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Tattoos help USC’s Matulis chronicle his life and views

USC offensive lineman Mike Matulis explains his tattoos

South Carolina offensive lineman Mike Matulis talks about the tattoos that adorn his body and the meaning behind each of them.
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South Carolina offensive lineman Mike Matulis talks about the tattoos that adorn his body and the meaning behind each of them.

There are scars on Mike Matulis’ body that tell stories he’d just as soon forget. South Carolina’s senior offensive lineman has missed two-and-half years of football because of two shoulder surgeries and a knee surgery, and the marks from those remain.

Then there are the stories Matulis does want to tell, and those are written all over his body, too – quite literally. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder is slowly but surely covering his large frame with tattoos.

At his size, there’s a lot of skin to cover, which is convenient because Matulis has a lot to say.

“Everything on me has some meaning to me. That way when I grow up, there’s always going to be something there that meant something to me,” Matulis said. “Even if as I get older I don’t like it, at some point in time it really meant something to me, enough to put it onto my body.”

By his count, Matulis has six tattoos, but he admits that’s the lowest possible way to calculate the total as a concession to his mother, who is not a fan of all the artwork. His left arm is covered from wrist to shoulder with various tributes to his family, and he counts that as one, for instance.

“I would get one and then I’d build off it,” he said. “I would sit there in class a lot and not necessarily think about class but think about what I want next on my body.”

Matulis thought enough about class at South Carolina to earn a degree in criminal justice, but he didn’t limit his learning to that. His tattoos include quotes from the Bible, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, and his flesh-and-blood influences are as diverse as his needle-and-ink inspirations.

His favorite professor at South Carolina was Dr. Nicholas Cooper-Lewter, a minister and psychotherapist and author of “Soul Theology: The Heart of American Black Culture.” Matulis took Cooper-Lewter’s social work course “Overcoming the Odds in Sports and Beyond.” The course came during the time Matulis had his second shoulder surgery and was considering giving up football, and it was the most influential of his life, he said.

“He sat up front. He was always on time if not a little early. He would sometimes stay after class and ask for additional help and additional information,” Cooper-Lewter said. “He definitely was shining in the area of character. I told him if he never played football again, he was going to make a contribution to the world that was his calling.”

One of Cooper-Lewter’s teaching points – “See Divinity in All of Humanity” – sticks with Matulis to this day. It is stuck to him actually, tattooed in large script on the inside of his left forearm along with his dog’s paw prints and name. Matulis got the dog, a bulldog mix named Kahlua, after his second shoulder surgery.

“She has been a big help in my life,” he said. “She’s one of my best friends. I don’t see her as just an animal. I see a soul in there.”

Columbia tattoo artist Andy Spreeuwers -- who has tattooed South Carolina players Jadeveon Clowney and Alshon Jeffery, among others – is often Matulis’ sounding board during long sessions in the tattoo chair.

“He’s a very interesting dude,” said Spreeuwers, who owns 8 Sins Tattoo in Columbia and does most of Matulis’ work. “Out of all the large fellows I have met, he is one of the kindest and gentlest souls. Not just a special young man but just very kind hearted. Kind of seems like he would do anything for anybody.”

Matulis estimates he has spent more than 50 hours in a tattoo chair. (He can’t recall, or at least doesn’t want to reveal, how much money he’s spent on all the artwork.) He doesn’t fiddle with his phone during his sessions, he said. He talks to Spreeuwers and other artists and customers about life.

“People with tattoos get such a bad rap and some of the nicest people I have ever met are in tattoo shops,” he said.

Matulis’ favorite tattoo is his newest one -- an 18-inch high drawing of the character Groot from the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Groot, a sentient tree-like creature with limited speech, gives a flower to a small child during a scene in the movie, and that image is tattooed on Matulis’ lower back.

“I don’t know what it was but it grabbed hold of me when Groot handed that little girl the flower,” he said. “It really captivated me. It really symbolized love and that children are the future and that showing them love is a key component to a lot of things.”

Love is a theme in all of Matulis’ artwork and in his life, he said. His shoulder length hair is worn in dreadlocks, a style he started to emulate the biblical character Samson, and his spiritual beliefs still are evolving, he said.

“I still believe in God, but I believe in a different thing,” he said. “I believe he wants love out of us, not judging, and that love is the No. 1 most important thing in the Bible, in everything, in all aspects of religion.”

The line of scrimmage in the SEC feels like a poor place to practice Matulis’ love-everyone world view, but the balance of his aggressive playing style and his peaceful lifestyle is healthy, he thinks.

“I’m allowed to take out whatever I have on that field,” he said. “At the end of the game, we will shake hands and say, ‘It’s all love.’ It’s just a game, it’s all love, but it’s a way for me to exert some of that anger that I hold from other situations. I also use the weight room for that.”

Matulis, who played ice hockey as a child, didn’t begin playing football until the ninth grade and even as late as his sophomore year, he was only dabbling in the sport. He was planning to take a vocational track through high school and be an auto mechanic until his high school coach told him that football could take him a long way if he would get serious about it.

“That’s when I realized this could be a very good thing for me,” he said.

Matulis, who has started 20 games at South Carolina, was a freshman All-American in 2011, but he missed most of 2012 and all of 2013 and 2014 due to injury. He’s happy he worked so hard to get back on the field even though his senior season hasn’t gone the way he imagined. The Gamecocks are 3-7 headed into Saturday’s game against The Citadel.

When the season is complete, he will take a shot at an NFL career, and his size and versatility (he has played guard and tackle ) will give him a shot at making a roster. He hasn’t decided what he’ll do when his football career does end, he said, maybe heating and air work like his father.

“He’s just a real laid back, easy-going, really humble good fellow,” Spreeuwer said. “One of the guys that if he does proceed into the NFL, I think he’ll do really well because of his attitude toward life, and if he has to work like the rest of us, he’ll also succeed at that every well. He’s very determined and set out to be a good man in life.”

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