Luke Inman contributed video to this story.
Running back Mike Boone leaned his head back and set his brain in motion, trying to remember the first time he saw Alexander Mattison hurdle a tackler. Most backs, after all, don’t have such a large selection from which to choose.
After some thought, he arrived at the team’s Week 1 game versus the Atlanta Falcons, Mattison’s NFL debut, where the Boise State rookie leapt over safety Ricardo Allen during a 24-yard run.
“I was impressed then,” Boone said. “Still impressed to this day.
“I call him Trampoline Alex.”
Mattison, a 110-meter hurdler in high school at San Bernardino, Calif., has jumped over defenders four times in first 13 NFL games, a skill rarely seen with that frequency in the NFL. The rookie back is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on exactly 100 attempts. His lone touchdown on the season? It came, of course, via a hurdle against Oakland.
“A lot of it is instinct,” he told Zone Coverage. “A lot of it is just playing a lot of football and knowing how to time up when guys are going to try and hit you, especially when guys are trying to go low on me. I took my fair share of hits to the shin throughout my lifespan in football, so I kind of know when a defender is going to dip low and when they’re about to shoot and just time it up.”
One would think any running back on the same team as Dalvin Cook could be overshadowed, but Mattison has carved out an identity as a tough runner that has an incredible knack for leapfrogging defenders, leaving his teammates in awe.
“It’s extremely hard to be going full speed and at the last second have to react or jump over somebody,” Boone said. “It just goes to show his athleticism, man.”
So what were the origins of Trampoline Alex?
High school hurdling
Brittany Polk became the hurdling coach at San Bernardino High School when Mattison was a sophomore, one year after he started hurdling. It was immediately clear to Polk that Mattison was a natural.
“Alex actually was a huge help to me,” Polk said in an interview with Zone Coverage, “because he had hurdled as a freshman, so he kind of helped show me the ropes, ‘These are the stretches that we normally do and all of that.’ It’s really great to have him. He’s a natural leader, he’s just a take-charge, let’s-get-this done kind of guy.”
Mattison was a three-sport athlete between track, wrestling and football. The latter is where he excelled, rushing for over 2,000 yards as both a junior and senior, earning a scholarship to Boise State along the way. But he wasn’t allowed to use his hurdling tricks. Not yet. Hurdling was widely banned in high school football across the country in 2012 for player safety reasons.
While his football career took off, Mattison stayed committed to track and field. The spring of his senior year, Mattison pulled double duty after school, working on hurdling and long-jumping with Polk before heading to the weight room as part of Boise State’s recommended training regiment. He won the Mountain Valley League title in the 110-meter hurdles, qualifying for the CIF Southern Sectional Finals, where he placed fourth.
So what was the key to his hurdling success? Footwork? Vertical? Speed?
“Flexibility,” Polk said. “A lot of times you’ll get kids who are fast who are not good at the hurdles because they can’t get that leg up high enough. A lot of it is the form going over the hurdle. Can they get that leg up? Can they bend that other leg back and behind them? That’s definitely key.”
Mattison’s sophomore year at Boise State is when his two passions intersected. Basically, he was tired of getting his legs beaten up by tacklers during his freshman year, so he decided to start going over the top.
“My shins were bleeding, my leggings looked like rats had bit at them,” Mattison said. “Going into my sophomore year, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s enough of that.'”
Mattison rushed for over 1,000 yards in his final two seasons while scoring 29 combined touchdowns. The most widely-circulated clip of Mattison at Boise State featured him hurdling a defender into the end zone. No surprise.
Why is nobody talking about Alexander Mattison? I sit down to watch this dude and see a big, explosive, powerful back with good vision, discipline and footwork, excellent lateral agility, and oh, the hurdle. This run is special: pic.twitter.com/imw2bF7Npe
— J Moyer (@JMoyerFB) April 9, 2019
And that’s not all Mattison put on tape.
You hurdle a man, I tweet it. Those are the rules. Alexander Mattison, y’all. pic.twitter.com/AwpxYdC0pq
— Fed Scivittaro (@MeshPointScout) November 27, 2018
Alexander Mattison’s hurdle and the catch that didn’t count–what a grab from AJ Richardson! pic.twitter.com/wrC9LNctm3
— Will Hall (@WillHallKTVB) November 26, 2017
Here is a GIF of Mattison’s hurdle for your viewing pleasure. pic.twitter.com/o7fEddLFcT
— John Patrick (@JPktik) October 22, 2017
Mattison’s proclivity to go airborne caught the eyes of pro scouts. His NFL.com draft profile included the phrase “leaped over open-field tacklers multiple times.”
He’s wasted no time incorporating that as a pro.
“It’s something that’s stuck with me,” Mattison said. “I’ll never forget how to hurdle. Offseason, I’ll hurdle over trash cans in the middle of my workouts, stuff like that, so in the midst of the moment when I kind of pull it out, it just happens.”
AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL
Vikings fans with season tickets might be noticing a trend. Mattison has busted out a hurdle in four of the team’s six home games, in each case gaining yardage after the hurdle and drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd. In the team’s Week 6 contest, Mattison capped a 35-yard run by hurdling Philadelphia’s Rodney McLeod.
Mattison delivered once again in last Sunday’s win when he jumped over Detroit’s Tavon Wilson, displaying his best form on any hurdle this season, according to Polk. His former coach now watches Vikings games intently.
“Every time I’m such a proud coach,” Polk said. “I’m always like, ‘That’s my baby on TV.’ But I was just so impressed by the skills that he has and improvements he’s made and the skills he retained from me.”
What does Mattison’s other coach think about the hurdling?
Head coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t believe he’s been around a running back that can hurdle players like Mattison, but he’s also wary of the injury possibilities. Mattison is presently dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice, though it’s not believed to be a result of his latest hurdle.
“I don’t know if you saw the Detroit game against Chicago when [T.J.] Hockenson hurdled and came down with a concussion,” Zimmer said. “You have to be careful about it.”
Not every hurdle Mattison has attempted has been seamless.
Any RB can hurdle… Alex Mattison is clearly bigger on the flying knee pic.twitter.com/PCeBhrWHUq
— Felix J Scuds (@teenswgprobs) April 28, 2019
His track record suggests, however, that Mattison knows how to pull off hurdling safely and successfully. Back at San Bernardino, Polk’s hurdling program has gotten more popular as a result.
“Every year that I’ve been here,” said Polk, “a lot of the football kids will come out to join track and they’ll come up to me like, ‘Coach, I’m going to do the hurdles so I can run like Alex.'”