BEFORE LAST week, Temple football had produced four All-Americas, each of whom played between 1970 and 1986. None were defensive players. One, offensive lineman Bill Singletary, had his number (64) retired. Another, quarterback Steve Joachim, won the Maxwell Award. Running back Paul Palmer finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

Now, senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich has gone past all of them as the most celebrated Owl ever to put on a helmet.

And it might not even be close. The Connecticut native won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's best defender. He was also a first-teamer on four A-A teams.

So how come the 6-1, 230-pounder didn't have any other FBS scholarship offers coming out of high school? Try to keep that in mind come signing day.

"You always dream about that stuff," said Matakevich, who will also be recognized by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association at its annual banquet on Feb. 1 as Amateur Athlete of the Year. "It's been surreal."

North Broad gave him a chance. In return, he gave Temple everything he had, for four years. It ended up making the kind of difference that defines legacies.

"It wasn't just me winning those awards," he said. "It was all the rest of the guys. I hope the kids coming in realize, 'Hey, a kid from Temple can do something special.' It's a great opportunity for kids that get overlooked to come here and make the best of it.

"When I was on these trips, people were saying, 'Where's Temple?' You just have to explain yourself. I wouldn't want to be any other place in the country. They're sort of shocked when I said that. I truly mean it."

So how do you put an appropriate value on that? He became an ambassador for a program that's never had an identity. And it was the way he did it, as much as what he did. Maybe the most impressive part was, he didn't change. The only thing that did was the Owls going from 2-10 in 2013 to 10-3 this season with a chance to break a 36-year-old Temple record for victories if they beat Toledo (9-2) in Tuesday night's Boca Raton (Fla.) Bowl.

Did we mention that he never once missed a practice, which of course seems almost impossible?

"You have to be tough to play this game," Matakevich said. "Kids now see us (winning). They don't know what we went through (to get here)."

Sometimes, it's mostly about the journey. He epitomized a senior group that oozed blue-collar. Along the way he turned into the face of this transformation. He never backed away from whatever that entailed.

"We've grinded next to Tyler for four years," said defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis, who will go with Matakevich and cornerback Tavon Young to the Senior Bowl. "His success reflected our success. We're doing things that haven't been done here before. It's been incredible, to see the steps we've made together. And from the start, he's been the ideal teammate.

"He'd trade all those accolades for a win over Houston (in the American Conference title game). That's who he is. It's what matters to him."

Best yet, Matakevich embraced the inherent challenges. When he was a sophomore, coach Matt Rhule showed him and the rest of the linebackers a highlight reel of what they were doing wrong. It was, well, enlightening.

"It was probably about a 20-play clip," Matakevich recalled rather fondly. "He didn't even finish it. But a half-hour (still) went by. We were making tackles, but they're, like, 10 yards downfield. He was pretty much telling us how soft we were. He just wanted us to get better."

And to this day, fellow senior Nate D. Smith will tell him that he's really the team's top linebacker.

"We always said, 'Meet you at the ball,' " Matakevich said with a knowing smile. "I had so much fun running around with them. When you're playing, sometimes you lost sight of the fact that you're supposed to have fun. We definitely enjoyed it."

Rhule understands exactly what he's losing. There's nothing he can do about it except hope that the spirit Matakevich imparted remains an integral part of life at 10th and Diamond. Which, of course, might go down as his greatest accomplishment.

"It was powerful, what he did," Rhule marveled. "Everybody across the country was talking about Temple. He changed their notions about what Temple is. That's a testament to his will. When you're best player believes in everything you believe in, you have a great program.

"He showed that someone from Temple can stand next to a kid from Alabama and a kid from Penn State and win. And he deserved it. He's the kind of guy people can root for. You tell him he can't, all he does is make you shut up. Every time we asked him to do something he answered. He gave of himself. Whatever it is, he has it.

"He's earned his place in history."

So in 20 years, what does Matakevich want people to say about his college career?

"That I was one of the seniors who made an impact . . . (and) were definitely part of the turning point," he thoughtfully offered. "I don't see myself (as a multi-award winner). I think I'm on one of the best teams in the country. That's something I hope rides with us."

All the way to the top of the list.

On Twitter: @mikekerndn