on the field,” Quinn said. “We were numb.”

UD lost 5-0.

Up in Toledo, Dahlinghaus was put on a ventilator and got a trachea tube and a cervical halo to stabilize his head.

Several UD players visited him in the coming days, as did some Falcons.

Two days after the injury, I remember going to a Mass for Dahlinghaus at the overflowing UD chapel.

Eventually, pneumonia set in and his condition worsened in Toledo.

Back in Dayton, he died from a blood clot in his lungs on Dec. 28.

The Saturday after the injury, UD had closed out its season at East Carolina.

Before the game, Quinn and Bubba Smith painted their high-top game cleats Columbia blue to honor Matt.

Quinn said the East Carolina linemen laughed at them, until the defensive pair got into their backfield a few times for sacks and tackles for losses.

The Flyers had dedicated the game to Matt, but they ended up losing and Siewe remembers the tears flowed in the dressing room afterward.

After Matt’s death, Beth – who taught at Holy Angels school – often struggled:

“We’d go with the students to Mass every Friday, but for the first year or so I can remember sitting there and just crying.”

Eventually Beth and her husband Mike, as well as Bok and another UD player, linebacker Don Dailey, all named their sons Matt. Today, those kids are now in their 40s.

Quinn did find some direction in Matt’s death. Already in pre-med, he decided to become an orthopedic surgeon so he could “help piece back together injured athletes.” For 21 years he served as a team doctor for several Flyers sports teams, especially basketball and football.

“Matt absolutely influenced me,” he said softly.

Memorial scholarship

The season after Matt’s death – when the Flyers took their official 1973 team photo – they left an empty space in the front row between Bubba Smith, Matt’s roommate, and tight end Pat Haden.

That’s where here Dahlinghaus would have sat.

The Varsity D Club – under the guidance of then president and former Flyers football player Lou Cannarozzi -- started a Matt Dahlinghaus Memorial Scholarship fund that benefitted grad students who were going into football coaching.

One of the early recipients was Chamberlin, an All-American linebacker for UD in the mid-1970s who joined the coaching staff in 1979. He said the scholarship made it financially possible for him to get his masters and help coach the Flyers.

“And just think of all the lives Coach Chamberlin has touched because of that help,” said Dahlinghaus’s teammate, Ralph Bierdeman, who now lives in Granville and has worked to finance and promote he scholarship.

He said some years after the scholarship was launched by Varsity D, the fund was running out of money and there was talk the effort might have to be discontinued.

Bierdeman said former basketball great George Janky was the new Varsity D president and he helped get the scholarship fully funded again:

“They got Mike Reid, who had played for the Bengals and was a concert pianist, to do a (fundraising) concert at UD Arena. Bob Johnson, another Bengal, came up and spoke and they did a fashion show with a local department store. For two years straight they also ran fish frys until the thing was sustainable again.”

Bierdeman said the current scholarship is worth about $11,000.

Tonight Chamberlin said he will relay some of this to his current players.

“They should know Matt wasn’t just some Ordinary Joe,” Quinn said. “He was a good football player who used every ounce of talent he had. He loved the sport and he loved life. That’s the kind of enthusiasm you admire.”

And that’s what Dahlinghaus’s teammates will celebrate next weekend

“Guys are coming in from all over for this,” Bierdeman said. “When I’ve talked to them, they’ve already been telling Matt stories. They are energized by this.

“It’s like Matt’s still alive because he’s still in their hearts and in their minds.”

And that means this coming weekend they won’t have far to look for him.

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