PITTSBURGH — On Saturday, Pitt will host Boston College in the final game of the regular season. Pitt will honor the 14 seniors who will play their final game at Heinz Field as a Panther.
In Pitt’s rich football history, they have had their share of hometown football talents stay home and play for the Panthers. Names like Marino, Dorsett, and more recently, the likes of Boyd and Whitehead come to mind.
Being linked in some way with players like those guys means a lot to someone like free safety Pittsburgh Central Catholic alum Damar Hamlin.
“Just being put in that conversation is the reason why I came to Pitt in the first place,” Hamlin said, “…to be able to do something like play for my city and give my city a reason to cheer, give them something to brag about.”
Hamlin has blossomed into an NFL talent in his final season wearing a Pitt uniform. He is second on the team in tackles and has shown his growth as a leader on an established Panther defense.
But Hamlin’s college career wasn’t always a breeze.
He played only three games in his freshman year and missed three games in his sophomore year, all due to injury. His hard work and the trust that he had in head coach Pat Narduzzi helped him emerge into an All-ACC Honorable Mention player in his junior year and now as one of the top safeties in the conference.
“He basically told me I was going to play right away,” Hamlin said. “Even though my circumstances (of injuries), it still happened. He kept his word there.”
For Hamlin, staying home was a no-brainer and still would be if he had to make the decision again.
“If you can be the hometown hero, why not?”
Another local guy who has been a mainstay in the Pitt offense over the last four seasons is wide receiver Aaron Mathews (Clairton). Mathews started three games as a true freshman and has started multiple games in each of his four seasons.
In his final season, Mathews has made his most significant impact to date. On the field, he made two critical plays that were must-haves in two Panther wins. He threw the game-winning touchdown to quarterback Kenny Pickett in their 35-34 win against UCF. Mathews also caught a 43-yard touchdown from Pickett in their 27-20 win at Syracuse.
Mathews’ growth in the locker room and outside of the football world has been even more impressive to the people who have watched him go about his business every day since he stepped foot on Pitt’s campus in the summer of 2016.
“I got a lot of feedback from our strength coach, and he just says that he has seen a lot of leadership changes in me and that I’m more mature now, “Mathews said. “I guess I just grew up.”
Mathews will have some emotions stepping on that field one last time, but he’s embracing the feelings.
“It’s going to be a memory (running out of the Heinz Field tunnel one final time),” Mathews said. “Four years flew by. It feels like I just got here. But I’m looking forward to it.”
Senior captain Dane Jackson (Cornell/Quaker Valley) had a slightly different route to his Senior Day compared to Hamlin and Mathews. Jackson used a redshirt year after committing to Pitt in 2015. That year of growing as a player has turned out to be useful for Pitt’s No. 1 cornerback.
When talking to Jackson, you can almost tell that he has had that extra year under his belt. He is mature beyond his years on and off the field. On the gridiron, he has continued to improve on what seems like a week-to-week basis.
“I’m way more mature,” Jackson said. “Way more open. Just being around so many personalities every single day, it gets your mind going and gets you thinking.”
In the last three seasons, Jackson has started in all 36 games that the Panthers have played in. As a junior, Jackson received Honorable Mention All-ACC recognition.
“I’ve played a lot of football here,” Jackson said. “(Senior day) has been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. I’ve kind of been prepared for this (final game). It will probably hit me once I walk out (on the field).