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Matias bucked tradition for football

Every Thanksgiving, the Matias family sits down to dinner for a little slice of adopted Americana. A turkey is prepared and set at the center of the table, serving as a tribute to a new country's tradition and to immigrant families like theirs who settled in America seeking greater opportunity.

"And then nobody touches the turkey," says Josue Matias, who left the Dominican Republic and settled with his family in Union City, New Jersey, when he was 6 years old. "We have a turkey just to say we have a turkey."

In the United States, few things pair better with turkey than football, but crediting football as even maintaining niche status in the Dominican Republic would be generous. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, not a single Dominican Republic native has ever played in an NFL game.

Matias, a Florida State senior who is listed as the No. 3 draft-eligible guard by ESPN, hopes to be the first next season.

"To me, that's pretty exciting," said Matias.

Matias was forcefully nudged into baseball -- a sport he said he "extremely hated" -- as a child in the Dominican Republic and in Union City, which could be described as a deep Giancarlo Stanton blast away from Manhattan. In Union City, where 84.7 of the population of roughly 66,500 is Hispanic or Latino, according to 2010 census data, baseball or soccer cleats are earmarked as early birthday presents for young boys.

Such was the case for Matias, who was pegged by his father as a future torchbearer for Dominican power hitters. But when Matias' dad bought him batting gloves as a gift, Matias would leave them at the ballpark after practice and then claim it was an accident.

"My dad always thought I would be like Sammy Sosa," said Matias, who remembers his father crying as the third-base coach after Matias hit a two-out, walk-off home run in Little League.

Matias, a hulking figure even as an adolescent, gravitated toward football. He said he was belittled by his classmates in a predominantly Hispanic school for "wasting" his size on football.

An early education in football is key for the sport's growth among Hispanics, said Wilbur Valdez, the coach at Union City High School and a fullback at Miami in the late 1990s.

"It all depends on when the kids start playing the sport [and] if they're exposed to the sport at an early age, and if the measurables are there," said Valdez.

Matias' three older half-brothers, who came to America with their mother years earlier, introduced him to the sport. By the time he was a junior in high school, word had spread of Matias' Division I potential, and the scholarships and courting from dozens of schools reached a saturation level in December and January of his senior year at Union City.

It was a confusing process for the entire Matias family, especially because much of his family still speaks Spanish, which was Matias' first language; it's exclusively Spanish when he talks to his parents or brothers.

Then-Seminoles assistant James Coley is Cuban-American and fluent in Spanish, and he was able to connect with Matias' family as few college coaches could. But Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett had to help close the deal and sign Matias. A snowstorm canceled head coach Jimbo Fisher's in-home visit.

"My dad didn't know a lick [of English] and he'd try to talk with his hands," Matias said, "and Coach Trickett's trying to talk to him with a West Virginia accent."

Matias' work on the field, however, is not restricted by language barriers. He's a powerful run-blocker yet agile enough to keep up with running backs to make a cut block 20 yards downfield. Trickett has molded Matias into one of the country's best interior offensive linemen, and Matias will likely be one of the first guards drafted next spring. Matias hopes that paves the way for future Dominican-born players.

"If you really want something, you can go out and do it. It doesn't matter what your tradition says," Matias said. "Dominicans say baseball, but no, I like football."