Former L.C. football player overcomes tragedy with a smile on his face

2014-06-13T22:30:00Z 2014-09-09T23:07:11Z Former L.C. football player overcomes tragedy with a smile on his faceSteve Hanlon steve.hanlon@nwi.com, (219) 933-4198 nwitimes.com

ST. JOHN | It occurred hundreds of times through the years and it still goes on. Football players lined up at practice, running, then taking on a hit in preparation for an upcoming game.

The commonality of the event takes place all across America in autumn, almost with a yawn.

But on Oct. 2, 2007, a "hamburger" drill was taking place at Lake Central. A crunching hit, like all those others, knifed through the fall air. When the pile got up, senior linebacker Matt Wesley remained motionless -- face down.

Just like that, everything changed.

"It was a freak accident," Wesley said last week. "I hold no grudges or malice toward anyone. I had done that tackle drill hundreds of times in my life.

"The last one didn't turn out so hot for me."

All the right medical procedures were followed. He went to Crown Point's St. Anthony's Medical Center, where his mother Pat worked. He was flown to Northwestern Hospital, where emergency care was administered.

Wesley dislocated his C4 and C5 vertebrae. The news was not good. Wesley had partial arm function, no finger function, no leg function. He was not able to walk.

The once-aspiring athlete is now a quadriplegic.

But his story is not filled with sadness and woe. From a tough hand of fate, the 24-year-old St. John resident has overcome. And he's done it with one of the brightest smiles on the planet.

Wesley just graduated from Purdue University Calumet in the Honors Program. This fall he will begin studying law at the University of Notre Dame.

'Just a person ...'

"People have told me I inspire them," Wesley said. "Personally, I don't think I'm that much out of the ordinary. I'm just a person moving on with my life."

Dan Manick was a teammate of Wesley's at Lake Central, before going on to play four years of football at Ball State University. They became buddies in sixth grade, and the fast friendship has carried on to this day.

Manick stood by him that October day on a dusty football field when life changed in a dramatic way.

He recalled the trips to the beach in the summer, the jokes at the school lunch-room tables and the basic fun that is part of most teenagers' lives.

"Wherever we were, Matt was always the happiest person there," Manick said. "He was always quick with a joke. I always wanted him to be there. If I was having a bad day, Matt would be the one to cheer me up."

At first, most thought Wesley had just suffered a "stinger." Manick said he had plenty of those through the years. But as time went on, the Lake Central family knew it was something much worse.

"It is a day I'll never forget," Manick said.

Once the surgeries had taken place and a sense of stability set into the hospital room, 10 teammates drove to see their fallen friend. They were all nervous, scared, walking down the hallway in the facility.

Their pulses quickened as they walked to Wesley's door.

"It was one of the most wonderful things I took away," Manick said. "Matt was hooked up to this and that. He had things running through him. He saw us and the first thing he did was smile. That's just Matt.

"He took away that uncomfortable feeling. I don't think I could've handled it that way."

Physical therapies were a part of his life, almost daily. For a year, he had to manage his new existence. It was challenging. It was sometimes difficult. But he never wavered.

The next fall, Lake Central held a scrimmage against Andrean. The 59ers did a fundraiser to help the Wesley family. Before the game began, Andrean players were on one side, Lake Central players on the other.

Matt, accompanied by his mother, rolled between the lines while the fans rose to their feet in loud, encouraging applause.

"It was bittersweet," Pat Wesley said. "It was very emotional. It forced me to remember what we lost on a football field. But it also was an example of the support we've received from people all around the area.

"We are very grateful for all the love and support we've received."

Living his life

Trying to normalize life has been key. If some of Matt's friends go out at night to watch a game, Wesley's parents will take him out so he can socialize with them. He recently attended a bonfire with old friends, and he went to watch a Blackhawks game with former L.C. football coach Bill Melby.

About that time, Magnum became a part of Matt's life. His service dog helps him in many ways. He opens doors. Picks up fallen objects. His sweet, lovable personality being around also warms the room.

With all these changes, Wesley began college as a part-time student in 2009. The 4.0 student at L.C. was soon showing great academic success in Hammond. The Honors Program and entrance into the Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society was next.

Originally pharmacy school was the plan, but the injury changed that.

This is where Wesley met PUC professor John Rowan, the Honors Program director. Wesley directly affected the educator and all those around him.

Rowan had a meeting at his home for the new Honors students. Pat brought a ramp so her son could get into Rowan's home. Wesley had put nothing on his application about his disability.

"Until he arrived, I had no idea," Rowan said. "This is an individual who does not want favors. He just wants a fair shot."

Rowan has a lot of motivated, intelligent students in his program. They all have a strong work ethic and want to improve the world in their own way. Wesley has influenced all of them.

Attitude is everything

"Matt has an incredible attitude about life," Rowan said. "Other people may not be able to face things like Matt has. All of us face challenges in life. When the students in our program do, I hope they look back at Matt and learn from him."

Wesley showed great leadership, too. At the Honors banquet he played a big part in the planning and implementation, where money is raised for a cause. This year it was service dogs and much money was raised to help those in need.

Wesley had issues in taking the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, because his test-taking accommodations were denied. He needed extra bathroom time and a wheel-chair accessible desk.

A disability-rights group gave the overseeing company a "gentle nudge," as Wesley put it, and he was able to take the test. He passed and now he is part of the Fighting Irish family.

"I am so excited for this next opportunity," Wesley said. "I'd like to go to some football games there. Like PUC, Notre Dame's facilities are set up for me to be able to succeed, and I am grateful for that.

"I've been through a lot, but I still don't think I'm a hero. I'm just trying to carry on with my life."

Rowan, though, sees Wesley's spirit differently, whether the young man who has lifted so many understands it.

"He is an example to the rest of us," Rowan said. "There is no reason to feel sorry for ourselves. No matter what comes our way, we can handle it and succeed. Matt has taught us that."

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