NORTH HAVEN >> Matthew Jacques, like most 6-year-old boys, dreamed of one day playing football. A congenital heart defect made it impossible.
So the football team at North Haven High allowed him to carry out a fantasy during its annual June scrimmage, staging a touchdown run and celebration capable of brightening the darkest of souls.
Matthew, in his youthful innocence, managed to convey a simple yet valuable life lesson to those teenage boys: it’s far more rewarding to give than to receive, especially when it comes to assisting your fellow man.
“I’ve never seen a look in the eyes of our team like I did the day after that game,” North Haven coach Anthony Sagnella said. “They knew they did something special, they knew they touched the family in a very unique way. The look on their faces the next day in school, it was a different look. Even after beating Xavier (last Friday) I didn’t see that look.”
Matthew, youngest son of Alphonse and Melissa Jacques, died Thursday after complications from a late August heart transplant. He’d endured multiple open heart surgeries since birth. The condition remained serious, though it never sapped his boundless energy. He waited over 200 days for a new heart, rushing to New York when a donor was found.
His ordeal and infectious resolve served as inspiration to those well beyond North Haven’s borders.
“If a little 6-year old boy can go through this kind of challenge, we can certainly overcome and take on any challenge we may have, whether it’s athletics or something much bigger in life,” said North Haven athletic director Todd Petronio. “Our football team took it really hard when they heard the news.”
Sagnella has spent the last several seasons ensuring his football players find other ways to impact the community. Seniors are asked to develop and execute an annual leadership project to raise funds for local charities. After all, their football careers are the result of others sacrificing time and money on their behalf. The least they can do, Sagnella says, is give something back.
Alex Baglioni, whose sister has endured multiple heart surgeries, suggested assisting the Jacques family. More than $9,000 was raised. But North Haven players had an added treat for Matthew.
Perhaps you, too, were choked up watching video of his touchdown (right), a clip that eventually made it all the way to “Good Morning America.” There was Matthew, dressed in a miniature North Haven uniform and dwarfed by the high school boys, taking a handoff and running behind a sea of blockers into the end zone. They celebrated, they laughed; they carried Matthew on their shoulders.
It was a special moment for a special boy.
“He had been in my classroom beforehand, climbing all over the desks,” Sagnella said. “His father kept saying he’s a miracle, he shouldn’t be able to do this, he should be in a bed right now.”
Matthew’s story motivated even rival teams to act. Ricky and Andrew Verre, both members of the football team at Xavier-Middletown, read about him in the newspaper. The brothers initiated their own fundraising effort at school. They contacted Petronio, asking to present the family with a $2,100 check before Xavier’s game with North Haven Friday.
Xavier had been ranked second in the state. North Haven posted a stunning upset, but there were no losers that night.
“It was incredibly touching to have individuals with no ties to myself or coach Sagnella go through all of that fundraising, and all done by students,” Petronio said. “As wonderful and exciting a game that was, it was kicked off with the best of intentions. They just came together and do this and understood this is bigger than a football game.”
In the moments after beating Xavier Friday night, one of the biggest wins in North Haven football history, the team gathered as it usually does after every game and practice to hear Sagnella’s postgame speech.
Typically, the meeting is adjourned after the players circle up, put a hand in the middle and, in unison, shout “family” on the count of three. There would be a slight modification on this night.
“I said, ‘Put your hands in,’ and one of the captains yelled ‘Matthew Jacques on three,’” Sagnella said. “So we shouted, ‘1-2-3 Matthew Jacques.’ It wasn’t planned ahead of time; it wasn’t spoken about. We had done that prior to that night, but I think those kids were keeping him in their thoughts that day. That was the way we ended and walked off the field on Friday.”
Matthew seemed to be on the mend. He’d battled through setbacks and come out of the intensive care unit. His first post-surgical meal, per request, was a heart-shaped pepperoni pizza. He’d enjoyed a visit from Colin Ciszewski, a junior at North Haven, who brought a team jersey and helmet autographed by the football team.
News of Matthew’s passing Thursday hit like a sledgehammer. Still grieving, North Haven tonight will take the field at East Haven and play through the pain in their hearts. Vince Lombardi once said winning is the only thing that matters in football. It’s not always so simple.
“The foundation of any team is humility; putting others ahead of yourself,” Sagnella said. “Matthew gave us an opportunity to learn that lesson. I think it’s made us a stronger team. That’s bigger than the season and that’s bigger than the game itself.”
North Haven gave Matthew Jacques the chance to carry out a dream, if only for one play. He reciprocated by bringing a community closer together. And that’s a gift that will last a lifetime.
Chip Malafronte, the Register sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMalafronte.