It is no easy drive from Aztec, New Mexico, to the University of Oregon’s football fields in Eugene. Nineteen-and-a-half hours by car, in fact, going by the directions Google Maps gave Matt Hegarty.

Hegarty, the former Notre Dame offensive lineman who transferred to Oregon and can play immediately this fall as a graduate student with remaining eligibility, began that very route on Saturday morning. By afternoon he was somewhere in Utah, his vehicle loaded with his belongings — not to mention his 6-foot-4, 295-pound frame — yet wasn’t complaining about the one-man endurance test before him.

“(Oregon) was kind of one of my first loves,” Hegarty told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Saturday, in his first comments about his transfer since UO announced his addition May 26. “Oregon always had a good place in my heart.”

Hegarty views the drive, and its destination, from a rare perspective. After suffering, and recovering fully from, a mild stroke in 2012, he knows a thing or two about arduous journeys. And Google’s itinerary didn’t reflect the true length of his winding, six-year path back to Oregon. The program that started his path in college football’s spotlight — in a hilariously awkward fashion he can laugh about now — welcomes back the former Fighting Irish center who holds valuable starting experience on a UO line with little of it.

“I loved Notre Dame,” said Hegarty, who started 11 of Notre Dame’s 13 games in 2014 and can play tackle and guard but found a familiarity at center. But in the spring, Irish coaches surprised him with a request to rotate among all three jobs in 2015, and he became wary of his playing time in the arrangement.

“I’d do anything for the program,” he said. “It was hard for me to take a step back and try to put a balance on it of, what’s going to work the best for me while at the same time try to go into my last year of playing football thinking about my football future.”

The same day Hegarty received his scholarship release from Notre Dame in March, he contacted Oregon’s coaches about a possible transfer. Hegarty was familiar with offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, who recruited him as a prep, and knew the graduation of four-year starter Hroniss Grasu left a void on Oregon’s depth chart.

A “cast of thousands” tried out at center during UO’s spring practices, Greatwood said in April, but he gave little indication any held an edge after May’s spring game, which featured a few high snaps.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is expected to address, for the first time, the roster additions of Hegarty and former Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams, UO’s two fifth-year graduate transfers, among other topics with reporters Tuesday at a press gathering.

Hegarty, who is enrolled in a one-year psychology graduate school program, has not been guaranteed playing time at Oregon but is savvy and tough after recovering from a November 2012 stroke. One month later, he underwent surgery that patched two holes in his heart, which were almost a combined one-inch wide, that had gone undetected since birth.

Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood is seeking to replace Hroniss Grasu (right), Oregon’s four-year starter at center. 

But long before he became a highly sought-after de facto recruit this spring, Hegarty was a prep lineman largely clueless about the recruiting process living in a 6,000-person town in northwestern New Mexico — three hours to Albuquerque, and seven each way to Denver and Phoenix. It was far enough off the beaten path that even a seasoned recruiter might have had to call up Google Maps himself. Still, Oregon was first to invite him to a summer camp after his sophomore year.

“I was like are those the guys with the diamond steel plates on their uniform shoulders?” said Hegarty, referring to the look of Oregon’s jerseys back then.

Said Bryan Hegarty, Matt’s father: “We didn’t understand it at the time. His high school coach said, ‘This is a heck of a deal, we’re going.'”

Two bags were packed for the four-day trip. One with Matt’s personal items and clothing, the other all football gear. But his bag of personal clothes was lost en route and, as Bryan Hegarty recalled, Matt was late to camp, without time to change.

Frazzled, he rushed to Oregon’s fields wearing his street clothes.

“I showed up the first day and they’re doing weigh-ins and we’re running 40 (yard dashes),” said Matt Hegarty, who had to bum a pair of socks off his dorm roommate that week before his bag arrived on the last day. “The guy next to me is in track spikes and leggings I’m running in a polo, checkered shorts and Air Max (sneakers). It was funny.

“I remember Chip Kelly was doing the timing. I ran through and he started laughing. He said, ‘How about you go ahead and take the change out of your pocket and try it again?’ I had everything on me. It was a tough way to start.”

Count his latest trip to Eugene as a confident bet that this is the perfect way to finish his college career. Six years after he was introduced to major college football, and three months after he was a lineman without a team, 19 hours in a car doesn’t seem so bad.

At the very least, he knows he’ll arrive this time with all his luggage.

— Andrew Greif
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503-221-8100
@andrewgreif

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