FOR HOCKEY PLAYERS, one of the most important early lessons of the game is tenacity. It has to be: It’s a sport where players don’t just contend with opposing teams, but with the icy playing surface itself.
Just ask Matthew Brown ’16. He spent his childhood on the ice, from his first wobbly steps on the rink to playing for his high school hockey team.
“Growing up in hockey, you know you’re always going to get hit and you’re always going to fall down, but you’re also always going to get back up and get into play,” he says.
But one day, he didn’t. On Jan. 23, 2010, Brown, then a high school sophomore, was playing for Norwood, his high school team, against rival Weymouth. He was racing after the puck, which hit the boards and ricocheted between Brown’s legs. He looked down to track the puck and was hit from behind. Crashing headfirst into the boards, he lost consciousness. When he came to, he saw his mom standing on the ice, and noticed a tiny, worrying detail: The bottom of her jeans were soaked. She’d clearly been standing on the ice for a long time. And when he tried to get back up, his panic rose: “Nothing happened,” he recalls. “I tried again, and it was more of the same. That’s when I knew something was wrong.”
It was. Brown had broken his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, paralyzing him from the chest down. What followed was a blur of hospitals and surgeries, including a 21-day stint at Boston Children’s Hospital, where doctors stabilized his neck and spine, cleared out shattered bone fragments and determined the extent of his injuries: He was paralyzed from the chest down and had limited control of his shoulders and arms. He spent the next three months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries.
However optimistic his care team was—they constantly reminded him that his new life, which included a motorized wheelchair, might not be forever—Brown found himself spending a lot of time mentally crossing off life experiences he’d once assumed would be in his future: Hockey. Finishing high school. College.
A new mindset
If Brown admits he was initially pessimistic about his chances at college, it wasn’t an opinion shared by all. His aunt, Trisha Brown, who is also Stonehill’s longtime head women’s basketball coach, thought he should give Stonehill a closer look.
Matt had been cheering on the Skyhawks since third grade, and Trisha nudged him to consider the school more seriously. “I knew Stonehill would be the perfect fit because of the community here,” she says. “They would be able to meet his needs, and I knew he would make a positive impact here.”
While Brown had the academic chops to succeed at Stonehill, it was important to make sure that the fit extended beyond the classroom. Brown and his family visited Stonehill, carefully going over every last detail to make sure that he’d have all the resources he’d need to excel: facilitators who could help him in the classroom with tasks ranging from flipping textbook pages to typing up the test answers that he dictated to them. Nurses who could feed him at mealtimes. A modified bed and overhead lift so he could get in and out of bed in the morning.
Also factoring into the equation was Brown’s longtime friend, Austin Glaser ’16, a fellow high school athlete who’d known Brown since they’d played Little League together as 6-year-olds. Glaser, too, was considering Stonehill, and they both liked the idea of starting college as a team. They discussed becoming roommates.
And while Glaser knew he’d have more of an outsize role than a traditional roommate—he would need to tackle a range of tasks for Brown, from shutting off his computer to feeding him meals when nurses were off duty—he also quickly disabuses the notion that the support went just one way. “Having Matt as a roommate made the transition from high school to college easier,” he says. “And he helped me meet new people and new friends.” They lived together all four years.
Moving beyond fear
Though Brown and his family had done more due diligence than perhaps any other first-year student who arrived in the fall of 2012, Brown admits that his first days at the college were anything but easy.
“My first week there, I thought I’d made the wrong decision,” he says. “I had come from a community in Norwood where I had so much support, and I didn’t know how much I would get at Stonehill. I was terrified.”
His fears dissipated as quickly as any other student’s as he learned to navigate his classes, schoolwork and new friendships. It turned out that students at Stonehill were adept at seeing the friendly, sports-loving, relentlessly positive fellow student, and not the wheelchair that might have otherwise separated them.
“Matt is a very genuine, down-to-earth guy,” says fellow classmate and senior class president Cody Page ’16. “He’s outgoing and he’s also humble.”
And as Brown found his comfort zone with his friends and the team who assisted him in his daily life, he began to think about his college experience with the same tireless determination that he had once applied to hockey. When he arrived, he’d given himself the flexibility to think about taking five or six years to find a major and finish his coursework. But as the credits and semesters piled up, and his love of his communications courses deepened, he realized he had a real shot at graduating in four years and being with his class at Commencement.
Meanwhile, his classmates had Brown on their minds as well. The Legacy Committee for the senior class was charged with coming up with a class gift this past spring, and when committee member Christopher Donlon ’16 suggested a scholarship named in Brown’s honor, it struck a chord.
For Page, who co-chaired the Legacy Committee, it made perfect sense. “When employers comment on Stonehill, they always mention work ethic and humility,” he says. “That’s just the kind of person Matt is. It’s what he embodies. And that’s why we decided to name the scholarship the Matt Brown ’16 Perseverance Scholarship.” [See below.]
When Brown learned that he was the namesake of the scholarship, it left him literally speechless. “I don’t even have the words to describe what it meant to me, but I love it so much,” he says. “It made me realize that I really did have an impact during my four years here. I really hope that I did leave a mark.”
The thousands of dollars raised by the senior class were matched by even more generous donations by Stonehill’s 50th reunion class of 1966, which brought the total to nearly $70,000. Stonehill awarded the first scholarship this fall to a deserving student who has overcome a significant obstacle.
Looking back—and ahead
Now that he’s graduated, Brown says he plans on taking a short but well deserved break after four straight years of intense effort. “These last few years took a lot out of me, but it’s a great kind of tired,” he says.
He ultimately hopes to pursue a career in sports communications, perhaps as a journalist or radio broadcaster. Though some might assume his interest in athletics would have waned after the accident, his passion for sports never wavered. “I definitely see sports in a different way than I used to,” he admits. “But in some ways, I love them even more.”
Perhaps it’s because the deeper lessons of sports are etched so deeply into him that they might as well be in his DNA. There are a million ways that life will find a way to send you to the ground. It’s his job, he knows, to always find a way back up again.
THAT'S SO STONEHILL
A Scholarship Story
When the senior class created the Matt Brown ’16 Perseverance Scholarship, they were eager to make a splash with a big gift. But even they knew that reaching the minimum funding threshold to endow a scholarship—$25,000—would be a tall order for a group of current students. Still, they aimed high.
And when Stonehill’s Class of 1966 caught wind of the effort, they decided to step up to help, says Assistant Vice President for Advancement and Director of Development Doug Smith. “It was the first time we’ve ever had a graduating class and a class 50 years earlier come together for one scholarship,” he says. “But I think the idea that Stonehill alumni help each other is Something that’s always been a part of the school.”
Today, the scholarship has an endowment that will provide nearly $3,500 to a deserving student this year and will continue to grow. To make a gift, visit stonehill.edu/giving/matt-brown-perseverance-schola/.
MATT BROWN DAY Brown with President Denning, C.S.C. [left] and with Zachary O’Connor ’16 [right] on March 3 when the scholarship was officially announced.