Former NWF student-athletes enjoying life as newlyweds

July 26, 2016

They spent their playing days on the baseball diamond and softball diamond, but two former student-athletes at Northwest Florida State College are now bonded by the real thing.

Matthew “Muggsy” Howard, who played baseball at NWF in 2011 and 2012, and Michelle (Phelps) Howard, who played for the Raider softball team in 2012 and 2013, were married this summer in Miramar Beach. The couple now call Crestview home. Matthew is a staff accountant in the Crestview office of Carr, Riggs & Ingram and is working toward his CPA license, while Michelle is the new AP Economics teacher and head softball coach at Pine Forest High School in Pensacola.

Howard marriage 1

The two met at NWF while Michelle, who went to Pace High School, was in her freshman year and Matthew, who hails from Gadsden, Ala., was a sophomore. Although the two knew each other in passing, they hadn’t interacted much until one day in January 2012 when they were both getting lunch, Michelle noticed she and Matthew were dressed alike in similar Under Armour gear – sweatshirts, sweatpants, shoes – in the exact same colors.

“We need to get a picture because we look identical,” she told him. They agreed to take the photo after they ate, but he ended up forgetting about it and leaving. However, he felt bad afterward, got her number from a friend, and texted her to apologize.

“I really did feel bad because she was super excited about the picture,” Matthew said. “We kept talking and really hit it off.”

Michelle says she refers to the time when they were just getting to know each other as “the time I called him Muggsy. I’ve called him Matthew ever since.” Muggsy is Matthew’s nickname from childhood, and almost everyone except Michelle calls him that.

The couple started dating exclusively that February. They were nearly inseparable the summer of 2012, before Matthew went to Troy University on scholarship to continue his education and baseball career. They lived together and worked as lifeguards at Big Kahuna’s in Destin, so when it came time to go back to their respective schools in the fall, the separation was tough.

“It was terrible,” Michelle said. “I didn’t have that safety net.”

They found it tough finding time to see each other in the first few months of their long-distance relationship and even came close to breaking up a few times, but they were able to work through it and see each other more often in the spring, despite each playing their respective seasons.

After Michelle graduated from NWF in 2013, there was no question she was going to enroll at Troy where Matthew was about to enter his senior year. At first she was not going to play softball, but she ended up trying out and accepting an offer to join the Trojans team as a walk-on. It took only a few months of fall ball for Michelle to excel on the field and earn a softball scholarship.

Howard marriage 2

They got engaged on July 3, 2014, during a long-planned Fourth of July trip by Michelle’s family to Las Vegas. The proposal came as a complete surprise to Michelle, despite the fact that before the trip, knowing their engagement was imminent, Michelle had thought the Vegas trip would be an ideal time for Matthew to propose.

Matthew, however, repeatedly told her he would not propose to her in Las Vegas, telling her it was too “trashy” of a place to get engaged.

“I was kind of bummed out,” Michelle recalls.

“I totally had her convinced it wasn’t going to happen,” Matthew said.

In actuality, Matthew thought that Vegas “would be an awesome place to do it,” and he settled on the world-famous shooting fountains at the Bellagio as the perfect backdrop for the proposal.

Matthew’s whole family was in on it. Before going to see the Bellagio fountains on the night of July 3, Matthew’s mom made sure Michelle went with her to the nail salon so they could both get their nails done, and even suggested the white dress for Michelle to wear that evening.

Michelle, though, was completely oblivious, so convincing was Matthew’s earlier insistence that the proposal would not happen in Vegas.

Was Matthew feeling any anxiety as the big moment approached? “Absolutely. It was a very nerve-wracking thing,” he said, noting he was much more nervous than any time he’d ever stepped up to the plate in a pressure situation in a baseball game. Even worse, when they arrived at the fountains, “there were about a thousand people there,” Matthew remembers. “I was thinking, I have to do this in front of all these people.”

When the Bellagio fountains shot up, Matthew dropped to one knee. “I thought he bent down to tie his shoe,” Michelle said. Instead, he popped the question and produced a diamond ring. She started screaming with joy. “I’m trying not to pass out, I’m so happy,” she recalls of how she felt. The rest of the family was poised with their phones to capture the moment.

The diamond Matthew presented to Michelle was his late grandmother’s diamond in a new setting he had picked out. He had asked Michelle months before if she’d be OK accepting his grandmother’s diamond, and she had readily agreed.

“My grandmother had always told me that she had a diamond she wanted to give me if I wanted to use it, and she had just passed away the Christmas before we got engaged,” Matthew said. “So it is a very sentimental thing.”

In 2015, Michelle played her senior season at Troy. Although they had both played ball during the entire time they were dating, they had little opportunity to watch each other play, with softball and baseball seasons running concurrently -- that is, until Michelle’s senior season, when Matthew was finished playing and was able to cheer her on from the stands.

He found it much more difficult to sit and watch Michelle play than to play himself.

“It was way harder to watch it,” he said. “I’d be up there biting my fingernails whenever she was up to bat.”

The couple were married on June 18 in a ceremony on the beach. They wanted to wait until they were both done with school, and they both graduated from Troy in May – Michelle with her bachelor’s degree in social science education and Matthew with his master’s in accountancy. So in a matter of months, they have graduated, married, and begun new careers.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Matthew said.

They share their Crestview home with 4-year-old Husky named Oakley whom they’ve had since he was a puppy.

“I wanted him to be the ring bearer, but he’s not that well-behaved,” Michelle said.

When Michelle reflects on her time at NWF State, head softball coach Jack Byerley and the positive influence he had on her stands out.

“He turned me into one of the most selfless, hard-working people,” she said. “All I want to do is go hug his neck and thank him.”

She also feels confident in her coaching ability thanks to what she learned from both Byerley and her Troy coach her senior season, Beth Mullins.

Matthew also has fond memories of his time at NWF. He recalls playing in a spring tournament in the local area as a high school student from Gadsden and having the game of his life when the Raider coaches just happened to be in attendance. They offered him on the spot, and he couldn’t be happier how it all worked out.

“Coach (Doug) Martin did a fantastic job preparing players for four-year programs,” he said. “I absolutely loved Northwest Florida State College.”

And of course, NWF will always be the place where the two student-athletes began their journey together.

“If it wasn’t for Northwest Florida,” Matthew said, “we wouldn’t be here.”