It’s a Friday afternoon in Detroit for the MHSAA Division 6 State Championship game. Clinton High School, a school with an enrollment of 413 at the time, is going up against state powerhouse Ithaca. The local juggernaut gets out to an early 14-0 lead after both a 15 yard passing touchdown and 30 yard interception return for a touchdown by Travis Smith, Ithaca’s top quarterback, top rusher, and arguably top defensive back.
Clinton comes back with a 20 yard rushing touchdown followed by a two-point conversion, but the team is still in need of a confidence boost. Clinton’s defense finally gets a stop, but how could they possibly exploit Ithaca’s stifling defense two drives in a row?
Ithaca brings their special teams unit onto the field, and they punt the ball away. Clinton’s punt returner fields it, finds daylight upfield, and takes it to the house for an 86 yard punt return touchdown to give Clinton a one point lead. Clinton was unable to hold the lead, falling to Ithaca 41-22. However, this game gave exposure to a small kid who had put up great numbers in his young high school career but had never been given the stage to display his athletic talents. Not only did this player return that punt for a touchdown, but he also recorded 4 tackles on defense, 4 receptions as a receiver, and 4 carries as a running back that went for a total of 64 yards. This do-it-all playmaker did not even have his best game statistically, but it made people take notice.
That player was none other than Matthew Sexton.
Sexton grew up in Clinton, Michigan, which is about fifteen minutes from where I live. Sexton attended Clinton high school and reset the record books, both in football and in track. Clinton has enjoyed loads of success in track and field in the local area, putting out competitive relay teams almost every year. Not only was Sexton part of the team that finished in second place in the 800-meter relay, but he also had a big part in Clinton’s 400-meter relay team that recorded the fastest time in the state. Sexton’s speed has already been noticed by Steelers fans, specifically on his 36 yard punt return against the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game.
While Ithaca may have come out on top in both championship games that the two schools met, Matthew definitely made his presence known in both contests. After Sexton’s big punt return against Dallas, even his high school rival's coach came out and recognized his explosiveness. Ithaca head coach Terry Hessbrook had to create schemes to stop Sexton both times the two teams met in the MHSAA Championship, and even he could not find a way to slow him down.
Don’t feel too bad Dallas we couldn’t stop him either! https://t.co/CptJbLw25x— Terry Hessbrook (@THessbrook) August 6, 2021
In football, Sexton made an impact even before his performance in the MHSAA Championship game, racking up 463 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on only 34 carries, according to maxpreps.com. As a receiver, Sexton averaged 28.2 yards per reception while adding 5 more touchdowns, and on defense, he added 51 total tackles, including 1 tackle for loss.
The phenom took a huge leap as a sophomore, as he was responsible for 95 total tackles, 41 solo, 9 for loss, and 2 sacks. On offense, Sexton still made a difference as a runner, but his greatest improvement was as a receiver. As a rusher, Sexton carried the ball 42 times for 565 yards and 10 touchdowns. As a receiver, the kid took the division by storm, hauling in 37 catches for a whopping 1,082 yards and 15 touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough to average 13.5 yards per carry and 29.2 yards per reception, which is insanely efficient, even for high school. He also added 287 punt return yards on 10 returns, which includes the return for a touchdown in the state championship game.
Sexton continued to rack up tackles on defense, but it was clear that his future would come as an offensive skill player. Although most people expected him to line up as a receiver more often than as a running back, he actually regained a larger role as runner his junior season, recording 1,250 yards on 88 carries (14.5 YPC) and 18 touchdowns. He followed up those impressive numbers with an incredible senior season despite his workload as a rusher being more than doubled. In 209 carries as a senior, Sexton ran for 2,392 yards (11.4 YPC) and 35 touchdowns. He also added 6 punt returns for 171 yards (28.5 yard average) and 7 kick returns for 276 yards (39.4 yard average).
His usage as a running back hurt his numbers as a receiver his final two seasons at Clinton, but he still remained efficient in his opportunities, displaying reliable hands and the speed to torch any secondary. Over his four seasons at Clinton, Sexton averaged an incredible 25 yards per reception.
I had the opportunity to reach out to Sexton’s high school coach Scott McNitt, and while he said that he utilized Sexton as a running back, he knew that his role at the next level would not be at that position.
“His senior year he became more of the focal point of the offense as a RB. Years before he was used as a slot, WR, RB ….we knew his post high school play would be as a slot receiver/wide out and kick returner. But in a small rural high school we used him everywhere.”
Despite the big numbers, Sexton was rated as only a two-star recruit by most of the major scouting sites. Sexton only received one offer, Eastern Michigan. He accepted the offer, playing four seasons for the Eagles before going undrafted in 2020. During his time at Eastern, he caught 100 passes for 1,335 yards in an offense that was far from elite, generally finishing between 60th and 85th among FBS teams in total offense. He was also given limited opportunities as a return man, returning only 21 kicks for 353 yards and 2 punts for 77 yards over a four-year span.
Sexton was given the opportunity to participate in Michigan State’s 2021 pro day, and after catching the eyes of scouts with his low 4.3 40 time, the Steelers inked him to a deal. He was not given much of a chance to make this team one month ago, but if he performs at a high level for the remainder of the preseason, he could easily beat out Ray-Ray McCloud as the team’s fifth receiver and lead return man.
When I asked Coach McNitt about what he saw out of Sexton from a coach’s perspective, he began by sharing some background on the situation Clinton’s team was in during Sexton’s high school years.
“His high school career was played at small rural high school of 350 kids- we had 25 kids on the team-he played four years of varsity football and accumulated 100 TDs, though considering he only played a half to three quarters in the majority of those games because we were winning games by large margins. He could have easily scored 150 touchdowns plus if he had played full games. We had other outstanding players as well who scored numerous times. He just loved playing football and competing and did whatever it took to help the team.”
On a roster loaded with talent at wide receiver, you not only need the talent, but you also need the work ethic and competitiveness to be better than the competition. When I asked McNitt about the attributes Sexton brought to the table, this is what he had to say.
“Two of his biggest assets are obviously his speed and his competitiveness. He wouldn’t back down to any challenge and he pushed himself beyond whatever the expectation was. He was so dedicated to training.”
McNitt gave me more insight on Sexton’s track background while also sharing an interesting story of how he first found out about the speedster.
“He was a phenomenal track athlete as well, running the 100-200-400 and several relays. State champion 100m (11.0) his junior year and was on 4X 100 relay state champion team his senior year. This really helped him develop more strength and speed, though football was his love.
“His older bother Jesse was a tremendous player for us too and what we thought was a fast kid. But Jesse always reminded me that his youngest brother who at the time would have been 5th/6th grade was faster and better, and I always chuckled like no way, but sure enough Jesse was absolutely correct.”
McNitt concluded his response by reiterating that Sexton’s incredible speed combined with his competitiveness is what makes him a difference maker and hopefully a productive NFL receiver for years to come.
“Over 33 years of coaching high school football I’ve coached tremendous players with all kinds of abilities, but Mathew had the speed factor like no other player in all those years to set him apart. It was a pleasure to watch him through the years develop into the player and person he has become. He’s just a competitor like no other and we hope he can make the Steelers and fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL.”
The best comparison I have for Sexton is Tampa Bay receiver Scottie Miller, another MAC standout. Miller's incredible speed and ability to create separation down the field made it difficult for opposing corners to cover him. Miller was more productive than Sexton in college, but Miller was on a team that, despite its overall struggles, utilized him better and made him the focal point of their offense. Miller also displayed tremendous quickness off the line of scrimmage as well as the ability to accelerate and get to top speed quickly. Sexton has displayed those same qualities at every level, whether it be at Clinton High School, Eastern Michigan, or currently, with the Pittsburgh Steelers. If Matt Canada and Danny Smith can find ways to utilize this guy on both offense and special teams, he could become a dangerous weapon for years to come.
Sexton’s chances of making this roster are far from certain, but you can bet that this Steelers fan, who grew up just minutes away from where he did, will be rooting harder than anyone for him to have a successful career with the greatest franchise in professional sports. Sexton’s NFL dream is about to come true, and if he performs at a high level in the final two preseason games, that dream will become a reality.