By Julie Giljames
#57 … You might remember the number. We saw it written on the hands of teenagers across NC. Stuck to the bumpers of cars. On the backs of students everywhere. But like many who were touched by Matt, I remember the boy. He had twinkling eyes, bright smile, mischievous chuckle, serious appetite, and star quality that few fifteen year olds possess.
Matt meant many things to different people. He was a son, brother, grandson, friend, role model, Eagle Scout, and athlete, but to me, he was the first student I ever lost. I taught Matt freshman English at Summit School and also served as his advisor during his final year of school. At Summit, the relationships among students and teachers are strong. We cultivate, protect, and encourage our students. We push kids to become their best selves – and without a doubt, Matt was on his way to becoming his best self. But the Friday night before Matt was to begin his sophomore year at RJ Reynolds High School, he suffered a catastrophic hit in his first high school football game. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and never regained consciousness, dying two days later.
This is what I remember about him:
He was contagious. He had no problem making a total fool of himself in front of a crowd and loved doing it. Dressed as Conrad Birdy (much like THE Elvis Presley himself), Matt crooned, gyrated, and entertained the masses just as easily as playing a woman from an old SNL Zagat’s skit. He could get a crowd shouting for their team while everyone else was still getting organized. Matt burst onto stages everywhere with gusto; few boys measure up.
He had a passion for his loves. Matt loved Thanksgiving because of his three favorite things: family, football and food. He had beautiful relationships with his parents, siblings, and extended family. They miss him terribly. His Mimi was one special lady. She traveled with him to Spain for a ninth grade trip during his final year at Summit. Like many, I know she wouldn’t trade the memories of Matt dancing with a flamenco dancer for anything. Football was another passion of Matt’s. He emulated our school Athletic Director because he played college ball at Notre Dame. He sought advice from him about how to make his dreams of playing football at the next level a reality and he WORKED to make those dreams come true. I still remember our final conference when Matt was negotiating time with an athletic trainer because he had maintained good grades in his final term. Just a few short months later, his dream came true – he made the JV team at RJR. But FOOD was his first love. Matt was a bottomless pit. During a meal with students, I watched Matt eat four helpings of banana pudding – after he finished a BBQ sandwich complete with sides. He once wrote about his love of Thanksgiving because it had all of his faves included, but most of the paper was about the delicious meal. He craved the turkey and pie and potatoes and stuffing and . . .
He had a wicked sense of humor and could charm a wall. Weekly Matt would interrupt a class discussion with a very important question: Mrs. Giljames, if you had a time machine, would you save Juliet, go back to France during the Revolution, help Odysseus, etc.? Always ready with a diversion, I would giggle and take a moment to indulge the curious. It’s hard to stay mad at a kid when you can’t stop laughing.
He gave good advice because he himself was teachable. Matt was like a sponge. He tried to glean a lesson from classes, stories, experiences, and friendships. He would tell me things like my dad taught me not to be like Casey (from “Casey at the Bat”), Mimi showed me how to do that, and so on. I sought advice from Matt about football. My own son really wanted to play, and Matt was the one who suggested starting with flag football. We did and when Owen played his first season of football, I cheered louder than anyone when he pressured the quarterback (like Matt did) and got his first touchdown. I also learned that being on the sidelines of my kid’s games is one of the best places on earth.
He was open with his feelings. Let’s face it – most fifteen year olds boys are not. But Matt definitely was. I learned a lot about him in poetry responses and assignments. I remember one response in particular to a poem called “Coach’s Son,” by Kathi Appelt. The poem shared the pressures teens feel when being coached by their dads. Matt had a different perspective; he was grateful for his dad as his coach. He took pride in the lessons he learned from his dad.
He was a role model. Matt finished his Eagle project in the middle of playing the lead in our school musical while playing on three sports teams and maintaining grades that kept him on the Honor Role. He was a leader in that he inspired others on the field, in the classroom, and in the lunchroom.
Matt taught me many lessons, but the most important being the quest for the silver lining. For his family I’m sure the silver lining of losing Matt is impossible to find most days. And there are moments when I can’t see it either. But then I think of the impact this boy had on others.
I read the facebook posts on the anniversary of his death as his friends remember him with a smile. I look at the safety changes made to RJR’s football team, ensuring the safety of their team for decades to come. I swell with pride at the beautiful Matt Gfeller Weight Room created in his memory. I marvel at the discoveries yet to be made in the Mett Gfeller Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. I smile when I sit down at the Thanksgiving meal, grateful for my blessings in life. I picture runners stuffing six doughnuts in their mouths at the Matt Gfeller Doughnut Run, created by his three best friends, celebrating his appetite, spirit, and dedication.
This Saturday, November 13, 2010, runners come together again for the second annual Matt Gfeller Doughnut Run to raise money for the Matt Gfeller Foundation. Matt would be a senior in high school this year. My sons and I will be at the Doughnut Stop, remembering Matt and doling out the doughnuts. As he gives me countless hugs, Owen will tease me about getting through the day with fewer tears than last year. Drew will try to sneak as many doughnuts as he can without getting caught. And I will remember Matt with each passing runner, and bask in the silver lining of having known him with a tear-filled smile.
If you wish to learn more about the Matt Gfeller Doughnut Run, a fun, family-friendly event, or the Matthew Gfeller Foundation, formed to help more youth athletes play it safe, visit www.matthewgfellerfoundation.org.