Artifacts from U.S. Route 66 — the iconic byway that rose to fame in the heyday of American car culture — still line the streets of San Bernardino, Calif. At this point, though, those raised in the city of more than 200,000 people in California’s Inland Empire are often looking for a way out.
The city became the largest in the U.S. to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012, after it was racked by the housing crisis. It routinely ranks among the most dangerous cities in America, with 34 murders and a rate of 1,291 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2017.
That Alexander Mattison stayed, thrived and ultimately reached the NFL out of San Bernardino is not a miracle so much as it is the product of a family’s perseverance. His parents, Darrell and Pearl Mattison, filled the schedules of their three sons with family outings and trips to the beach, intent on offering them activities other than the ones they’d find on the streets. Skipping church at Westside Christian Center on Sundays was not an option; neither were Cs in school. By the time his father’s leukemia diagnosis left Mattison staying on friends’ couches while he was 13, he knew his dire circumstances need not define his future.
“He ended up going to the hospital for pneumonia, like two days after Christmas,” Mattison said. “And while he was in there, they diagnosed him with leukemia. It was about a two-month battle; he had lost so much weight. He went through a bone-marrow transplant and things like that. It was a rough time, but he fought through it.”
Mattison graduated from San Bernardino High School with a 4.8 GPA and a certificate of biliteracy, as the product of a dual-language immersion program he’d begun in first grade. He took science classes in Spanish, ran for 2,000 yards as both a junior and a senior and earned a scholarship to Boise State as a bruising running back. While Alexander — the youngest of the Mattisons’ three boys — was finishing high school, his father used his status as a U.S. Air Force veteran to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Both of them are starting new ventures now; Alexander in Minnesota as the Vikings’ third-round pick, Darrell moving to Texas to start a construction and real estate business with his brother. His mother, Alexander said, might come to the Twin Cities to live with him and pursue her career in nursing.
Daunting as the odds may have been, Mattison was raised with the wherewithal to beat them.
“Strong faith and supportive family,” Mattison said. “They kept me away from all the things that were going on around us; just made sure I was kind of as blind to it as possible. I’ve seen some messed-up stuff growing up; I’ve witnessed some things that kids shouldn’t have to experience. But they made sure we were never in those predicaments, where we thought that was even an option for us.”
Mattison played as a true freshman at Boise State, rushing for 328 yards before moving into a larger role as a sophomore. He ran for 1,067 yards that year, earning a reputation as a bruising running back who got better with more work. As a junior, he carried 302 times scored 17 touchdowns, ran for 1,415 yards and won MVP honors in the Mountain West Conference title game before declaring for the NFL draft.
As Mattison gathered with family last weekend to watch the draft, he thought there might be a “15 to 20 percent” chance he could go in the first three rounds, but “after that, it was kind of just hope.”
His name was the final one called on Day 2 of the draft, as he went with the 102nd pick to a team that needed a replacement for the man whose No. 25 Mattison now wears.
When the Vikings lost Latavius Murray to the Saints in free agency, they said goodbye to a reliable between-the-tackles runner who’d scored 14 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons and posted 1,420 yards in 17 starts during that time.
With Dalvin Cook still trying to get through his first NFL season without injury, Mattison could be the same kind of valuable counterpart and inside runner that Murray was.
“I like a lot of things about him,” coach Mike Zimmer said at the Vikings’ rookie minicamp on Friday. “He catches the ball well, he’s physical, and he’s got a long, strong lower body. Most of the time when he made contact, he was always falling forward.”
The rookie’s running style, in some ways, mirrors the approach to life he’s learned from his parents. On the road not often traveled from San Bernardino, he’s met enough obstacles to last a lifetime. Nonetheless, he’s kept moving forward.
“My hope and my goal, of the route that I’ve taken, I just hope to be the ambassador of my city, to show some of the kids that, ‘You can make it out. You can have good grades. You can go to college,’” he said. “There’s a lot of people in the city — I mean, I’ve been surrounded by it — that even growing up, [it’s], ‘I can’t. I can’t.’
But you can. I just want kids, in the area especially, to know that they can.”