FARMINGTON — Fresh off the second start of his collegiate career, Matthew Hegarty knows his best football is yet to come.
Hegarty, a 2011 graduate of Aztec High School, earned his first two starts on the offensive line for Notre Dame during the Fighting Irish's final two games of the season, including the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium in New York City on Dec. 28.
"This season, we had some injuries on the offensive line. I moved around to some different areas, but having the opportunity to come in here at the end and play has been a really fun opportunity," Hegarty said on Dec. 22 in a phone interview from South Bend, Ind.
Hegarty started at center in the regular season finale at Stanford and then against Rutgers in the bowl game. He took over for Nick Martin, who injured a knee against Brigham Young University.
It was a refreshing return to the field for Hegarty, who was sidelined at the end of 2012 after suffering a mild stroke on Nov. 8, 2012. He eventually had surgery to repair two small holes in his heart that had caused the stroke.
"We are very excited that he has had a chance to battle back for a spot on the o-line," said Matthew Hegarty's mother, Stacy. "Getting a chance to prove that he can handle the job is huge for him."
Matthew Hegarty, who stands at 6 feet 5 inches tall, is 305 pounds and has the lowest body fat index of any of Notre Dame's offensive linemen, according to his father, Bryan Hegarty.
His surgically repaired heart is now performing better than it ever had before the stroke, with his blood absorbing 20 percent more oxygen than it previously had.
"Matt is looking forward to fighting for a starting position next year," Bryan Hegarty said. "We honestly thank God how things have turned out, whether he continues as a starter or not. Matt still had a big fight next year to secure a starting position. It never gets easy."
Notre Dame will lose four offensive linemen to graduation in the spring, including two starters. Matthew Hegarty and Martin both return at the center position next season, though they could be shuffled into new positions.
Matthew Hegarty hopes to do enough in the offseason and in the summer to earn a starting spot.
"I want to focus on improving my blocking and my recognition of different schemes, different defensive lines run," he said. "I want to improve my football IQ. There is always space to learn."
Matthew said he also hopes to spend time in the weight room trying to get stronger and faster, something he wasn't able to focus on 100 percent last year after the stroke.
"I am lucky to have a talented offensive line coach (Harry Hiestand) who demands a lot out of us. I have a great opportunity to improve," Matthew Hegarty said.
After sitting out his freshman season after being declared a redshirt, Matthew still has two years of NCAA eligibility left.
"He still has two years to go and, with so many substitutions on the o-line right now, we can't ask for a better opportunity," Stacy Hegarty said.