By Martin Lenkowsky
Parkland resident Matt Cooper is not a quitter. That simple, one-syllable word, quit, does not exist in this Marjory Stoneman Douglas junior’s vocabulary, says his dad, Ken Cooper.
Matt, 17, a Utah native, was born full-term. However, at the very end stage of his mom, Laura Cooper’s pregnancy, fate intervened, and she suffered a uterine rupture, depriving her in-utero baby of precious oxygen—the result: brain damage.
“Basically, Matt had died, and they had to revive him,” his dad, Ken, said. “We call him our miracle baby.” Laura adds that a friend in the healthcare field looked at baby Matt’s APGAR scores at birth and said, “he shouldn’t have survived.”
Matt suffered no mental or cognitive dysfunction despite his traumatic brain injury at birth. He’s been diagnosed with quadriplegia cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to ambulate. He can also communicate and convey words and thoughts via a keyboard device designed with special software.
To say this young man is not a quitter is, in reality, quite the understatement. Despite his physical limitations, Matt is a member of MSD’s junior-varsity football squad.
Football is a huge motivating factor for Matt and his lifetime goal. He lives for the gridiron. “My love for football came out when I was a little kid,” Matt said. “I had a BYU [Brigham Young University] uniform and a toy helmet.”
Matt played flag football from 5th to 7th grade. He said they didn’t have flag football when he was an 8th-grader. Sports has always been Matt’s thing. “I had the best time playing basketball on my wheelchair in the 7th grade,” he said. After talking with his best friend, who encouraged him to play, Matt decided to get back into football – as a second sport.
Fast forward to the future a few years, and Matt joined the football team at Dixie High School in St. George, Utah. That’s where one of his most crowning and memorable moments occurred.
Matt, who can walk on his knees, was used as a running back and scored a touchdown from the one-yard line. His mom proudly displays the video on her phone.
In May, the Cooper family moved from Utah to Parkland. Laura said they chose this area so Matt could undergo extensive neuromuscular training and reconditioning at the Barwis Performance Center in Deerfield Beach. Megan Sundstrom is the state director of the neurological reengineering program at Barwis. She works closely with Matt.
Sundstrom said Matt has full activation and function in all his limbs but suffers from a movement mechanics deficiency. “Our focus is on that aspect of training,” she said. “We focus on creating proper synergistic patterns throughout the body.”
Sundstrom said they want to get Matt to walk independently. “Our company will never put limitations on an individual,” she said. “Our goal is to push and push to achieve the ultimate goals.”
She describes Matt as always motivated and ready to work. “He’s always smiling,” she emphatically adds.
And Matt’s hard work and determination are bringing positive results. “He can stand independently and has taken a couple of steps independently,” she said, adding that getting Matt more comfortable standing on his own is the first step to ambulation.
Since their move to South Florida, Laura has stayed at home with Matt, and Ken is a teaching tennis pro.
Upon enrolling at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Matt had Lisa Priest on his side.
“Laura [Matt’s mother] and I met with the school to ensure that he was included and educated with his general education peers in the least restrictive environment and included on the football team, which is an extension of his school day.”
They also approached the JV Coach at MSD, Christian Baldwin, who was happy to meet Matt and include him on the team. It worked out well. “The kids all accepted him,” Baldwin said. “He’s part of the team. I’ll ensure he’s included in anything we want to do.”
Baldwin is no stranger to including students with various disabilities on his teams. “I’m a football coach,” he said. “I had two young men last year who were high-functioning on the autistic spectrum helping me.”
The coach said it’s important for Matt to know he’s part of something. “I want him to score,” Baldwin said. “I’m going to try to have him do something on the field, but he’s getting the experience of being around other kids, the team experience.”
As for the future, Matt said: “I will fight to play on the varsity team. I have heart.”
- Martin Lenkowsky moved to Coral Springs from NYC in 1982. He has a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College. He has been both writer and editor for a number of South Florida publications since 1983. He considers features writing his specialty.
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