The whistle has just gone at Wembley Stadium in London, and 90,000 football fans file out of the stands and onto their trains.
Meanwhile, Matt Johl (Hall 2002-2006) has just arrived. He’s heading up to his office looking out over the iconic venue that has hosted so many historic sporting moments.
But he’s not a football star. In fact, he doesn’t even play football. Instead, he’s working for one of the world’s biggest international sports recruiting services, which has its London offices inside the stadium.
How did he get there? The United States via Otago, via London, via St Paul’s of course.
Backpedal 12 years.
Matt was finishing his last year at St Paul’s as head of Hall House and a school prefect. Like many students, he was still trying to figure out his post-high school path.
A gap year teaching at Aldenham School in London seemed like a good fit, and it gave Matt the opportunity to coach the sport he had played at a high-level back at St Paul’s – field hockey.
“That’s where I got my first real taste of coaching,” Matt said.
“And that’s what inspired me to look at the physical education route.”
So when he returned to New Zealand, he packed up and moved to Dunedin where he spent four years studying a Bachelor of Physical Education at Otago.
All the while, his passion for coaching grew as he started working with the university women’s team, and the men’s Southern U18s and U21s.
“Suddenly I was coaching three teams on the go at once, as well as playing, and teaching! That’s when I started to get more and more excited about the coaching side of things.”
At the same time, his sister Carla was playing field hockey over in the United States on a university scholarship.
Matt, along with his parents, made a trip over to see Carla play.
“That was my introduction into college sport if you like,” Matt said.
“I was blown away by the experience that she was having and university sport in general in the States.”
“I made some connections, networked a little bit, and fast forward a few years, one of those coaches gets back in touch,” he said.
“He said ‘listen, we’re looking for an extra coach this season at Wake Forrest University in North Carolina, are you interested?’ And I said, ‘I’ll see you in a few weeks!’”
So Matt finished his degree, sold his car, and got a one-year visa to go to the United States.
“I figured I could spend one season there and have a taste of it,” he said.
“Four years later and I was still there!”
Matt’s season with Wake Forrest saw them make the Elite 8 tournament – one of the most competitive hockey tournaments in the country. That was enough to give him the bug.
“Here I was in an elite environment where ultimately my two passions – education and coaching – I mean, there’s no place in the world that integrates those two things better than collegiate sport in the States.”
“After that season at Wake Forrest I thought to myself, ‘I need to find any way I can to stay here’”.
So Matt moved to James Madison University in Virginia where he would coach for three more years.
“It’s a real special environment and I’m really glad I got to be a part of it,” he said.
“There are fantastic opportunities for education all around the world. There are fantastic opportunities to play your sport all around the world. But the United States collegiate sports environment is, in my opinion, the best place in the world for an opportunity that integrates both of those things together.
“It’s an amateur sport environment, but for all intents and purposes, the routines, the facilities, the staffing, is very professional.”
Once Matt’s time was up at James Madison, he moved back to the UK where he now works as a sports consultant for First Point USA, which seeks to give young athletes the experience of collegiate sport in the States by helping them get athletics scholarships.
“Such was my passion for college sport, when I got to the UK, this job was the next step to stay involved in some way and use my recent four years of experience as a coach to help other young people have a similar life experience”.
But he doesn’t forget where it all started. Those fields at St Paul’s, all those years ago, are where Matt developed his passion for sports.
“I attribute a lot of my passion for sport through my experience at St Paul’s and my time on the 1st XI hockey team and 1st XI cricket team,” he said.
“In terms of an all round sports experience, St Paul’s certainly opened my eyes and gave me a real passion for sport.”
Matt’s time at Tihoi also helped set up his coaching career, teaching him the ability to work with all kinds of people in a team environment.
“I can think of a lot of times at my house in Tihoi that developed my skills and abilities to communicate, think on my feet, and take initiative.”
Despite moving away from coaching with his new role, Matt is enjoying helping others realise their sporting ambitions.
And he’ll be back. He’s promised when he returns to New Zealand he’ll return to coaching as well, and he may just be heading up a team of national significance in years to come.
The process and logistics of getting to the United States can be quite tough without a little bit of guidance. Matt is happy for any student looking at this opportunity to flick him an email at [email protected]
SAM HEWAT (School 2006-2010)