Death of his college coach helped motivate Gono to make Falcons’ roster

Offensive tackle Matt Gono stretches for the second day of Falcons rookie-mini-camp on Saturday, May 12, 2018, in Flowery Branch.
Offensive tackle Matt Gono stretches for the second day of Falcons rookie-mini-camp on Saturday, May 12, 2018, in Flowery Branch.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Back in early May, shortly after Matt Gono had signed with the Falcons to try and make the improbable climb from Division III to the NFL, he got one of those dreaded late-night phone calls.

His college coach, Mike Drass, the man who coaxed him to Wesley over Rowan and helped to make him an NFL prospect, had died suddenly at his home him Dover, Del., at the age of 57.

“He passed away with a heart attack,” Gono said. “We were in rookie minicamp when I got that news. I had been here for like a week or so when I got that news.”

Gono’s head was spinning and his emotions were swirling. While trying to learn the intricacies of an NFL playbook, his mind was drifting to thoughts about his fallen coach, mentor and friend.

“They told me I had the option to go to the funeral, but I’m sure he would have wanted me to stay here and that’s what I did,” Gono said.

He choose to honor Drass by continuing to practice in his bid to make the Falcons. On Sunday, Gono cleared his first major hurdle as he was named to the initial 53-man roster. The Falcons want to develop him as a backup swing tackle who can play on either the right or left side of the offensive line.

“He definitely would be proud,” Gono said. “At times, he was lot more excited about this process than me. He definitely wanted this for me.”

Drass was a legend and a part of Wesley for 29 years. He was the head coach for 26 years and made 13 straight berths in the NCAA championship tournament and finished with a 229-61-1 record.

“He would say this and I’m thinking the same thing, ‘the work had just begun,’ ” Gono said. “I still (have) a ways to go. It’s a greater responsibility now that I made the 53.”

When things got tough for Gono during OTAs and minicamp, he thought about the things he’d learned from Drass.

“What motivated me was that my head coach from college passed,” Gono said. “That motivated me. Where I come from motivated me. My Mom motivated me especially. All of that gave me the mentality not to give up and persevere through.”

The offensive linemen knew what Gono was dealing with emotionally.

“He’s a pretty quiet guy,” right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. “He kept it close to himself because he didn’t want anybody else to worry about him. He’s done a good job pushing through that.”

Schraeder made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2013 after starring at Valdosta State, helping the Blazers to the 2012 Division II national title.

“He’s got a long road ahead of him with some things to work on to get better, but I think he’s got a high ceiling,” Schraeder said. “He’s a big guy and he moves well. He’s tough. He doesn’t let things bother him. He moves on to the next play. He has all of the qualities that you need coming from a small school.”

The veteran offensive linemen have been supportive.

“All of the (offensive) linemen give me tips,” Gono said. “They all offer the rookies tips when we are struggling. A lot of times, I was playing right tackle this whole time primarily. I looked to Ryan (Schraeder), he gives me words of encouragement when we have days off, he gave me some guidance.

“Just for relief and stress, too. He gave me tips on how to relax because this is a whole lot to take in.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn believes that Gono helped his situation by staying in the area to work out and train with the veterans.

“(Myself) and the other two rookies that I came in with, we decided to stay here,” Gono said. “I went home for a few weeks before I came back. You definitely won’t do as much at home by yourself than you would do here training with the older guys.”

Gono played right tackle his first three years at Wesley. He moved to left tackle his senior season.

So, he wasn’t flustered when the Falcons played him at right tackle against Miami in the exhibition finale and then, mid-game, sent him over to left tackle.

“I didn’t think too much about it,” Gono said. “(Offensive line) coach (Chris Morgan) told me to go left, so I just went to left. I didn’t think about it too much, you just got to flip plays in your mind. You just have to do it.”

Drass wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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