Former National Football League player Matt Lengel, a leader at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill in Hamilton, will be watching some of his friends play this weekend for the Bengals and other teams across the league.
Lengel knows many of them because he has a way of being in optimal places, like a good tight end should.
He grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pa., about 40 minutes from the Spooky Nook indoor sports mecca, the largest in North America, which opened in 2013 in a gigantic former flooring-materials distribution center. It hosts tournaments that sometimes attract 10,000-15,000 athletes and their families on some weekends.
As a football player for Eastern Kentucky University, and later with pro teams including the Bengals and Super Bowl LI-winning New England Patriots in 2017, Lengel worked out at the Spooky Nook in Manheim, Pa., which owner Sam Beiler describes as “just about 14 acres under one roof.”
Lengel, who is 6′7″ and had a playing weight of 265, worked with trainer Lim Launer in the sports performance section along with other pro athletes in baseball, football and basketball He had a five-year professional career that included catches from quarterbacks Tom Brady and Andy Dalton.
When a delegation of Hamilton city officials and business leaders visited Spooky Nook in early 2017, officials there mentioned Lengel regularly worked out there.
A nice coincidence
About that same time, Lengel and new wife Lauren bought a home in Mason, deciding to settle there even though he would later play for Cleveland, Houston and the Bengals again.
“We moved here, and then I had a conversation with Jim (Launer),” Lengel recalled. “He said, ‘You know, we’re buying a building out there and we’re making another Spooky Nook about 20 minutes down the road from you.’
“It just blew my mind,” he said. “I couldn’t even believe it. So when I decided to retire, I was just like, ‘Hey, man, I just want to be a part and help out some kind of way,” he said. “I care about Jim, I care about Sam (Beiler), and obviously, Spooky Nook helped me accomplish my dreams. I wanted to be part of it.”
He’s now director of facility operations in Hamilton. When Spooky Nook hosts tournaments, “it’ll be my job to make sure everything’s set up, all the organizers have everything they need. That the experience at Spooky Nook is as good as it can be,” he said.
Spooky Nook, when it broke ground in Hamilton, was estimated to open at the end of December 2021. The conference center and hotel part of the complex now is to open in March, but the indoor sports complex has been delayed to an unknown date later this year, owner Sam Beiler told the Journal-News earlier this month.
Football life/softball wife
Lengel’s football life started while he was asleep.
“I was taking a nap one day, and I was in second grade,” he said. “I had this dream that I was holding the Lombardi Trophy and I was playing football and was in the NFL, and I had never even thought about playing football before. And just I woke up, and I was like, ‘Dad, I want to play football.’”
The son of a police officer remembers getting his equipment for the first time. He played fullback and linebacker. His teams won a couple of Pee Wee Super Bowls.
“I had a great childhood, fun time playing football,” he said. He grew up a fan of the (then) Oakland Raiders because hometown hero Jon Ritchie played for them (1998-2002) and the Philadelphia Eagles (2003-04).
“We’d get done playing games and I’d go to the restaurant with my parents and I’d just sit there on Sundays and watch football all day all over again,” he said.
By the time he played at Cumberland Valley High School, he was a tight end, because he was “too tall to play fullback.”
Northeastern University in Boston was one of two schools that offered him full scholarships, and he went there, his first experience living in a large city. But after the first season’s final game, the team was told the football program was ending. The school honored players’ scholarships through their college years, and let them transfer. He went to Eastern Kentucky University.
In college, he played 37 games across five seasons, with 33 catches for 361. He tore his ACL in the 2012 season opener, and re-injured that knee in 2013 after starting EKU’s first two games.
During his six-year college career, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and his master’s at EKU in physical education. While there, he met Lauren Cumbess, a softball pitcher and first baseman at the nearby University Kentucky who played in the Women’s College World Series and threw a no-hitter against Georgia.
Pro football career
Lengel wasn’t drafted by an NFL team, but the Bengals called afterward, and he made the practice squad his first year.
“I was still hungry to keep achieving more, but I was never going to complain about being on the practice squad, because at the time there was only 10 guys on each time that made up a practice squad,” he said.
Also, players could be signed from a squad to another team or activated onto the team’s roster.
The Bengals then included Tyler Eifert, C.J. Uzomah and Andy Dalton.
“It was a great unit to be a part of, because that was the last time the Bengals went to the playoffs,” he said.
With the practice squad, “I was on the sideline for that last playoff game against the Steelers. That was a heartbreak, but I was fortunate to get re-signed at the end of the year, signed a futures contract and ended up making the practice squad again the next year. And that’s when I got signed off the practice squad to go to the Patriots.”
Signed balls from Brady, Dalton
A top moment in his career was a Patriots game on Christmas Eve of 2016, when he made his first NFL catch and became the 64th player to catch a Tom Brady touchdown, against the New York Jets.
“I was very fortunate to keep that ball. I actually got Tom to sign it for me,” he said. That ball and a signed touchdown ball from Andy Dalton have places of honor in his home, along with jerseys that he and Lauren wore during their playing careers.
Another highlight was when he realized that second-grade dream and put his lips to the Lombardi Trophy. He says he wore his ring only once, mainly because Super Bowl rings these days are so large and gaudy. It was when he and Lauren wed in Lexington, among college friends and family.
“That was fun because I was around people who helped me get to where I wanted to be, and it was something I wanted to share with them,” he said. “For a while at my wedding, I couldn’t find my ring, but I trusted it was with somebody I trusted, so I ended up getting it back.”
Jim Launer, who trained him at Spooky Nook as director of sports performance, has “obviously accumulated more and more departments and now he’s the president of the company,” Lengel said.
What Spooky Nook will be like
A big thing Lengel enjoyed about Spooky Nook was the electricity when tournaments were happening or people were training in their sports nearby as he worked out.
“The environment, being around all these sports,” he said. “You’d see so many athletes that are all training and playing to be as good as they can be, and they’re leaving all their passion out on the court, or on the field, whatever sport they’re playing. The energy in the building, the equipment, it’s an experience. It’s not just going to the gym to train. It’s fun.”
Top athletes from high schools, local colleges, pro teams and even those who were home during college breaks also gravitated to the training facilities. He envisions players from Greater Cincinnati and the Dayton area to use the Hamilton facilities, as well as entire local teams.
Kai Sotto, a 19-year-old, highly regarded 7-foot-3-inch basketball player from the Philippines, announced 13 months ago that he plans to launch his Kaiju Academy, to train younger basketball prospects. Kaiju is a Japanese term for monster, beast, or strange creature, Sotto said.
Spooky Nook also will have a fitness area for local people of all athletic levels.
For siblings of athletes, there will be activities like rock climbing, arcades and other entertainment within Spooky Nook, and the visitors coming from three-hour-drives or farther are expected to visit local shops, restaurants and bars within the city.
At the sports complex, “The equipment’s slowly starting to come in, and furniture’s slowly starting to come in,” Lengel said.
He’s giving tours and keeping enthusiasm up in the city despite the delay.
He thinks most local people don’t realize all the sports that can be played in the facility, which will have 28 basketball/volleyball courts.
“They obviously know all of our courts. They assume we’re just basketball and volleyball, but really, we’re the conference center, we’re the restaurants, we’re the space where people can come and just have a good time.”
And he ticks off just a few of the sports that can be played: including wrestling, futsal (indoor soccer), dance, cheerleading, almost any sport, except those requiring a swimming pool.
“The economic impact in the local area of Lancaster has been huge,” he said about the original location. “I think if you’re a local small business in the Hamilton area, just be ready, all-hands-on-deck when we open up, because it’s going to be a lot of people.”
Matt Lengel’s NFL/football observations
- Don’t be mad, Bengals fans, but former Cincinnati Bengal tight end Matt Lengel grew up a fan of the Raiders, the team Cincinnati plays today. That’s only because he was rooting for fullback Jon Ritchie, who played for the Raiders (1998-2002) and Philadelphia Eagles (2003-04). Ritchie was from Lengel’s hometown of Mechanicsburg, Pa., and also his high school, Cumberland Valley.
- Don’t worry, Lengel will be rooting for the Bengals, his team from 2015-16 and 2018, because he’s friends with some who are still on the team, and this is his new hometown.
- Lengel was also on the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, (2016-17), and was with the Cleveland Browns (’17) and Houston Texans (’18). He owns a Super Bowl ring, which he wore only once — at his wedding.
- A top career highlight was catching a New England touchdown pass from revered quarterback Tom Brady, who now plays for the Tampa Buccaneers. “That was pretty incredible,” Lengel said. “I remember that day vividly. My brother was in town, in Foxborough, that was the first game he got to see me play in the NFL. It was on Christmas Eve, three days before my birthday, and was my first catch in the NFL, and it was a touchdown from Tom Brady, so I was very fortunate to keep that ball. I actually got Tom to sign it for me.”
- What’s Brady like? ““He’s great. He was very nice and humble. He’s a fiery competitor, but all the greats are,” Lengel said. “The first time I went walking into the facility, on the Patriots, I was brand new, I go walking in. He sees me, he stops, he reaches his hand out, he says: ‘Hi, Matt. My name’s Tom Brady.’ He had already known my name. I’m sure he keeps up on the roster changes that happen. He was very soft-spoken, unless you run the wrong route. Then he’ll yell at ya, but that’s to be expected. He’s a great guy.”
- A Bengals catch from Andy Dalton was another highlight: “Being able to kiss the Lombardi (trophy, for winning the Super Bowl) and hoist that up. It was a dream come true. I also caught a touchdown from Andy Dalton, and I got him to sign that, too. And Andy’s a great guy.”
- Football is a rough sport. “It wasn’t the longest career in the NFL, or the most prestigious, but I’m very thankful for my experience, and it’s hard to get there,” Lengel said. “When I was with the Bengals the last week of the year in 2018, I ended up tearing my ACL in my left knee. And that was my third ACL I’ve done, along with my hip injury, my shoulder injury. My body had just kind of had it.” So after signing with the Indianapolis Colts, he later told them, “I wasn’t going to be showing up for camp,” retiring instead.
- Amazing longevity, given the injuries: With how many injuries pro football can cause, Lengel is astounded by how long players like Brady and former Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth (now with the L.A. Rams) have remained in the NFL. “Tom Brady was drafted before 9/11 happened. That’s crazy. And he’s still playing at a high level,” Lengel said. “The NFL’s the best of the best and the biggest, fastest, strongest, and unfortunately, there’s not many times injuries in the NFL are just subtle. You tend to just blow something out.”
- Lengel wore his Super Bowl ring only at his wedding to wife Lauren, in Lexington, Ky. “That was fun because I was around people who helped me get to where I wanted to be, and it was something I wanted to share with them.”
- Lengel’s brother Mike also is involved with football: He’s the head coach at the Seattle prep school, Lakeside School.
- His Bengals highlight: Against the Baltimore Ravens, Nov. 18, 2018, early in the third quarter, Lengel caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to put the Bengals up 14-7 (after the Randy Bullock extra point) in front of 70,077 at M&T Bank Stadium. But the Ravens won 24-21 in the first start in the league by their substitute quarterback Lamar Jackson, who ran for 117 yards in a game Ravens starter Joe Flacco didn’t play.