As Tyler Matakevich thought back on the 2016 season, a smile came across his face.
It was a smile that had been hard to come by for a few days after the season ended in the AFC Championship game. But it was a smile that reflected everything that led up to that game, a smile that reflected a great rookie season for the young linebacker.
"It was an unforgettable season. It truly was a dream come true," said Matakevich. "It was a whirlwind. Everything happened so fast. I don't think it even fully hit me that I played my first season in the National Football League. It's something I will remember for the rest of my life.
"It's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid to play in the National Football League. It was hard work, perseverance to get here. It taught me how tough it is to get here. It's a satisfying feeling. All of that hard work is paying off."
Matakevich, one of the Steelers two seventh round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, said that while it was a dream, the past year was a huge learning experience as well. He got a crash course in what it takes to be a professional football player, including the challenge of going from an 11-game college season to what turned out to be a 23-game season in the pros.
"It's a grind physically," said Matakevich. "Also mentally, as a rookie you never have gone through this kind of stretch."
Matakevich got himself noticed, and earned a spot on the roster, with his play on special teams during the preseason. He had the right attitude, the right mindset, and the talent to go with it. And it was a role he welcomed. He understood that playing on special teams was his ticket, and after some adjustment, welcomed it with open arms.
"You want to be on the field every play," said Matakevich. "That is the competitor in me. I want to be out there playing. But I knew going in that is how I was going to make a living in the NFL, starting off on special teams. You have to want to do it and love doing it. Every time you step on the field, you have to go 100 miles an hour. You can't hold back. You have to give it everything you have in the tank and just go.
"Danny Smith has taught me so much about special teams this year. He made me think about things I never thought about. He told me when you know what the other teams is doing, you are going to be fine out there."
Matakevich has already started getting ready for the 2017 season, working out and getting his body in shape and prepared for demands he now understands.
"Having a year under my belt I know what to expect, things I need to focus on, things I don't need to do because it won't benefit me so much," said Matakevich. "Having a year under my belt, I am excited to have an offseason where I know what to expect."