By Julie Shapiro
Five years ago, the trophy case at P.S. 126 was empty, an after-school sports program did not exist, and athletics were far from a priority.
That was the state of P.S. 126 when John De Matteo took over as athletic director in 2002. Now the trophy case brims with statuettes, cups, ribbons and medals.
The energetic De Matteo vowed to get the Chinatown school back in the game. He drummed up support for athletics and got administrators, nonprofits, parents and students on board.
Today, P.S. 126/Manhattan Academy of Technology has the largest middle school sports program in New York City, both in terms of the number of sports 16 of them, with 38 teams and the percentage of students participating 65 to 70 percent. Fourteen teachers help De Matteo coach the sports, which include table tennis, flag football and surfing. When too many students try out, De Matteo adds a junior varsity team rather than cutting a player. When a student requests a sport that the school doesn’t have, De Matteo fights to create it.
“I wanted these kids to have what kids in Westchester and Long Island have,” De Matteo said. The surfing team travels to Long Beach in the warm months.
M.A.T. was the first public school in New York City to have a rock-climbing wall. The swimming team is about to launch, and De Matteo, 33, is also brewing plans for a fencing team. But his proudest accomplishment came out of a small track-and-field league he started several years ago so M.A.T.’s runners could compete against other schools. The New York City Track & Field Series now invites every school in the city to compete in events held at Verizon track and field stadium. This year, more than 200 schools and 30,000 students will participate.
“We have an idea, and the administration lets us turn it into a reality,” De Matteo said. “Anything I think of, they’ll try and make it happen.”
Carlos Romero, the assistant principal, said the school’s focus on sports is part of his aim to educate the whole child, a goal principal Kerry Decker echoed. “Giving them an outlet aside from academics helps students focus in school,” Romero said. “It motivates them and provides an outlet for them to relieve stress.”
Asked why sports are so big at M.A.T., Romero replied, “His name is John De Matteo.”
De Matteo’s next goal is to get an unprecedented 100 percent of the student body participating. Meanwhile, De Matteo has a different and possibly tougher challenge.
“The hardest part is getting the kids out of the gym,” De Matteo joked as he herded fifth-graders out of his gym class.
One boy broke away from the group, grabbed a basketball and started dribbling toward a basket.
“Mr. D, look!” the boy called, catching De Matteo’s attention before he shot the ball.
In the hallways of M.A.T., De Matteo has achieved rock-star status among the students. He can’t walk 10 feet without someone coming up to him for a high-five. On a recent afternoon, a group of boys followed him around until he told them he was on lunch break.
“Can we shoot hoops while you’re eating?” the students asked. De Matteo laughed at their persistence and shook his head no as he was giving a tour to a reporter.
A few minutes later, a girl with dark bangs came up to De Matteo and asked for a hug.
“Hi Mr. D,” she said, pulling at her bangs. “Look, I got my hair done.”
One of De Matteo’s biggest fans is Felix, the custodian of the school for the past 25 years. Felix, who did not want to give his last name, provides the behind-the-scenes tinkering that keeps the sports program going, from fixing lights to sewing mats. But Felix wouldn’t let De Matteo give him much credit.
“Without [De Matteo], there’s no program,” Felix said, smiling. “He’s the man.”
De Matteo’s inclusive spirit is what makes the program strong, Felix added. “He doesn’t see color or gender,” Felix said. “All he sees is sports… He’s got a great heart.”
Forty-two percent of M.A.T.’s students are Asian or Pacific Islander, 32 percent are Hispanic, 19 percent are black and 6 percent are white, according to the Dept. of Education.
De Matteo’s enthusiasm was on full display when the M.A.T. girls and boys basketball teams recently beat teams from TASS (Technology, Arts, and Science Studios) by big margins.
He stood on the sidelines, calling to the players, high-fiving them as they came back to the bench.
“Yeah!” he shouted, cupping his hands for a long, echoing clap as the girls sunk yet another basket.
When an M.A.T. player held the ball too long, the referee blew his whistle and transferred the ball to TASS. De Matteo didn’t get angry, but calmly called out an explanation to the girls: “You have to pass the ball to someone else within 5 seconds,” he told them.
At the half, the score was 27-10, but De Matteo wouldn’t let the girls get overconfident. He went over the plays during a half-time huddle, asking them to suggest moves. The girls put their hands together, and chanted several times, “What school? M.A.T.!”
The final score was 43-19.
When the team is winning, De Matteo gives everyone a chance to play, 12-year-old Patricia Rosa said after the game. “He’s very fair,” she said. “He doesn’t like us to blow [the other team] out. We still do the plays, even if we’re up.”
Angela Rosa, Patricia’s mother, appreciates that De Matteo stays on top of the students’ academics as well as their sports skills.
“If they want to play, they have to keep their grades up,” she said. And skill level doesn’t matter to De Matteo, Rosa added. “He will stick with them until they get the ball in the basket.”
The boys game, immediately following the girls, was close in the first half, with the teams exchanging the lead several times. The stands filled with more than 50 parent and student fans.
“Come on defense!” the parents called. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
“Nice!” De Matteo shouted, clapping, as one player lobbed the ball down the court, to a teammate standing right beneath the basket, who layed it in.
The boys stayed 10 to 15 points ahead for much of the second half and finished with a score of 66-49.
After the game, Jose Fernandez, 13, caught his breath and lauded his coach. In addition to basketball, Jose plays flag football and baseball, and he runs track and field.
“Mr. D keeps the program going, so it doesn’t get boring,” Jose said. “He always tells us that if you push yourself, you’re always going to thank him.”
Jose said De Matteo arranged for high schools to come watch him and his teammates play, and now several schools are interested in him playing for them. Asked if pushing himself had paid off, Jose smiled and nodded.
The devotion of De Matteo to his students was one of the first things Rob Mehan noticed when he arrived at M.A.T. this fall. Mehan, who teaches physical education to elementary students and helps De Matteo coach, was amazed by how many graduates came back to see De Matteo.
“Dedicated that’s the one word I would use to describe John,” Mehan said. “He lives and breathes coaching… He sacrifices so much.” Practices start at 7:30 a.m. on school days, and games keep De Matteo at work until 6:30 or 7 p.m. De Matteo often coaches meets and games on the weekends as well.
“He really is a seven-day-a-week coach,” said Ann DeFalco, a parent who runs fundraisers for the sports program. “He is loved by children and parents. He is nurturing, caring and competitive. He works them hard.”
Along with parent coordinator Rebecca Johnson, DeFalco is planning a sports fair and silent auction for Feb. 2. Last year, the event raised $5,000 in three hours, Johnson said.
The after-school program’s biggest funding source is the Chinatown Y.M.C.A., but the program’s success comes from De Matteo himself, said David Kaplan, executive director of the Chinatown Y.M.C.A.
“He definitely brings the energy,” Kaplan said. “He is a driving force behind the size and the quality of the programs. We’re trying to keep up with him, basically.”
De Matteo’s secret is that he expects more of his students than most middle school coaches, said Sabine Kullman, a second-grade teacher at M.A.T. who coaches volleyball and tennis. “His expectations are high, which really encourages them to take that leap,” Kullman said. “The kids improve every day and they’re excited about getting better.”
For one of De Matteo’s star pupils, Tafarii McKenzie, 13, it’s faster to list the sports she doesn’t play than the ones she does. And it’s a short list: softball. Besides that, Tafarii has played and often won awards in all of M.A.T.’s main sports.
“It relieves all the stress of school,” Tafarii said. She’s impressed by De Matteo’s versatile coaching, and said he has taught her small tricks that dramatically improve her game. In volleyball, he tweaked the follow-through on her serve and she ended up as M.V.P. her first year on the team.
De Matteo’s dedication has attracted notice. Last June, Education Update Magazine named him outstanding educator of the year in New York City.
Even M.A.T.’s competitors praise De Matteo.
“Particularly in middle school, anything that is successful takes a leader who is inspired and has decided that something will happen,” said Theseus Roche, after-school director at Manhattan Youth, which runs the sports program at I.S. 89 in Battery Park City. “He has decided that this is important, and he takes the lead… Then the kids are inspired by you, and you’re inspired by how much work they put in.”
Sporting spiky brown hair and a polo shirt and khakis, De Matteo doesn’t look very far out of college he played basketball and ran track for SUNY-Binghamton and often surprises parents when he tells them about his previous career. Before deciding to be a gym teacher and coach, De Matteo worked on Wall St., trading stocks for NASDAQ. But around 9/11, he decided to quit.
“I got up one day and realized I wasn’t fulfilled,” De Matteo said. “Teaching fulfills me. It’s like heaven, really. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
Teaching runs in De Matteo’s family: Both of his parents taught in the Bronx. His mother was more like a parent than a teacher to her students, many of whom came from rough backgrounds. De Matteo grew up meeting his mother’s students around the dinner table and listening to his mother encourage the students to stay in school.
“I always envisioned myself as that kind of teacher,” De Matteo said. “If you teach in New York City, you’re more than a teacher you’re pretty much everything to a lot of these kids.”
As a child, De Matteo idolized his coaches and tried to follow their example. Now he tries to live up to that mentor role for his students.
“I push them because not only do I want them to succeed in the classroom and in sports,” De Matteo said, “but I want them to have confidence in life that they can do anything they want.”