Matthew Cindric used to be little.
He was by no means small relative to his age group. His best friend since the first grade, Blake Lees, remembers that his buddy and former teammate “Matt” was required to wear an “X” on the back of his football helmet in the fifth grade. It meant that, due to his size, the future D-I offensive lineman was not allowed to carry the ball or tackle anyone.
But his mother, Nancy Cindric, remembers when her two-year-old and youngest child of three asked for a football “holmet” for Christmas, seeing as “helmet” was just too difficult to pronounce.
“We’re from Pittsburgh. So we got him a little plastic Steelers helmet. And I mean, he (was) just the happiest two-year-old you’ll ever see, just walking around in his ‘holmet,’” said Cindric’s mother. “When he got his first helmet playing football, he sat and watched TV in it because he liked it that much.”
Cindric’s mother continued her reminiscing and remembered her favorite memory from her son’s high school football journey.
He played offensive line and defensive line cuz he played both ways in high school and he hadn’t scored a touchdown in ever. And the last game of the season in his high school stadium, one of his fellow defensive linemen knocked the quarterback that we were playing and he fumbled it and Matthew picked it up on like the 30 yard line and ran it back 70 yards,” said his mother.
He’s 6’4” now and nearly 300 pounds worth of brains and brawn. He has started in nearly all of his 29 appearances for the Bears, including every game as a redshirt freshman during Cal’s 8-5 campaign three years ago. Just last year he transitioned to starting center after playing the left guard position for three years without skipping a beat. He even stepped in as the team’s short-snapper for three games (Cal was perfect on 6 field goals and 8 PATs over that span).
He’s a big, talented, machine on Cal’s offensive line, and has been for five seasons now — nothing like the plastic-helmet-wearing toddler that Nancy, his father Michael and his two older sisters, Laura and Caroline, will remember.
“I would say the best feeling (in football) is maybe not a single moment, but just as an offensive lineman, play after play, dominating somebody. And just kind of seeing the look on their face, like a defeated feeling or look on their face,” said Cindric. “So once you get that feel or that look from your opponent, you know that you got them on the ropes, they’re already thinking about the bus ride home.”
He’s grinning all the while.
But those who know and love Cindric will generally agree that even though he may have changed a little bit since he was a kid he’s still the same sharp, dedicated, humble “little” guy that they’ve always known.
Oh, and he still loves the game of football, which is really just one big puzzle.
One of the first things you might notice about Cindric — besides the fact that he’s got all the measurables to be an NFL lineman someday — is a twinkle in his eye. It’s the kind of twinkle that will make you think he’s just thought of a joke, or remembered one of the many times he earned a sack while playing on the defensive line back at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington.
But no, he hasn’t. He says he’s dry, and that he enjoys quick-witted humor. He “participates” in the Wordle, and loves a good riddle.
No one knows Cindric’s kindness, or sense of humor, better than Blake Lees. Lees and Cindric, who now call each other every few days from their places in Berkeley and Pullman, Washington where Lees works as an equipment manager for Washington State football, met on the playground in first grade. Lees was the new boy in school, having just moved from Spokane to the outskirts of Seattle on the opposite side of the state.
“I didn’t really know anybody, but I knew I loved playing basketball, so I went and played basketball. We kind of just randomly picked teams. And he picks me just because he kind of knew I was new to the area. I don’t know if a teacher dropped a hint or something, but he knew that I had just moved there,” Lees said. “We both tore it up on the basketball court.
Lees and Cindric were inseparable, playing sports together throughout elementary and middle school. When they weren’t at practice or games, they were likely at Cindric’s house playing home run derby in the backyard, pretending that the patio deck was the upper deck of a ballpark, or playing a game of their own invention, “knee football.”
Setting: the upstairs living room. Objective: to knock the ball-carrier from his knees onto his elbows before he reached the other side of the room.
“We were always competitive with those. He had a Seahawks helmet and a Steelers helmet. He could always go with the Steelers. I would go with the Seahawks helmet and we would throw on jerseys. I had a (TJ) Houshmandzadeh jersey … And he had a Troy Palomalu jersey. That was his player,” Lees said. “We would be competitive with ‘knee football.’ That was the only time where I could be competitive with him in some kind of physical sense. So I’d take pride in beating his ass in that.”
Like a good lineman finding linebackers to block downfield, Cindric has taken seemingly every opportunity presented to him to compete. He played baseball and basketball as well as football up until the eighth grade, at which point he had to give up baseball in order to play basketball in the spring.
“I miss basketball. Still play every once in a while, when I can. In the offseason I just shoot hoops,” Cindric said. “But definitely that was my first sport and that was probably my first love, was basketball. Yeah, I just loved playing it.
His go-to move in high school?
“I would say back in the day it was the drop step down in the post, but nowadays it’s the 3-point shot. I was never allowed to shoot threes. I was too big, my coach always told me in high school,” Cindric said. “Once I was off his team I was just shooting threes.”
In high school, the Haas School of Business graduate competed with his high school’s DECA, or Distributive Education Clubs of America, chapter. Even in the offseason, Cindric makes time for some friendlier competition, playing golf at Tilden Park Golf Course with teammates.
Above all else, he loves competing for Cal. His Twitter bio simply reads “Cal guy,” which couldn’t be more truthful. The first college football game he can remember was Cal versus Washington in Seattle. He can’t recall the year, but he does remember that the Bears beat the brakes off of the Huskies just half an hour away from his childhood home.
Cal wasn’t on his radar prior to the recruitment process. But the no-nonsense sales pitch from head coach Justin Wilcox (the kind that focused on what he could achieve at Cal, not the photoshoots and free gear) really struck a chord with Cindric, who says people have told him he might make a great salesman one day.
Winning, of course, has made his experience at Cal all the better. His redshirt freshman year game at The Farm stands out in his mind.
“Having the fans rush the field and seeing how much it meant to you know, Berkeley alum and Berkeley supporters. We had guys in their 50s, 60s coming up, hugging us, crying,” Cindric said. “So just to see how much it meant to them, that was definitely one of the coolest moments of my career.”
“Cindo,” as he is known among his teammates, still has another year of eligibility and may return to Berkeley for a sixth year. But for now he’s focused on earning his master’s degree in the intersection of sports and education, which is offered through the UC Berkeley School of Education.
Besides that, he’s just enjoying the rest of whatever time he has left in Berkeley and, for at least 11 more games, touching the ball on every single possession, something he could have only dreamed of as a kid. A natural-born leader — someone who forced a fumble on his very first play on the varsity high school team as a freshman, and who led fieldwork drills over the summer — he was made for the center position. It shows in the tape and in how he speaks about position.
“I laugh with my dad. He’s like, you get to touch the ball every play, the only lineman who gets to do that. It’s fun.” Cindric said. “So that’s what’s really fun about it. And you get to problem solve in game and … they lean on you to make sure all those calls are correct.”
The twinkle in his eyes seemed to get even brighter as he spoke.
How much has Matthew Cindric really changed?
“He’s obviously stepped into some really great roles at Cal — made some really great friendships, but he did that in high school.”
Besides the facial hair and the business degree, has he changed since he was a kid?
“I would say that maybe the biggest thing about Matthew is he really hasn’t changed that much. He has just been kind of rock solid with who he is,” his mother said. “His pillars have always been faith, family and friends and football and so he’s just kind of grown into bigger roles.”
One of those roles is president of Athletes in Action, a Christian athletes club on campus. Of course, Cindric only mentioned the reasons he participates in the club, which are to help people and demonstrate what a faith-based life is like.
He did not disclose that he spent this past spring break at the University of Zagreb in Croatia supporting the development of the Athletes in Action chapter there. Maybe that would have been too boastful, at least in his eyes.
Perhaps his biggest role is as son and brother to members of his family, who he makes sure to visit every chance he gets. Every year, Cindric is fully booked on the 4th of July. It’s his mom’s birthday, and for that reason, one of his favorite holidays.
“We love him like none other,” his mother said. “But he’s made it pretty easy. He’s been really pretty easy to love. He’s always just been rock solid for us as a family and, and just loving on his sisters, loving on us and he’s always made family a priority. And I can’t appreciate that more.”
Cindric’s a big guy now. He’s a Cal football team captain, a master’s student, and an NFL prospect. There’s a lot to boast about and a lot of chest to puff out. But that’s just not him. He loves the challenge, the puzzle, the work and the football, minus the bravado.
“He’s way bigger and he has got a beard,” Cindric’s mother said. “But other than that, he still loves his ‘holmet.’ ”