Dennis Hastert taught Gary Matlock history, economics and government.
Hastert was his football coach, and his wrestling coach in 1973 when half the town of Yorkville — about 1,000 people back then — traveled to Champaign to see Matlock, a 112-pound senior, win a state championship.
Then Hastert helped arrange a wrestling scholarship for Matlock to the University of Illinois.
After graduation, Hastert got Matlock a job teaching and coaching wrestling at Lemont High School in the southwest suburbs.
“He assisted me along the way,” Matlock, 62, said Wednesday afternoon. “This little country boy who lived down along the river in the ghettos.”
A signed copy of Hastert’s autobiography, which contains passages about Matlock’s wrestling success, sits in a locked trophy case in Matlock’s home.
When reporters came knocking 11 months ago with questions about Hastert sexually abusing wrestlers, Matlock went to bat for his old coach. “Nothing. I didn’t know anything about that.”
But as Matlock watched live news coverage of Hastert’s sentencing Wednesday for making illegal cash withdrawals to pay hush money to a former wrestler he abused — and heard a federal judge call Hastert a “serial child molester” — the wall Matlock built to defend the man who helped shape his life crumbled.
“I accept what the courts says. I’m trying to let it sink in,” he said.
“I feel saddened, disappointed, frustrated. Not just for myself. For all the people that followed him through me, because I kind of started the ball rolling back then in this little community,” Matlock said, noting that his state championship was Hastert’s first.
Hastert’s coaching career snowballed from there, Matlock said. He became well-known and well-liked. And it helped propel him into politics.
“I’ve got a strong bond between what I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished and who’s influenced me and I’m proud of what I’ve done . . . and then all the sudden the eggshell gets cracked,” Matlock said.
“And now I’ve got to readjust my personal past. And I think I’m going to have to take a link out of it,” he said.
“I feel betrayed that I was influenced by a man of that character. Period.”
When you vouch for someone else’s character, Matlock said, in a way, yours is on the line, too.
“This is my reputation too that I stood up for him, I honored him, I talked to the news networks across the nation and the papers right here when no one else did. And now I got slapped in the face.”
Matlock admitted that another thought has crept into his mind.
“I could have been a victim of child molestation, of sexual misconduct,” he said.
Asked what he’d say to Hastert if he had the chance, Matlock offered these words: “Denny. I’m very disappointed in you. I’m saddened that I’ve had this personal connection with you for this many years and now I find out you’re not the person you showed me to be.”
Matlock continued: “But I would give the man respect. He made his mistake early in life. Did he keep making those mistakes for the next 40 years? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t walk up and slap him in the face. I mean look at the man. He’s a human being.”
Their success was intertwined. And Matlock, despite the fact that Hastert admitted to sexual abuse in open court Wednesday, was having a hard time wrapping his head around it and reconciling that man with the man he’d held up as a hero.
His mind flashed back over the 46 years he’d known Hastert. And then flashed to the signed autobiography in his trophy case.
He thought: “I’m taking it down. I’m putting it in a drawer.”
But he later changed his mind.
“I’m going to leave it right there where it’s at until I talk to him personally. And I will talk to him personally.”
He added one more thing: “I won’t sleep tonight.”