Hudson graduate Restifo enjoys life at sea and on the gridiron at the United States Merchant Marine Academy

Kent Weeklies
Matt Restifo carries the ball for the United States Merchant Marine Academy last fall. The 2017 Hudson graduate will be a rising senior at the New York-based service academy this fall.

A guy like Matt Restifo comes around once in a lifetime.

Just ask veteran head football coach Mike Toop.

“People like Matt Restifo is the reason why I still do this,” said Toop, who has been the head football coach at the United States Merchant Marine Academy since 2005.

Since he thinks so highly of his accomplished pupil, expect Toop to be on the sidelines for at least one more season.

Restifo, a 21-year-old rising senior at USMMA, hopes to continue his strong play after a stellar year on the gridiron the previous fall.

The 2017 Hudson graduate is a slot back for the Mariners, who finished 6-3 overall and 5-2 in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference last season.

Restifo carried the ball 48 times for 389 yards and four touchdowns in 2019. He also caught 11 passes for 162 yards and two TDs.

Restifo hopes to play during the week of Thanksgiving and possibly beyond this season.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs and win the NEWMAC,” he said. “We have never done that before. My freshman year, we went 6-4 and my sophomore year, we went 8-2.”

Of course, football is only a small portion of this renown service academy, which was established in 1943 in Kings Point, New York.

Last year, Restifo spent 330 days at sea. In other words, think Chuck Noland in the 2000 survival drama film “Cast Away.”

No radio, no TV, no internet and certainly no social media either.

“It’s a bit of a culture shock during the first couple of weeks,” Restifo said. “I had never stepped foot on a ship. It’s like a normal 9 to 5 job.”

As a result of this demanding lifestyle, Restifo has been trained in fields such as marine engineering, navigation and many other subjects, along with a healthy dose of classes.

“The biggest obstacle is the academics because they are so rigorous,” he said. “You have to fit them with your time at sea. It’s hard to be a student-athlete when you spend 300-plus days at sea.”

It wasn’t always that way, though.

Restifo spent four months on the ocean during his sophomore year. He plans to spend more time on land as a senior.

“My freshman year was a year of classes,” Restifo said. “It was an introduction to life at sea. The first two trimesters were classes and then my second trimester was four months at sea.”

And then there are the countless duties once he gets on the ship.

Restifo has been just about everywhere since he made his way toward the Great Neck in Nassau County. He has delivered various supplies in Virginia, California and Hawaii, along with across the ocean to European countries such as Spain and Greece.

Thanks to these — appropriately enough — boatload of duties, Restifo has fulfilled his academy’s motto quite admirably.

Deeds not words.

“Our ship supports the Navy,” Restifo said. “We refuel them and send them food. It’s a great experience.”

The same could be said about his football experience. In his case, though, the time on the gridiron is more about quality than quantity.

“Our coach is a graduate of USMMA,” Restifo said. ‘He understands the struggles we go through. The football team is the best part. When you’re a Division III athlete, you don’t get much praise.”

Restifo is the definition of a rarity.

Despite being just 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighing around 180 pounds, Restifo was born to be a gifted football player.

He was the starting slot receiver for the Explorers when they reached the state semifinals in 2014, ’15 and ’16.

“I never really cared about what people thought about my height,” Restifo said. “I liked playing football. That’s all that mattered to me. I wanted to extend my football career. Football is football no matter what level you play.”

As one can imagine, Restifo’s dedication and indifference to skeptics is a major reason why Toop cherishes his miniature but tough-as-nails recruit.

“He is, without question, the leader of the team,” the longtime coach said. “He has all of the interpersonal and character traits you want to see from young men. His academics are outstanding and he’s just an all-around athlete. He’s a football player in all respects.”

Due to a deadly respiratory tract infection known as COVID-19, Restifo was forced to stay on the ocean a bit longer than expected. Restifo was finally able to return home on May 20.

“We were stuck in the ocean because of the coronavirus,” he said. “We were stuck on the ship without getting out. It was pretty weird. It’s like the whole world erupted.”

Restifo will spend five years at the New York-based service academy before evaluating his options. One of those options is the United States Navy Reserve.

“We do have a military obligation right after we graduate,” Restifo said. “Right now, I’m going to stay open-minded. I’ve applied at a couple of services. I’ll go whatever I feel is best.”

Yes, Restifo will be busy in the next several months despite not having to live on a ship 90 percent of the time like he did the previous year.

However, Restifo can now focus on something a bit less taxing. And that something is what he loves more than just about anything.

The gridiron.

“This is our senior year,” he said. “None of us are going to play in the NFL. We want to go out the right way.”

Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, or @Faceto_Gannett.