A Former Linebacker, SWAT Officer and Police Academy Instructor Helps First Responders Navigate Deeper Healing
- Written byQuinn Roberts
- Photographed byShane O’Donnell
To say Matt Domyanicic has taken an untraditional path to becoming a chaplain would be an understatement. “I am what many people would call an outlier,” says Matt.
Talk to him for just a few minutes, and you are immediately drawn in by his passion, thoughts and ideas for his work and what he’s been through. It’s shaped the person he’s become.
He’s been introspective ever since he was a child growing up in Pittsburgh. He meditated while sitting in the woods and journaled throughout middle school and high school. Matt looked up to his father, a deeply religious man, his entire life.
“All of us need to use the challenging circumstances in our lives as our psychological, emotional and spiritual weight lifting to get stronger. It’s often the painful experiences in our lives—which may be out of our control—that can teach us the greatest lessons.”
“He was hard on me and demanded a lot, but I was allowed to express my emotions. I wanted to understand myself and others,” shares Matt. “My dad taught me that being yourself is cool. I had so much role-modeling from my father, I wanted to continue to grow as a person and an athlete.”
That’s exactly what he did. A standout football player in high school and college, Matt spent two years at the Air Force Academy and then at Colgate University, where he played football (middle linebacker position) and powerlifted.
He was living exactly as he wanted to at the beginning of his 30s. He’d become a police academy instructor, a SWAT officer, and a strength and conditioning coach at Georgetown University, where he led the sports ministry. It was then that his world was turned upside down. He sustained an injury and had surgery—which, in hindsight, he never should have undergone. He was then put on medication that caused him to become obese and unable to control his bodily functions.
Matt no longer recognized the person he’d become. Instead of falling into a deep hole, he chose to do something with this new development in his life—relying on the things he used to do growing up. He moved to the South Bay 14 years ago, beginning a path of functional and integrative medicine to get off the medication he’d been taking since his surgery. His goal was to become a healthier person both physically and emotionally.
Matt earned a pastoral theology degree from Loyola Marymount University in 2018 and began doing chaplaincy work soon after that. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he worked with first responders at a rehab facility.
His concentration in pastoral theology was spiritual direction, which is an emphasis on spirituality and psychology. The work is about helping people become more aware of where the experience of God, peace, love and meaning is showing up in their daily lives—whether pleasant or painful.
“We numb, distract and subconsciously self-medicate rather than deal with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Cops can see dozens and hundreds of these things during their career,” says Matt. “If you see others suffer, it’s a moral injury that needs to find an outlet to heal.”
His ultimate drive comes from wanting to help others. He can especially relate to first responders on a professional level, but also on an emotional level—knowing the mental toll it can take after a while.
“Matt is larger than life,” says retired Manhattan Beach Fire Department Captain Dave Shenbaum. “He walks the walk and talks the talk. He’s built authentic relationships with so many in the company because of how much time he spends at the firehouse just talking, working out and going on ride-alongs.”
Dave, who worked as a fireman and paramedic for 29 years, calls Matt a rock star who’s found his true calling. Dave says he’s been heavily influenced by Matt in many ways. “He helped me find more purpose and value in my life. While I was still working, that allowed me to get perspective on the right work-life balance. What cannot be overstated is what a great listener he is—reflective and very patient.”
Many first responders know Matt on a first-name basis and see him come around often—not just when things are bad. He hopes that will eventually get first responders to open up to him—about what they’ve experienced on the job as well as anything going on in their lives.
I do everything on a volunteer basis,” Matt explains. “I offer 24/7 confidential support and try to be a good listener at times of crisis intervention, but I also text, call and meet one-on-one when they are off duty so people will tell their sacred stories, knowing I’ll listen, hear, understand and see them without judgment.”
You would never know it with the way he supports others in need, but Matt still deals with the effects of his surgery, including pelvic floor and intestinal nerve damage. Because of that, it takes him a few hours in the morning to prepare for the day. To help, he takes advantage of cold plunges and the sauna and float tank at Pause wellness studio in El Segundo. If those he counsels are interested, they sometimes go with him.
“All of us need to use the challenging circumstances in our lives as our psychological, emotional and spiritual weight lifting to get stronger,” says Matt. “It’s often the painful experiences in our lives—which may be out of our control—that can teach us the greatest lessons.”
In addition to affecting lives all over Southern California, Matt has also worked with police officers and firefighters from the Kansas City area. He’s the chaplain and peer support for a surf nonprofit that brings first responders from Kansas City to Orange County. Through that organization, he got connected with the chief of police in Kansas City, who asked him to speak at a SWAT conference in front of 600 tactical officers.
While it was a much bigger crowd than he was used to, Matt accepted and spoke for nearly two hours. He got a lot of great feedback, hearing from people that it was like he was talking directly to them.
“Everything I do with first responders is to try to destigmatize and have them get in touch with their feelings,” he shares. “You can be sentimental, emotional, tender and loving but still be an alpha male.”
Ultimately, Matt’s goal is to offer free wellness events integrating various aspects of fitness and martial arts, mindfulness and yoga, small group sharing and fellowship. He hopes to provide a variety of platforms where first responders learn to use their unique career experiences as a spiritual path, rather than the experiences leading to a breakdown, which happens often in these professions.
“Cops and firefighters are the best BS detectors on planet Earth,” says Matt. “It’s how you live your life, how you listen to them that they know you care about them. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll open the door a little bit to trust you along the way.”
To donate to Matt’s cause, visit globalassociates.org/matt-domyancic.