Topeka Valerie Bollig describes her son, Matt, as someone who wanted to make his mark on the world — an individual remembered for whom he was and how he touched lives.
Matt was hoping his chance to be remembered would come on the football field. Slotted to be a starting offensive player on this year’s Ottawa University Braves football team, he was hoping to make history competing for a national championship.
Then July 18 came.
Matt was in the weight room with his teammates working out for the upcoming season when he broke his back lifting weights.
According to his mother, the lower half of Matt’s body went one way and his top half went another, making him a paraplegic.
“It could have been so much worse,” Valerie said. “The neurosurgeon told us that if he hadn’t been in such good physical health that it probably would have killed him.”
Valerie, who is originally from Topeka and graduated from Seaman High School and Washburn University, said Matt was quickly transferred to Overland Park Regional Medical Center and surgery was done to fuse his spine back together.
“The doctors have said that if anything was going to go right it went right, other than the simple fact that he got hurt that was wrong,” she said.
During the five- to six-hour surgery, the waiting room filled with family, friends, teammates and coaches.
“Right before surgery, we talked, and he wanted to understand why it happened to him. Of course, I couldn’t answer,” Valerie said. “I just told him that God wouldn’t have given it to him if he didn’t know that he could handle it. God would give him strength.”
Later that night, Matt was joking with his mom, asking if his situation would qualify as a medical redshirt year.
“Yeah, Matt, I think this will do it,” Valerie said. “He knows now that he won’t play football again and has other things on his agenda now.”
Matt was transferred July 24 from the Overland Park medical center to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., where he has been learning how to do everything without the use of his legs. He is participating in occupational therapy, physical therapy and fitness classes.
“They are teaching him how to live with his disability, all of the things that you don’t even realize that you are doing,” Valerie said. “You don’t realize how hard it is to sit up. The first thing they taught him was to sit up, and now he’s transferring himself.”
Instead of focusing on the negatives of being paralyzed, Matt continues to look forward.
“My injury has opened my eyes to what is still available to me,” he said. “It also let me know how much I miss playing football and sports.”
Earlier this summer, Ottawa University Coach Kent Kessinger said the Braves were going to play for their injured teammate, even though he has never suited up against one of the team’s opponents. Matt played his high school football in Chanute and as a freshman and sophomore at Fort Scott Community College.
“The only game that he’s actually suited up for Ottawa was the spring game,” Valerie said. “Now, they are going to win the national championship. I have no doubt about it, and that’s what he believes and that’s what he’s told them. They are playing this year for Matty. He was No. 6, and their team shirts say, ‘We got you, 6.’”
The plan right now is for Matt to be back on campus Sept. 15 for the conference opener against the University of St. Mary. He has taking online classes for a sports management and exercise science degree until he gets back to school.
He has been talking to his teammates and coaches every day.
“I keep in touch with my teammates and make sure that they know that I am doing OK and that they know that I am working hard,” Matt said. “I also make sure that they are working hard as well.”
Valerie said she has been surprised by the outpouring of support, from people posting messages on the Facebook page “Pray for Matty” to those sending cards and letters.
People also have organized fundraisers to pay for his treatment and things insurance won’t cover. One of the fundraising items is a T-shirt with a stick figure holding another stick figure’s back and the caption “Don’t worry, Matt, I got your back.”
“It’s just been crazy — crazy good,” she said. “All he ever wanted to do was to make a difference. He just wanted people to know how he was and how he touched people and hoped that he changed lives.
“I told him that this is probably not the way that you wanted to do it, but do you know how many people you’ve touched just by being you? Not because you passed for the winning touchdown or made the winning tackle, just because you are you. Not that many people can touch that many lives just by being them. He’s just like, ‘I know mom, it’s crazy isn’t it?’ It’s been great in a weird way.”
Matt tweeted earlier this summer that his new goal was to be an Olympian, adding he has found a hand bike he enjoys using and is learning as much as he can about sports in which he can compete.
“My eyes are still open to everything,” Matt said. “I’m trying to get exposed to all that I can.”
Valerie has no doubt that her son will continue to be an athlete. With his drive, she believes he will.