Matt Winkeljohn | Georgia Tech Gameday -
Matt Uremovich will be back on the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, closing a circle that the former Georgia Tech linebacker might never have thought that he could.
While he didn't rise to become a captain for the Yellow Jackets in the 1998 and '99 seasons before a spinal condition cut short his playing career, Uremovich will be an honorary captain for Georgia Tech's game against Virginia Tech on Military Appreciation Day.
After graduating in 2002, he joined the Army, where in five years and multiple deployments in Iraq, the native of New Lenox, Ill., was honored with a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. Saturday afternoon will merge two of his best worlds.
"I'm excited. I'm going to be an honorary captain," said Uremovich, who first came to Tech as an undersized freshman in 1997. "I'm going to bring everybody in my family, and see some people like my teammate Nate Stimson. I'm godfather to his oldest daughter. I'm really looking forward to this."
Once upon a time, Uremovich looked forward to football with nearly unmatchable passion.
He was an outstanding player at Providence High School, southwest of Chicago, and Joliet, when former Tech offensive line coach Doug Marrone -- now head coach of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars -- recruited him even though he was around 200 pounds.
"I was in the Chicago Catholic League, which was where [former NFL players] like Mike Alstott, Donovan McNabb and Simeon Rice came from, and I wasn't getting recruited a lot," he recalled.
"Our coach didn't do a lot to get guys recruited, so I sent highlight tapes to like 50-60 schools and Marrone got it. I guess he had the Midwest."
It didn't take long for Tech to show interest and invite Uremovich for a visit, nor did it take long for him to connect with the Yellow Jackets.
"The Big Ten schools like Purdue said I was too small and . . . [Tech] brought me down, and I loved it," he said. "It was right after the Olympics and all that stuff was brand new. I liked [head] coach [George] O'Leary, and [inside linebackers] coach [Dave] Huxtable, who's now at NC State. I could really run."
While redshirting in 1997 and watching senior linebackers Keith Brooking and Ron Rogers menace opposing defenses, Uremovich moved to bulk up under the watchful eye of graduate assistant Bill O'Brien, now the head coach of the NFL's Houston Texans.
Early in the '98 season, he became a starting outside linebacker and played well before taking an NCAA suspension for taking a banned substance, albeit one sold over the counter, in trying to keep adding weight.
"It was the stupidest thing I ever did," he said. "I knew better."
Back in the mix in '99, Uremovich moved to the middle of the Tech defense and proceeded to do considerable damage before a spinal condition that began bothering him in high school became a big problem.
"I had spinal stenosis and I didn't know it. My senior year in high school I was starting to have burners, and my head or arm would get numb," he said. "It got progressively worse, and I'd never say anything about it."
Stenosis is a narrowing of the canal that houses the spinal cord, which in Uremovich's case left nerves pinched. The contact that comes with the game of football aggravated the condition.
He was especially bothered after a mid-season game, and Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof -- who'd also coached linebackers in '98 -- took note.
"I was getting to the point where both my arms would go dead. It was after a game, and we were in the weight room on a Sunday and I couldn't even bench 155 pounds one time because my nerves were getting atrophied," Uremovich recalled.
"Coach Roof said you need to go get looked at . . . I'm glad. I think back, and I'm lucky. I've got kids."
After the diagnosis of stenosis ended his playing career, Uremovich stuck around and helped the linebackers in 2000 before stepping away from football in 2001 because "it hurt too much to be out there."
While he was grinding away toward graduation that fall, terrorists attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
Uremovich was moved to action.
"You know how crazy that was. When that happened, I'm thinking, `This is like Pearl Harbor II,'" he said. "My grandfather was in World War II in the Marines. I figured I'm an able-bodied man, and I was pissed off."
So, he enlisted in the Army within weeks, although family, coaches and friends convinced him to see a delay that would allow him to graduate before entering the service.
After graduating with honors from Infantry Officer Basic School and then attending Airborne, Uremovich deployed to Iraq and as a second lieutenant led multiple missions for the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment.
While there, he sustained multiple injuries, including damage to his back, facial burns and shrapnel wounds.
Upon the completion of his year-long tour, Uremovich returned to the U.S. and his wife, Melissa, at Ft. Lewis outside of Seattle, Wash., and his superiors suggested that based on his service he ought to consider trying Army Ranger school.
He did, graduated, became a first lieutenant, and led multiple missions for the 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Unit.
In special operations, Uremovich on July 13th, 2006 was awarded a Bronze Star, "for exceptionally valorous achievement as a platoon leader for the joint task force deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
There was plenty of stress in that job, yet he said, "I don't regret it. It was actually safer than my year-long deployment in regular Army."
Uremovich left the service in 2007, worked for a while for his father near Chicago before a customer invited him to work in Houston for LyondellBasell, one of the largest plastics, chemicals and refining companies in the world.
"I'm a maintenance manager running one of the sites," he said.
With his wife Melissa, son Gunner, 7, and daughter Tyler, 4, Uremovich lives more than an hour from the big city. Melissa Peony Uremovich was a swimmer at Georgia Tech.
"I grew up on 80 acres in the middle of nowhere, and we live in Harding, Texas, which has about 80 people," he said. "You let the kids go outside, get them off the computers. They fish and things like that."
Tech and Atlanta will offer quite a different setting for Uremovich and his family, yet he's looking forward to taking in his first game in more than a decade.
"Coach O'Leary and Coach Roof took care of me. They could have taken my scholarship, I guess," he said. "I'm glad our coaches noticed. I was showing my wife film, and there were times even in high school my arms went numb. I'm thankful."