Matt Breida, the all-purpose back

ByJoel Anderson ESPN logo
Thursday, November 29, 2018

This story appears in the November issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

It's 2011 in Hernando County, Florida, and Rob Kazmier is crafting impassioned, personalized pleas to college coaches on behalf of a running back who is south of 160 pounds and several inches shy of 6 feet.

"I don't want this kid flying under the radar!!!" Kazmier writes one December day. "He is the whole package -- great kid, great student."

The notes are about Matt Breida, a record-setting junior at Nature Coast Technical High School, and they are largely met with indifference. Florida and Florida State aren't interested. Neither is UCF or USF. SEC schools can't be bothered. Kazmier, an assistant at Nature Coast at the time, keeps up the marketing. "People get stuck on the cookie-cutter size," says Kazmier, now the head coach at a nearby high school. "Purdue ... they never responded."

Georgia Southern does -- and signs Breida in February 2013.

Five years later, Kazmier looks especially prescient. Breida, now listed at 5-11, 190 pounds and built like a world-class sprinter, with a chiseled jaw and lean muscles, is one of the NFL's leading rushers and biggest surprises in his second year with the 49ers. Through Week 9, he ranked third in rushing yards per carry (5.5) among players averaging 10 or more carries and was ninth in total rushing yards (531) despite being slowed by an ankle injury in recent weeks.

Breida is a bright spot in an otherwise lost year for the 49ers, who entered the fall with modest playoff hopes that were quickly extinguished when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo -- 5-0 in five starts to close out 2017 -- went down with a season-ending knee injury in September.

Still, Breida will have a triumphant homecoming on Nov. 25, when the 49ers play at Tampa Bay. A couple of dozen family and friends are expected to be in the stands that day, a celebration of exceeded expectations. "I always felt I could play in the NFL," Breida says. "I just needed the opportunity to prove it."

He got that opportunity in no small part because of many of the same supporters who plan to be at Raymond James Stadium -- perhaps none more than his parents. He gave them a purpose when he came into their lives, and despite their own hardships, they fought to help him thrive.

Now he's driven to do the same for them.

Michael and Terri Breida make the 40-minute drive on Sundays from their home in Spring Hill to a chain pub in Dade City where a group of 49ers fans watch their favorite team. That crowd has dwindled as the 49ers have fallen to the bottom of the standings. "There's only a handful of us that still show up," Terri says, laughing. "Us die-hards."

These afternoons are personal affairs for them. Mike will wear a Breida 49ers jersey, either the red one or the black one. Terri's hair -- styled in a short bob -- will be colored in the unmistakable 49ers scarlet. They'll both wear lanyards with the team's logo around their necks. Mike will carefully ease Terri in her wheelchair into the restaurant, hopefully maneuvering her to a spot near the TV and away from foot traffic.

Before Matt arrived in their lives on March 2, 1995, they had long dreamed of becoming parents: family trips to Disney World, tossing around a football in the backyard, turning their parents into grandparents. Watching siblings and friends start families of their own only exacerbated that longing. After nearly 10 years of marriage, many failed fertility treatments and inconclusive tests, they turned to a private adoption agency. They paid an $8,500 fee, took the required courses and earned the necessary certifications. They put together a scrapbook about their lives and home for prospective mothers and had serious conversations about the child they wanted. The agency asked the Breidas, who are white, whether they were open to a child of any race, and they were. "Terri wanted the full baby experience," Mike says.

Three months later, the agency called about a day-old boy.

"What do you think about becoming a father today?" Terri asked Mike after she got the news over the phone.

At the agency, the Breidas were given a handful of diapers, three bottles of formula, two blankets and a tiny outfit for the baby, whom they named Matthew.

"That was an exciting night," Mike says. "We figured out pretty quickly that he was what we were missing."

A year later, the Breidas adopted another boy and named him Joshua. Soon, they realized their home in Hudson, a west-central Florida town of about 12,000 with a reputation for racial hostility that includes the longtime presence of white supremacist and KKK groups, would not be a good fit for them and their sons, who are black.

"One day our neighbor comes up to me while I'm holding Matt and says, 'He looks a little dark,'" Terri says.

They found a place in nearby Spring Hill, a growing area about 45 miles north of Tampa. It seemed like a welcoming place, with young families, strip malls for convenience and variety, and little of the entrenched segregation that seemed to rule in their old neighborhood -- Hudson is 89.2 percent white, according to census estimates. Spring Hill is a bit more diverse: 74.9 percent white, 5.5 percent black and 15.4 percent Hispanic or Latino.

"We found out there were blended families here," Mike Breida says. "It was a little more mixed in."

Youth football was an easy way for them to plug into the community in Hernando County. Mike and Terri needed an outlet for their energetic boys, given their own health problems. Mike never fully recovered after a bout with viral meningitis in 1991 and was slowed by a series of car accidents; Terri has used a wheelchair for several years after car accidents of her own exacerbated arthritis and other health issues. "We've got a frequent flier pass to the ER," Mike jokes.

As a result, they struggled to keep up with Matt and Josh. "We wanted to get them involved in sports and to meet other kids," Mike says, "and try to keep them out of trouble."

The boys started with flag football for a couple of years at the local YMCA, but when it was time for tackle with the West Hernando Cougars youth program, Matt's love for the game deepened; Josh's waned. The brothers started to drift apart. Matt's reputation preceded him by the time he arrived at Nature Coast, the county's magnet high school and home to its best football program, as a 120-pound freshman. "We didn't know what we were getting," says Kazmier, himself an initial skeptic because of Matt's scrawny frame. "But we heard good things."

Matt grew into the role of a star in high school, packing on nearly 40 pounds through uncommon teenage devotion to the weight room. "He would surprise you how determined he was in his mindset," Kazmier says. "His work ethic never wavered." He also kept himself busy with wrestling in the winter and track in the spring as a way to avoid the pitfalls that derailed so many others around him, including his brother.

Josh has been in and out of legal trouble in recent years. Matt can't remember the last time he spoke with him. "We haven't been close since the beginning of my freshman year," he says. "He started hanging out with other people who were into drugs and gangs, and we went two separate paths." (ESPN was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach Josh.)

Mike and Terri are careful not to say too much about Josh over dinner, changing the subject quickly before getting too far into a conversation about him.

It's unclear whether the self-shushing is to protect Josh or themselves.

On most nights, like this one three days before the 49ers' Thursday night game against Oakland in Week 9, Silvana Breida would be preparing a heavy Italian dinner for Matt like the ones they enjoyed at her family's home during high school.

"I guess I'll take the credit for him gaining that 10 pounds since we got married," Silvana says, smiling.

Married almost a year, together for nine, Matt and Silvana are finally settling into their three-bedroom condominium in San Jose, about a half-hour drive from the 49ers' team facility and a couple of football fields from the foothills of the Diablo Range. They are daring to make Silicon Valley feel like home, a perilous idea in the NFL -- let alone for an undrafted free agent at one of the most expendable positions on a losing team.

"The more we lived out here, the more we started liking it here," Matt says. "But I grew up in Florida and miss it sometimes." Silvana isn't in much of a mood for romanticizing their hometown. California is an "upgrade," she says. Matt rolls his eyes, playfully.

They started dating as sophomores at Nature Coast, where they shared a Spanish class and important roles on the football team. In 2011, as juniors, Matt and Silvana finished 1-2 in scoring: Matt had 134 points, including 21 TDs, while Silvana -- as the first female varsity football player in the county -- converted 14 extra points and a field goal.

He signed with nearby Georgia Southern, then an FCS school, mostly playing on special teams as a freshman before wowing new coach Willie Fritz his sophomore year. "After the first practice, I went over to the offensive coordinator and said, 'I don't know how this guy didn't play last year,'" Fritz says. Breida became one of the most dynamic rushers in college football over the next two seasons (3,093 yards, 34 TDs, 8.3 yards per carry) as Georgia Southern made the transition to the FBS. But after another coaching change and the installation of a spread-style offense in his senior season, he totaled just 646 yards and three touchdowns.

Still, Breida impressed the 49ers, who'd identified him early in their draft evaluation process, at his pro day in the spring. "He ran a 4.38 and matched that with a 42-inch vertical," general manager John Lynch says. "That's rare power and speed, and then you turn on the film and that matches it."

Matt and his family spent three agonizing days watching the 2017 draft at the home of Silvana's family without hearing his name called. But the 49ers were dogged in their pursuit of Matt as an undrafted free agent on the final day of the draft, beating out the Jets, Bears and Cowboys. They sold him on their two-back system under coach Kyle Shanahan, which he'd used successfully in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

The speed of the NFL, even for someone known as a speedster, took awhile to get used to. "The moment the game started feeling fast was when we got out there with the vets. It was like, 'Oh crap,'" Breida says.

He learned the playbook and, day by day, climbed the depth chart. At the end of the preseason, he made the team.

"The longer we watched Breida, even though he was small in stature, he breaks a lot of arm tackles and has got a special will about him," Lynch says. "He's as tough as they come."

The pro-Breida contingent expected among the Bucs fans at Raymond James Stadium this month will range from old coaches and teammates to some of the regular crew from Dade City. Mike and Terri will be there too -- the first time they'll see Matt play in person since last season's opener in Santa Clara.

The Breidas seem acutely aware of the purpose they give to each other. In fall 2012, Breida brought his parents on a recruiting visit to Georgia Southern. As much as Breida's speed and potential made him a recruiting priority, coach Jeff Monken said he was most impressed by the way Matt took care of his parents throughout the weekend.

"He would always help his mom and get her situated at every meal," says Monken, now at Army. "You could see the sense of responsibility he took in that family."

Matt has already made sure their needs for the Bucs game, including accessible seating, will be met, doing his best to dote on them from nearly 2,800 miles away.

"We're so grateful for everything," Terri says. "I think it's his way of thanking us."

"I'm so lucky to have grown up how I did," Breida says, "to have a good childhood. My parents always made sure to be there for me. I want to make sure they have the things they need."