By the time Matthew Cunningham (’05) was 18, he was a felon — auto theft and arson. His high school days were plagued with fights. He had been expelled repeatedly. You can imagine, then, what it must have been like for him the first day of class at Bethel.

“The praying, at the beginning of class, was like taking someone who had just learned adding and subtracting, and throwing them into geometry,’’ says Cunningham.

His guide in this new world was Tony Natali, Bethel’s head track and field coach and assistant men’s basketball coach.

Cunningham attended Bethel on a pole-vaulting scholarship, the result of connections with high school coaches who still believed in him and wanted to see him succeed.

“I came in on academic probation because I had been expelled before, and because I had to work for a year after graduation to pay restitution for the truck I stole,’’ says Cunningham.

“Coach Natali put me on a very tight leash. There was to be no fighting and no drinking since I liked to do that on weekends. But he had me motivated within 15 minutes, telling me how my life was going to improve, and how he was going to believe in me and be committed to me. Within eight practices, I realized Bethel was where I wanted to be,’’ says Cunningham.

Matt pole-vaulted all four years at Bethel, winning conference championships several times and named All-American by the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes) three times.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies in 2005. Today, he’s married and works in Elkhart. He wants to attend graduate school, and eventually, he would like to be a track and field coach.

“Coach Natali made a huge difference in my life,’’ says Cunningham. “We would have lots of discussion about faith and life. Anytime I had a problem, he would talk to me. He always left his door open. But he expects a lot out of you, too. When he disciplines you, you know it’s in your best interest. He’s such a motivator, it’s hard to walk away.’’