EAGAN, Minn. -- If Alexander Mattison hadn’t displayed such good ball security when he was 6, he might have become an offensive lineman rather than a running back.
Growing up in San Bernardino, Calif., the Vikings rookie first played football for the North Bernardino Cowboys at that age and was put at left guard. But Mattison wanted to carry the ball.
“He was the biggest kid on the team, so we put him on the line,” remembered Mike Aragon, Mattison’s youth coach. “He was real shy, so it took him a while to ask to play running back, but when they’re little guys, I’ll let them try anything.”
To be successful at his new position, those close to Mattison figured he needed to learn to hold onto the ball. So Mattison’s mother, Pearl Mattison, bought him a football and concocted a plan.
Mattison began carrying the ball around nearly everywhere he went. His mother, his father (Darrell Mattison) and his brothers (fraternal twins Darrell Jr. and Lamarr) would try to knock it out of his hands.
“If he were walking to the kitchen, his brothers would try to snatch it out of his arms,” Mattison’s mother said. “If he was going to the barber shop, they’d try to snatch it out. If he were watching TV, I’d sit down next to him and try to snatch it out.”
Those efforts were rarely successful. By the end of the season, Mattison had become a backup running back, and by the next year he was a star at the position for the Cowboys.
That success has continued. Mattison went on to excel at San Bernardino High School and Boise State, and now he’s doing quite well with the Vikings after being taken in the third round of April’s draft.
In six games as Dalvin Cook’s backup, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Mattison has rushed for 252 yards on 48 attempts, an average of 5.3 yards per carry. When Cook, fourth in the NFL in rushing with 583 yards, was held to 41 yards on 16 carries last Sunday against Philadelphia, Mattison stepped up and ran 14 times for 63 yards in the Vikings’ 38-20 victory.
“I’m loving every part of it,” said Mattison, whose Vikings play Sunday, Oct. 20, at Detroit. “The offense is getting things rolling, and I’m glad to be a part of that and contribute in any way I can.”
His mom sure is enjoying it. She was cheering as hard as anyone at U.S. Bank Stadium when Mattison ripped off a 35-yard run against the Eagles that included hurdling safety Rodney McLeod.
“I was jumping up and down and screaming and high-fiving, and I was doing a little shimmy,” she said.
Pearl Mattison has come to live with Mattison in Eagan to help him adjust to life in the NFL. She and Mattison’s father are in the process of getting divorced and Darrell Mattison recently moved from San Bernardino to Dallas. Mattison said he wanted his mother to come to Minnesota because “she needed a change.”
Having his mother live with him has given Mattison time to study his playbook and rest up from the rigors of playing running back in the NFL.
“She makes sure I’m taken care of,” he said. “I love her cooking, and that’s a plus, having your mom make home cooked meals. When I get home, I’m thankful she’s here because we exert a lot of energy out here.”
But when her son isn’t home, Pearl Mattison isn’t one to hang around the house. She has taken a job at Walmart in Eagan.
“She doesn’t want to just be around the house,” said Mattison, 21, in the first year of a four-year, $3.47 million contract. “That’s not the type of person she is. She likes to be active. She likes to put her time and energy into something.”
On a recent afternoon at Walmart, Mattison’s mom was working as a cashier in the garden section while wearing a necklace displaying her son’s No. 25. She said before her shift that only a few employees at the store know her son plays for the Vikings but figures the word will get out eventually.
“A few customers have seen the No. 25 around my neck and said, ‘Oh, that must be your favorite number,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, it’s my favorite number,’ and just leave it at that,” she said with a laugh. “But I’ve always enjoyed being around people and helping people, so I was like, ‘I’ll get to know the neighborhood and I’ll go to Walmart.’ ”
Pearl Mattison is no stranger to wanting to help people. While in San Bernardino, she worked a variety of jobs, including in child care, hospice care and teaching Sunday school at her church.
There were difficult economic times when she had to work several jobs to help support the family. Tasks included janitorial and food service work, babysitting and recycling cans and bottles.
Twice between the ages of 7 and 9, Mattison and his family were homeless for a period of several months and had to live with relatives or friends. And when Mattison was 13, his father was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a rare condition.
“It was rough,” Mattison said. “It caught us by surprise. He had a bad cough and he was diagnosed with pneumonia at first. … Then they ended up running more tests and saw that he had leukemia, and he was in the hospital for a while. He was losing hair and had to do the bone marrow transplant stuff. It was rough.”
His father’s cancer was in remission within a year, and Mattison said he is now “doing well.”
After the two periods of homelessness and the time in which Mattison’s father couldn’t work because of his illness, the Mattisons eventually got back on their feet financially.
“My parents did a great job of raising me and my brothers,” Mattison said. “We were in a position where we couldn’t support ourselves completely, but this is something we were able to get through.”
Mattison said his parents always stressed academics. When he entered first grade, his mother insisted he be placed in a dual immersion program in which he would learn Spanish throughout his childhood.
Mattison went on to take 80 percent of his high school courses in Spanish, and he graduated with a 4.6 grade-point average. He speaks the language fluently.