PITTSBURGH and CLAIRTON, Pa. — Coming into their rivalry battle on Saturday, Pitt and Penn State made very minimal changes to their depth charts this week.
That means that at cornerback, 2016 Clairton grad and five-star freshman Lamont Wade will be the Penn State’s nickel corner and will probably see plenty of time against Pitt.
On the other side of the field, 2015 Clairton grad and Pitt sophomore Aaron Mathews will likely be Pitt’s third option behind Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah in the passing game.
Wade will typically cover the slot receiver against Pitt, which is usually Henderson or Maurice Ffrench, but it’s a place Mathews has lined up before, potentially pitting the two friends and former Clairton stars against one another on one of college football’s biggest stages.
“They got me on the inside a little here and there,” Mathews said this spring. “When I go in as the ‘Z’ receiver, that’s when me and (Weah) are on the same side of the field.”
Whether Mathews and Wade line up against one another or not, it’s made the already important rivalry a bit more fun for the Clairton football family.
“That’s been on my mind since we beat them last year, playing them again this year,” Mathews said.
And make no mistake, the Clairton football program is a family, both in the literal sense of the word — Bears head coach Wayne Wade is Lamont’s uncle — and the figurative sense as the teammates from the tiny community that hugs the Monongahela River grew up and bonded through football.
“For us, it’s definitely a proud moment to have two guys at such great programs and amazing teams be able to face each other,” Wayne Wade said this week. “I would imagine Lamont and Aaron will have fun come this Saturday. They’ll enjoy playing against each other. It’ll be something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
“When you go through those hallways together at Clairton High School, go to that stadium every day together, you just create a bond that can’t be broken,” Mathews added. “That’s why I say I love that dude (Wade). Me and him, we were on that field from the time he came to high school. That’s why it’s always going to be there between me and him, no matter what happens.”
Clairton is not just a small community, it’s one where football is seen a part of the civic fabric. Economically depressed since the fall of the steel industry, the football team and the success of its players after they graduate is a point of pride in the community.
“It’s holding the city together right now,” Lamont Wade said to me in 2016. “It’s something that brings everybody in the city together.”
On that note, there doesn’t seem to be a partisan bias amongst those closest to the Clairton program. Pitt or Penn State victory, they’re thrilled to see their former players performing well at such a high level.
Well, some of them. Former Clairton star and Pitt safety Terrish Webb is decidedly partisan. After taking part in Pitt’s 42-39 victory a year ago, he’s heading to Happy Valley this year as a fan to try to see Pitt take another victory.
“Oh yeah, you know I am,” Webb said, laughing. “I think it’s going to be very special for them. They played with each other in high school. It’s going to be an exciting Saturday. … I feel like everyone just wants to see them do well.”
If for some reason Mathews and Wade do match up against one another on the field, who would have the advantage? Well, Mathews has about six inches in height on his former teammate, but those in the know say it might be more even than one would think.
“You know what, I would say it’s 50-50, because Lamont is a very skilled kid, but Aaron has the size on him a little bit,” Wayne Wade said.”I would judge that 50-50.”
“I’m going to have to give that a 50-50,” Webb agreed, setting aside his own allegiance.
As far as a less partisan standpoint, Mathews thinks he has an edge.
“No, it’s a wrap for him,” Mathews said. “I’ve gotta dog on him. I love that dude to death. We played together in high school, but now we’re rivals. The love is going to be there after the game, but in between these lines, he knows how it has to go down.”
Penn State did not make Wade available for comment this week. Might he have the last word on Saturday? We’ll find out.