Mikkah Hackett

Junior linebacker Mikkah Hackett and No. 1 UMHB host Texas Lutheran today in a key conference clash.

BELTON — Growing up in Alto, Mikkah Hackett enjoyed playing anything that involved a ball. Whether it was football, basketball or baseball didn’t matter. If there was a ball around, Hackett was always close by.

“I played anything that I could. If nobody would play with me, I just played by myself,” the Mary Hardin-Baylor junior linebacker said. “I was better at basketball growing up. I loved football and really had a passion for it, though. When my friend died, I really decided to dedicate myself to football.”

Tragedy can affect a person in any number of ways. For Hackett, it made him a more committed player on the football field, because that’s where tragedy had struck.

Just before halftime of a game against Price Carlisle during Hackett’s junior season in high school, Alto teammate Cam’ron Matthews collided helmet-to-helmet with an opposing player.

Matthews walked to the sideline before collapsing on the bench and couldn’t be revived on the sideline, in the ambulance or during a helicopter flight to the hospital.

The autopsy said the cause of death was a subdural hematoma, and a forensic pathologist concluded that Matthews’ brain was deprived of oxygen “following resuscitation from cardiac arrest following unspecified blunt impact.”

Just like that, Hackett’s friend was gone.

“In the middle of a football game, about 17 seconds before halftime,” he said.

Price Carlisle immediately forfeited the game that night when it realized the severity of the injury, and Hackett and his teammates gathered in different places awaiting an update before finally getting the word that Matthews had passed.

“When they flew him, my mom took me to the hospital because the other team had already forfeited the game,” Hackett said. “Everybody from the community was in the hospital praying or back at the field having a prayer circle.”

In their moment of grief, many Alto players faced a harsh question — what to do with the remainder of the season.

“It was really tough to finish that season,” Hackett said. “My father came to me and we had a conversation. He said if I didn’t feel like finishing the season that nobody could blame me, but my community and my friends pulled together. We decided the best thing to do was to finish the season for him.”

Alto completed its regular-season schedule and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, and a rededicated Hackett continued to excel as a senior before arriving at UMHB.

After two years as a backup free safety and the first half of this season as a reserve linebacker, Hackett is set to start his third consecutive game this afternoon when the top-ranked Crusaders (8-0, 7-0 American Southwest Conference) host Texas Lutheran (7-1, 7-0) in a matchup that will determine the league’s automatic playoff qualifier.

Hackett made seven tackles from his strongside linebacker spot in his first start two weeks ago against Hardin-Simmons and followed that with a six-tackle performance and an interception last week against Louisiana College.

“He had a lot of improvement from the Hardin-Simmons game to last week. This week will be a good test for him,” UMHB defensive coordinator Larry Harmon said. “He’s a great athlete. We always want to put our best athletes in positions where they have the best chance to get on the field.

“For him learning to be a starter here, there have been some growing pains. It has taken him a while to figure it out, but I’m glad he’s starting to. He has all the physical abilities to do it.”

Hackett acknowledged that learning the nuances of the linebacker position — being able to process more information quickly because of the closer proximity to the line of scrimmage — has taken time.

He believes it comes more natural to him each week, and he’s finally starting to find his comfort zone.

“I was a lot more focused for last week’s game as far as knowing the game plan,” he said. “My main focus now is just to be really physical, make tackles and make plays.”

He knows that’s what Matthews would want him to do, and he hasn’t forgotten the bond the friends built on the football field.

The path through grief has been long and arduous, but Hackett is at a point where he can focus on his future without wondering what might have been.

“It was tough. I was definitely depressed for a long time, but my family and friends really came through and helped me,” he said. “I wouldn’t say things ever got easier. You just had to find different ways to keep moving forward, and you learned to cherish the little things.”