Best Game of the Week – Hands Down

The most compelling sports story of the week was not in the NFL playoffs, the college football playoffs, the NBA, or the NHL. It wasn’t even televised.

On Saturday night, the Red Wing alumni team took on a squad of former University of Michigan players. It was just an exhibition, which only mattered to those who thought it mattered. But 2,000 folks did, because it mattered a great deal to a former Michigan star named Scott Matzka.

Matzka grew up in Port Huron, and went to Michigan in 1997, along with ten other freshmen. He was the fastest player on the team, a feisty forward with a knack for killing penalties.

In his first season, Michigan made it to the NCAA finals. In overtime, Matzka passed to fellow freshman Josh Langfeld, who slipped it into the net for the goal, the game, and the title.

Matzka was also a star student, majoring in computer science. He helped his roommate, goalie L.J. Scarpace, get through calculus. After graduating, Matzka played in the U.S. and Europe for eleven years. Along the way, he married Catie, and had two kids. When Matzka retired from hockey, they settled in Catie’s home town of Kalamazoo, where he put his degree to good use developing software, then consulting. Life seemed pretty great.

Two years ago, while hanging drywall, Matzka noticed his hand cramped up, and wouldn’t release. It happened again when he was digging for change in his car. Something was wrong – but what was it?

After a year of tests, the doctors gave him the answer: he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurological disorder that progressively robs victims of the ability to control their muscles – and finally, their breathing.

When he told his old roommate, L.J. Scarpace, they both shed a few tears. Scarpace decided he needed to do something, so he called a few of Matzka’s old teammates to play in a benefit hockey game. They took over the task and rounded up all 30 of his teammates in a few hours. Every one of them volunteered to pay his own way, flying in from Miami, St. Louis, Omaha, and Las Vegas.

Scarpace was impressed. “There are a lot of great humans. I can tell you that.”

When word got out to the Michigan hockey family, they got to work. At a reunion of the 1964 NCAA championship team, one of them asked, “What can we do? We don’t even know him.” Bob Gray, their goalie, said, “Know him? He played for Michigan. That tells us all we need to know.”

On game night, 2,000 fans showed up. The students filled both their sections, even though some of them hadn’t been born when Matzka was a freshman. But they got the message. So did the Alumni Band, which came out in full force. When they blasted “The Victors,” it felt like a home game.

The night started with Matzka at center ice. He wasn’t flying around, terrorizing opponents. He was sitting in a wheelchair, his hands draped in his lap. When Catie held the microphone for him, Matzka told the crowd, “When I signed my letter of intent, almost 20 years ago, you don’t realize everything you’re signing up for. And then you learn: you signed up for the Michigan hockey family.”

The game’s high point was a play by a kid named Matzka. Not Scott, but his five-year old son, Owen, who suited up in a miniature Michigan jersey with his dad’s number 10 on the back. He sat, proudly and patiently, on the Michigan bench, until the second period, when the coaches asked him to take a penalty shot.

Owen skated the puck toward goalie Marty Turco, who won two NCAA titles before playing eleven years in the NHL. But when Owen shot the puck, Turco couldn’t seem to handle it. When Turco spun around, he accidentally dumped the puck into his own net. I’m sure he feels horrible about that.

Afterward, Matzka said, “When I see my son wearing that maize jersey, it hits me in the heart. I’m sure Owen will never forget that goal against Turco.”

I’m sure his father won’t, either.

Matzka’s teammates can’t stop what’s happening to their friend. Even the doctors can’t. But the $25,000 they raised will make life a little easier for Scott, Catie, and their kids. And when Scott can no longer speak, he’ll be able to remember a cold night in January, when he could feel the warmth of 2,000 people who care.

Best game of the week. Hands down.

* * * * *

Since I’m sure many will ask, if you want to help Scott Matzka and his family with their expenses, you can click here:

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Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong. The paperback version,with 57 pages of new interviews with Harbaugh and others, is out. Literati and Nicola’s have signed copies

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on, 1050 AM.

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9 comments Leave a comment  

  • Sally Martin January 13, 2017 at 6:55 am

    Now that is a real tearjerker, John. Well written and heart-felt!

  • johnubacon January 13, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Thank you, Sally.

  • Herb Bowie January 13, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Terrible tragedy and a heartwarming story. Same disease that claimed my U-M roommate, Richard Glatzer, a couple of years ago, although he lived long enough to see his work help to win Julianne Moore an Academy Award for her performance in “Still Alice.” He co-directed the film at a point when he had to use an iPad to speak. It’s also worth noting that Dr. Eva Feldman at U-M is working on a potential cure for ALS using stem cell therapy.

  • George J Michael January 14, 2017 at 1:46 am

    John U Bacon

    Thanks for the report. That transcends anything I’ve read in the paper or seen on a screen in a long time. Makes me glad to be a Michigan alum. God bless the Matzka family.

    Keep up the good work.

  • johnubacon January 14, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks, Herb. I’ve read about your roommate, actually, but naturally didn’t realize you were connected. A brave story.

  • Jon Morehouse January 14, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    We have Just never known someone so committed to helping people he’ll never meet.
    So hardworking even after putting in a full day of events and so humble in leaving a legacy like few others.
    An outstanding son, brother, hockey player, husband, father, friend.

  • Cyndi January 14, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    Message (Required) Never give up hope. Interesting article about ALS survivor Jason Becker.

  • Bob Winchester January 15, 2017 at 5:56 am

    Everything you write is tremendous. This is such a great story, sad but heart warming. This type of support from Michigan has been going on for well over 100 years. My grandmother’s brother passed away about 4 years after graduating and the support from students who didn’t know him personally but just knew of him, as he was the QB on the 1901 and 1902 football teams, was outstanding. It goes to show you what the University of Michigan is all about. Even former students who we never met are considered family.
    Thank you for all you do to tell the world what a special place we have.

  • johnubacon January 25, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Thanks, Herb. Please tell her Good luck! We’re clearly all pulling for her.

    Thanks for all you and your wife do for UM, and my book tours!


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