This story appears in FCA Magazine’s May/June 2018.
Every day, on his seven-mile drive to work, a couple of quasi-monuments catch the eye of Sam Houston State baseball coach Matt Deggs.
One is known locally as the “Walls Unit”, a state penitentiary outlined with two-story red-brick walls that has the most active execution chamber in the United States. The prison serves as a metaphorical marker for Deggs.
“The only thing more agonizing than living in an actual prison where somebody put you,” he said, “is living in an invisible prison where you’ve put yourself.”
The second monument is the ordinary Huntsville Farm Supply a block away. It serves as a more literal landmark for the lowest time in Deggs’ life — when a can’t-miss coaching career and a marriage to his high school sweetheart were both unraveling, seemingly to the point of no return.
“After I was fired (by Texas A&M in 2011), I had to work at a feed mill, loading 18 wheelers with cattle feed, horse feed, deer corn,” Deggs said. “It’s just a stark reminder of how fragile this deal is.”
Those visuals help craft a perspective that allows Deggs to treasure where God has him now: in the middle of a redemption journey that has redefined his identity, redirected a career into a calling, and restored his family.
“He has this charisma that says, ‘I know who I am, and I can help you become who you are,’” said Matt Johnson, Piney Woods West FCA Area Director. “He has a genuine heart.”
For Deggs, that mission is rooted in one of his favorite verses, Isaiah 43:19 (NIV), a refrain for the new life God has given him: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
• • •
Deggs grew up in Texas City, a blue-collar town just across from Galveston that largely revolves around the oil refinery industry. He recalls hearing and responding to the gospel as a 10-year-old. Mostly, though, he remembers being a baseball player who embodied much of Texas City’s work ethic, a grinder who scrapped to be seen by coaches.
“My best tool” he said, “was passion.”
Baseball paved the way for Deggs to be the first member of his family to graduate from college. He also went on to play professionally for a few years after that.
During that time, he dated Kathy Saldua. Their families knew each other, and Deggs’ interest in Kathy outpaced hers in him for a while.
“Baseball was always a part of him,” Kathy said. “I didn’t exactly know what that would entail.”
For most of the nine years they dated, Deggs was chasing the dream of playing. In 1996, he took a job as a graduate assistant coach at Northwestern State University, serving on staff with soon-to-be coaching stars Dave Van Horn and Rob Childress.
Deggs and Kathy were married June 28, 1997, and she left her teaching job in Texas to join her husband in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Just two weeks after the newlyweds unpacked, Deggs took the head coaching job at Texarkana Junior College. They were on the move again.
“I’ll just say I had no idea what being married to a coach would be like,” Kathy said.
Following his first season at Sam Houston State in 2015, Matt Deggs led the Bearkats to consecutive 40-plus win seasons and Southland Conference Tournament titles in 2016-17.
• • •
Five highly successful springs at Texarkana boosted Deggs’ profile and created a chance to reunite with Van Horn, who had taken over at Arkansas.
There, he met Josh Foliart, who had played football at Arkansas and was working with a ministry called Arkansas Athletes Outreach. Foliart, who was assigned the baseball team, connected with Deggs on campus.
“He was hungry for something more,” Foliart said, “and we just tried to fall in love with Jesus together.”
Deggs rededicated himself to Christ in 2004, but life was far from perfect — in his soul or at home. The balance between professional and personal success was off-kilter.
On the field, Deggs was outstanding, one of the nation’s up-and-coming hitting coaches and recruiting coordinators. As busy as he was during the season turning Arkansas into one of the best offenses in the Southeastern Conference, his schedule was unpredictable during the offseason, and “he was married to baseball,” as Kathy put it.
Away from the field, Deggs had a weakness for alcohol. His addiction was masked to many but was eroding his relationship with Kathy and Christ.
“I’ve known the Lord since I was 10 years old, but what was lacking was intent,” Deggs said. “What I lost in all of this was the condition of my heart. And that’s why I say I was living as an enemy of the cross even though I knew Christ during all that time.”
Internally, he was in the middle of a deep descent. On the outside, however, very little was slowing Deggs’ climb in the coaching ranks.
• • •
Childress arrived at Texas A&M in 2006 and was charged with breathing new life into the program. Deggs was one of Childress’ first hires. The Deggs family (son Kyler was born in 1999, daughter Klaire in 2003, and Kathy was eight months pregnant with Khloe when they left for College Station) was headed back to Texas.
The Aggies underwhelmed in the 2006 season. Deggs hit the road recruiting that summer and was questioning his coaching — perhaps for the first time.
“I was super transactional as a coach, and I always had been talented coaching-wise and baseball-wise,” he said. “But I’d never defined how I coach — what you do, how you do it and what your end result is going to be.”
He was watching TV one night when he found a documentary on wolves.
“In a real pack, their survival depends on each other,” Deggs said, “and every wolf in the pack has a job.”
He translated that to baseball, and the “Pack Mentality” was born. Players who fit into four categories — runners, hitters, bombers and ball players — became attractive to Texas A&M. Coupled with the right attitude, approach, intensity and toughness, the Aggies took off.
From 2007 through 2009, Deggs oversaw a lineup that batted .309 with 232 home runs, more than 2,000 hits, almost 1,300 RBI and 300-plus stolen bases.
The baseball part of life was exceptionally good, but that had never been the problem for Deggs. He was still drinking, and family life was decidedly less fruitful. Kathy began resenting baseball.
“I never stopped loving Matt, but there were times when I hated who he was and how he was treating me and our family,” Kathy said. “I just always had this hope that he’d stop. I kept thinking, ‘This is the final straw,’ and, ‘This will be the bottom.’ And then it wouldn’t be.
“It just completely spun out of our control.”
Just before the start of the 2011 season, Deggs was out at Texas A&M. A news release indicated he resigned to “focus on personal health and family matters,” but he and Kathy knew all that lay beneath that statement. Deggs said Childress didn’t fire him; he fired himself.
“I was a mess, and my life was in the gutter,” Deggs said. “I was a drunk, and I couldn’t put the beer bottle down.
The saddest part is that I proved I couldn’t quit drinking for God. I couldn’t quit drinking for my family. I couldn’t quit drinking for me.”
Stripped of his marquee job and reputation in college baseball, Deggs tried to start over. He applied for a few baseball jobs, but nothing worked.
Deggs eventually got in touch with a man from his kids’ school who owned a feed mill. He started work there on his 40th birthday, making a fraction of what he had at Texas A&M. Kathy began working at a local preschool, and they tried to patch together enough of an income to cover their bills. The environment at the preschool also ministered to Kathy.
“I wasn’t feeling the love I needed from my husband,” she said, “so God was giving it to me through the women and children there.”
The feed mill gave way to pharmaceutical sales, thanks to a connection through Jeremy Talbot, who had been on Texas A&M’s staff with Deggs. Sales brought in a little more money, but that time saw very little change between Deggs and Kathy, despite a few attempts at counseling.
“I told him I wanted a divorce,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what happened to you, but we can’t go on like this anymore.
“Of course, Matt just didn’t give up, and he slowly started to come around.”
So did baseball.
• • •
Talbot learned that Louisiana-Lafayette’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator was leaving, so he again called Deggs and encouraged him to reach out before the job was advertised. That led to a meeting with Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux, whose demeanor and approach extended grace to Deggs.
Robichaux said he didn’t need all the details about Deggs past, but he did want to know what Deggs hoped for in the future. Robichaux offered Deggs the job because he said Deggs was broken and needed healing for himself as well as for his wife and family.
Deggs went to Lafayette while Kathy and the kids finished the school year in College Station. After 430 days outside of college baseball, Deggs was back on the field.
More important, God’s grace — first through Robichaux, but then in Deggs’ own heart — started to take hold during his time at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Near the start of his second season, Feb. 28, 2013, Deggs left alcohol behind — for good.
“Unless we totally decide to surrender and just hold His hand and go where He leads us, then everything else is impossible,” he said. “It wasn’t until I forgave myself for a lot of things and started living a life of faith and sacrifice and obedience that I started to see good fruit — maybe for the first time in years — in my marriage, my family and my professional life.”
The three seasons in Lafayette also served as a reminder that Deggs was a top-flight coach. The Ragin’ Cajuns were one of the best offenses in the country and were just one win from the College World Series in 2013.
Out of their native Texas once again, Deggs and Kathy grew spiritually as they relied on God even more in their marriage.
“She is so steadfast,” Deggs said, “and that whole sequence really started a snowball effect of healing and coming together.”
Matt Deggs and his wife, Kathy Deggs, have been married 20 years.
• • •
Texas has always been home for Deggs and Kathy. They were in Louisiana for the second time and had been in Arkansas once, but they always felt God would bring them back to Texas.
In 2015, a call came from Huntsville. The Sam Houston State job was open. Deggs still remembers Kathy’s devotion from the morning he was hired. It was built around Genesis 28:15 (NIV): “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land...”
"People are thirsty for something bigger than themselves, and that something is Jesus Christ." — Matt Deggs.While not a major conference powerhouse such as Texas or Texas A&M, Sam Houston State boasts a decorated athletic department and a commitment to its baseball program. Huntsville is about two hours from Texas City and the Deggs family. There was a lot to like about taking the helm of the Bearkats, and the early returns on several fronts have proved Deggs was the right hire.
Culture has been among the highest priorities.
With Deggs’ blessing and encouragement, FCA has flourished in the Bearkats’ clubhouse. This past fall, the team did a nine-week study on the idol of sports. Few seats are open at the weekly Bible study, and some of the players are starting their own small groups.
“They’re natural leaders,” Johnson said, “and they’re becoming even better leaders. And now that they know that sports is a platform for them, they’re using that influence for Jesus.”
Foliart also has been an adviser, and he has been duly impressed.
“I’ve been around a lot of athletic cultures,” Foliart said, “and I’ve not found one like the one (at Sam Houston State). He’s been so transparent about his own story and so willing to just live it out in front of them — good, bad, ugly — so they feel free.
“They’re going to remember Matt Deggs for the rest of their lives.”
• • •
The on-field product, of course, has thrived. Sam Houston State has won more than 40 games and the Southland Conference Tournament the past two years. The Bearkats took out national seed Texas Tech in the Lubbock Regional last June before falling to Florida State in the Super Regional.
Yet, it was in that loss in Tallahassee, Florida, that Deggs became a celebrity, and the light of Jesus shined brightly. His team suffered a season-ending 19-0 loss to Florida State. In the hours and days after the game, though, the sports world buzzed because of what Deggs and his players said during their postgame news conference.
Sam Houston State’s values and culture — rooted in the gospel — were on full display.
Deggs spoke about sacrifice, that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for another (John 15:13).
He reiterated that his focus as a coach and leader is not on reaching the College World Series, but “building and saving lives.”
His players hailed Deggs’ humility. One proclaimed him the best college baseball coach in the country, “because (Deggs) would never say that about himself.”
Video of that news conference has been viewed more than 40 million times since, including pro players and famous athletes who shared it on social media. The outpouring of support and response prompted Deggs to write his autobiography, 15 to 28: A Story of God’s Love, Power and Redemption.
The book has given readers an insight into the full picture of Deggs’ victories and struggles. It has dredged up some painful memories and produced a lot of heart-to-heart talks as Deggs and Kathy continue to heal. Their daughter, Klaire, read the book in two days.
In all areas, the book has revealed Deggs to be a transformed leader, now fearless in his vulnerability.
“When leaders give a window into their soul, it provides a mirror for those who are listening and those who are following,” Foliart said. “His transparency says, ‘Hey, I can be broken and still be bold in my faith. I can be broken and still be a successful husband and father and coach, or whatever it is they’re going to do. They want to know that in their brokenness they can still be something significant.”
Sam Houston State has seen the best of Deggs. Fortunately, so have Kathy and their kids.
“He became a rock,” Kathy said. “Of course, we know we’re in God’s hands, but he has become the husband I needed and the father my kids needed. It brings peace and comfort.”
That change, Deggs said, has very little to do with him — but, rather, everything to do with his Lord and Savior.
“People are thirsty for something bigger than themselves, and that something is Jesus Christ,” he said. “Jesus was very transformational. He was never transactional. He was a living, breathing picture of what we were created to be.”
Photos courtesy of Erik Williams Photography.