October 25, 2013 | Posted by Bill Landis
Matt Colella didn’t have the energy to do much of anything. The chemotherapy and radiation had taken their toll, and the lightest physical activity exhausted the then-12-year-old.
The once promising soccer goalie had to give up the sport, and simple tasks such as running 10 yards proved Herculean. There was one thing that wasn’t too taxing, though.
He could kick a football.
With soccer taken away from him throughout his treatment, Colella passed the time kicking footballs in his backyard. There were also the times he and his father, Rich, would go down to Oberlin College, where Rich played football in the 80s, and work on kicking.
The pair may not have realized it then, but they were onto something.
Matt could kick, and he could kick well. Four years later, he’s still kicking, though he’s ditched the backyard grass for the fields the St. Ignatius football team plays on each week.
In his second season as the Wildcats varsity kicker, Colella has made a name for himself as one of the best kickers in the state, earning first-team All-Ohio honors last year. This year, his kicks have a little more meaning.
His cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment had a hand in leading him down the path he’s now on as a football player, and Colella is doing his part to help beat cancer through his kicking. Through an organization called Kick-It, he is taking pledges for each point he scores with the proceeds funding pediatric cancer research. To this point in the season, Colella has raised $3,880 through pledges and donations.
His three field goals in last week’s win over St. Edward netted Colella $550 that will go to one of the several studies Kick-It supports across the country.
“Pediatric cancer is obviously a very big problem,” Colella said. “I just want to do what I can to give back. I figured I’d use something like football to help that cause.”
Matt Colella was diagnosed with malignant sarcoma of the pectoral muscle in June of 2009. What followed was surgery to remove his left pectoral muscle and treatments that required three- or four-day stays in the hospital every three weeks.
From June until December, Colella’s life was far from that of the typical 12-year-old. The treatments were taxing on his body, and forced Colella to miss the first half of his eighth grade year.
Though according to his mother, Matt never let it affect him.
“He really showed more grace for a 12-year-old than I ever could have expected,” Laura Colella said. “Matt didn’t complain about anything. The surgery, the recovery, going in for the chemo and radiation, he made it really easy on us.”
Though he put on a stoic façade, inside Matt was understandably afraid.
“It’s pretty scary because at 12-years-old, you don’t really know all about cancer,” Matt Colella said. “You don’t know what the repercussions are. It’s a whole bunch of unexpected. I was worried about the treatment and how painful it would be. It was shocking going from not knowing what I have (going on) to being scheduled for a surgery within a month.”
Kicking footballs, however trivial it may seem, helped.
Matt began playing soccer at 3-years-old, and Laura said he was always quick to show off his big leg. As a goalie, Matt wouldn’t hesitate to try to kick the ball the full length of the field on goal kicks and punts, and sometimes he even scored.
Soccer wasn’t an option during treatment, and even afterward his missing pectoral muscle ended his days as a goalie, but he still found a way to show off that big leg.
Matt played soccer during his freshman year at St. Ignatius, though he was forced to play midfield and forward, and for the first time in his life, he played football, even if his mom had some reservations.
“I figured the kicker, no one is supposed to hit you,” Laura Colella said. “So I thought it was OK.”
He liked both, but his academic schedule required him to decide on one sport. He chose football.
“The amount of homework I had would’ve been too much,” said Colella, who currently holds a 3.93 grade-point average. “I decided I would be the biggest asset to the school and to the football team if I chose to kick and it would open up some options to college.”
His abilities on the field, as well as his status as a National Merit Scholar and the 2240 he scored on his SAT test have caught the attention of a number of Ivy League programs, with Brown and Penn showing the most interest. Colella is also interested in Southern California, Arizona State and Michigan, among others.
He’s not 100 percent sure if football is in his future — though he hopes it is — but he is sure he wants to study something in the science field. And if that leads him down a medical path, he hopes to find another way to get involved with pediatric cancer research.
The need to give back is what got Colella involved with Kick-It in the first place.
Kick-It was founded in 2009 by then-10-year-old Quinn Clarke, a Chagrin Falls native and cancer survivor who turned his love for kickball into a way to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. Since then, Kick-It has hosted hundreds of kickball tournaments across the country, and one in Australia, and has raised nearly $2 million, according to Cathy Welsch, Director of Kick-It.
Colella has never met Clarke, but he became aware of Kick-It through the annual kickball tournament held at St. Ignatius in honor of Kevin Healey, a St. Ignatius alum who lost his battle with cancer in 2009 at age 20 while he was a student at the University of Notre Dame.
Colella wanted to get involved, and found a different way to do it by having people pledge money for the amount of points he scores. Welsch hopes he’s the first of many to get involved through football.
“This is really something which we’re really excited about,” Welsch said. “It’s working and we want to try to model what Matt’s doing and take it to other high schools, colleges and even professionally.”
Colella hopes it catches on as well, and his work with Kick-It and life experiences with cancer have given him a new perspective when it comes to his performance on the field.
Kicker can be one of the most pressure-packed positions in sports, and while some succumb to that pressure, Colella has realized there are more important things to worry about.
“I think he appreciates what God has given him,” St. Ignatius coach Chuck Kyle said. “In his situation, you learn to appreciate and give back and I think that’s what you’re seeing here, to value the good things in life and not take things for granted.”
Some things have been taken away from him. He has to tailor his workouts to what his body is able to do — heavy weight lifting is out of the question with the missing pectoral muscle — and he misses out on some of the teammate bonding that can come during weight training.
Since going through treatment, Colella’s scans have been clear. He’s due for another scan in December and then hopefully his final scan a year from then. He knows there are others who are in a much worse position, and he keeps those people in mind when he’s put into a pressure situation.
“When I take a step back and take a view of the game and the situation I’m in, I realize I shouldn’t put as much pressure on myself as I do,” Colella said. “I know that whatever happens it’s not going to be that bad in the grand scheme of things.”
Pressure or not, the ball sails through the uprights most of the time, and while those points are valuable to the team, they’re even more valuable to people who aren’t on the field.
“I hope people can see that they can do something like this,” Colella said. “They can start something and have a bigger impact than they though they could. I’m just trying to encourage people to give back.”
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