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August 20, 2013Matt Bingaya gingerly walks off the court at Reed Green Coliseum and wraps an ice pack around his knee. It is this same knee -- the cause of so much pain and anguish in Bingaya's young eighteen year-old life -- that ultimately brought him to Hattiesburg all the way from Delaware, Ohio.
After a grueling two-and-a-half hour practice that ended with extensive conditioning drills, Bingaya sits on a third row bleacher and props his leg up for support. If you're looking for a grimace on his face or even a look of discomfort, you're not going to find it. He's a tough kid. And he almost never stepped foot on a Division I basketball court.
Bingaya was a basketball superstar at Hayes High School, a place nestled comfortably in the breadbasket of central Ohio. As a junior he averaged 21.2 points and 11.2 rebounds a game and people across the nation began to take notice. Talent scouts, news agencies and college coaches all clamored over Bingaya's long frame and smooth shooting stroke. He was arguably the most famous person in the region at the age of sixteen. That's when his friends had an idea.
"People saw that I was athletic where I'm from and they were like, 'Hey Matt, you should play football. You're pretty athletic,'" Bingaya said. "I tried it one year and I was pretty good at it so I tried it the next year."
As a lifelong basketball player the sport of football was new to Bingaya, but the more he played the better he got. The better he became, the more he fell in love. His relationship with football was quick and passionate, and before you knew it, he was ready to trade in his high tops for a pair of cleats and a chance to impress on the gridiron.
"Playing football progressively for two years and just knowing the game and all that, I kind of wanted to go play football in college for a little bit," Bingaya says after a brief silence.
He then looks longingly in the distance, just for a split second, but it's enough to see that his passion for the sport is still there.
"But I've been playing basketball all my life so I ultimately was going to choose basketball. It was a tough decision."
Way tougher than he would like to let on.
When senior year rolled around Bingaya had firmly solidified himself as a two-sport superstar and football was slowly becoming the frontrunner when it came time to decide on a college. It didn't help that schools were throwing themselves at him in an attempt to acquire his young talent as early as possible.
"After my first (football) game, we were on the central Ohio news. After that I started getting letters. OSU (Ohio State University) called me. One of the assistant coaches for Michigan State came to the school. And I had some MAC schools like Kent State (offer me). I got a letter from West Virginia for football too so there were a lot of schools coming. But there are some big dudes in football," Bingaya says with a laugh. "I'm very injury prone so I wanted to stay away from all the contact and play basketball."
It happened so fast. Like in one of those cheesy sports movies where the star player gets hurt right before the big game. Only this was no movie. For Matt Bingaya, this was reality.
"It was during a football game. I think we were halfway through the season my senior year," he said. "I go up for a lob touchdown pass and when I caught it, I planted my foot and someone came right to my right side and just dove right into it. That's when it popped out of place."
"It" being the posterior crucial ligament of his knee, an injury that forced him to sit out for the rest of his senior year in both football and basketball. At the time Bingaya led central Ohio in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and was also considered to be a unanimous preseason all-district basketball player. The longer he played the more people realized he could legitimately play two sports at the college level. That would be no more.
It seemed as if Bingaya's career was over before it truly began. What looked like a promising future was now shattered, both literally and figuratively, at his feet.
But Matt Bingaya never quit. In fact, he did quite the opposite.
"After that I think I had surgery a week later. After that I (went) to this orthopedic hospital. Luckily they got me with somebody who was a sports trainer so he had me doing a lot of stuff like leg raises and all that for about three or four months," Bingaya said. "That's when I was able to get off my crutches and start moving again. I wasn't full go but that's when I started doing agility stuff and I started coming back."
The rehab was extensive and raw and frightening but this is not your average run-of-the-mill athlete. The process only made Bingaya hungrier, as if he finally had something to prove to the world. Everyone believed in him when he was at the top of the mountain, but now that he had fallen and was climbing back up, that list grew shorter and shorter every day.
"During the rehab process I was really set on coming back. I was just working hard. As soon I was able to run and stuff I was in the gym. I was trying to get back into shape," he said.
It was a very tough time for Bingaya and his family but he never stopped in his pursuit to play again. His passion for both games was just too high.
"After that I talked to my mom about it and she was like, 'Matt, I don't want you to get hurt. It's your choice ultimately but you really need to just sit down and think of the pros and cons of going back and playing.'"
The pros outweighed the cons. But the coaches that used to show up to his high school were now gone. The dozens of letters stopped arriving at his mailbox every day. Almost every single offer Bingaya once had was rescinded, as if coaches and scouts had already made up their minds that he would never be the same.
Matt Bingaya's phone had finally stopped ringing. And just when he thought it could get no worse, one phone call changed his life.
The Phone Call
Donnie Tyndall was the head coach at Morehead State when he offered Bingaya and didn't think he had a shot. The kid from Delaware, Ohio was getting offers to play at some of the most prestigious schools in the country and Tyndall was just trying to keep his Eagles in the running when he found out about the injury.
"After I hurt my knee and after I was coming back he (Tyndall) called me. When I had seen his number I was like, 'Oh, I don't know how this is gonna go,'" Bingaya said.
"He was just like, 'You've still got a scholarship. We'd love to have you and I have a lot of confidence that you'll come back.'"
The news floored him. If Bingaya wasn't ready to come back from his knee injury before, that was all it took.
"Him having that confidence in me made me even more anxious to get better and get my knee right. I really respect him for that and I'm really grateful for that."
So what did Tyndall see in Bingaya that made him stick with him when no other school was willing to take a chance? That answer is what makes the relationship between the two so dynamic and awe-inspiring.
"He has that mentality that I love. He plays extremely hard. He's a tough, competitive kid," Tyndall said. "He was a great football player in high school and he kind of brings that football-like mentality to the basketball court. He's tough and gritty; he's not afraid to rotate and take charges or stick his nose in there for loose balls. He's just a tough, competitive guy."
It's no coincidence those two words keep exiting Tyndall's mouth. They're the best way to describe Matt Bingaya. The 6-5 shooting guard brings a tough and competitive nature to the team most people simply couldn't understand. To go from the best in your world at two different sports to not being able to walk can make you hungry in a way you never thought you could be.
And so it has come to this. Bingaya following his head coach to Southern Miss, a pairing that will likely make the Golden Eagles a perennial post-season team for as long as both are in Hattiesburg.
Things are different now but that's not a bad thing. Sure, he has to ice his knee down after every practice and the pain still lingers, but it's a sacrifice he's willing to make to play the sport he loves for the coach he's come to admire.
When it comes to this season Bingaya is simply trying to get better.
"This year, as a freshman, I'm just focused on defense and playing hard -- playing my heart out," he said.
"I'm just focused on getting in better condition for this type of play (and) how fast it is, getting my knee right, playing defense and being a solid player right now."
That kind of humble, blue-collar attitude is what endears Matt Bingaya to so many people, and it is this type of work ethic that has allowed him to make an amazing comeback to play college basketball at the Division I level.
He may have hurt his knee but Bingaya is now standing on something much stronger - his faith in himself.
When it comes to that, he's as strong as he's ever been.
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