August 5, 2013

Ward: 'Schuman will be missed and not forgotten'


GREELEY -- I first met Matt Schuman on Feb. 17, 2008.

I was set to start a new position with Northern Colorado Athletics the following day, and on that Sunday my wife and I took a break from unpacking to watch the Bears in their home wrestling match against Cal State Fullerton. 

Heather Kennedy, who had hired me away from the Kansas City area, waved us over to her perch along the mat and pointed to a couple seats down the row where we could watch the action. Before the student-athletes hit the mat, though, she introduced us to Matt, Northern Colorado's "beat" reporter for The Greeley Tribune who was in a motorized wheelchair, elevated above everyone else on press row, and whom I would later learn was born with muscular dystrophy.

He had a pen and paper tucked under one of his hands and a recorder tucked under the other.

We exchanged, "Hellos," and I said something like, "I'm sure we'll be working together a lot soon," before I retook my seat and watched alongside Matt as Northern Colorado came up just short against the Titans. It was the first and only UNC event I have watched as a fan, and it was the only time I would ever consider Matt a stranger.

The last time I saw Matt was a couple weeks ago, when he was making his way across the Michener Library parking lot, maneuvering his motorized chair between cars and people and barely catching a glimpse of me before he headed north out onto Reservoir Road. 

I stuck my hand out my car window and waved, and he raised his eyebrows in response and mouthed a, "Hi," before he was gone. 

And now he's gone, having passed away early Sunday morning after a bout with pneumonia. 

A voicemail from Kennedy relayed the news while I was having breakfast this morning, and as I listened my coffee and blueberry muffin instantly lost their taste, and my mind raced back to that day more than five years ago when I first met Matt. 

In between that meeting and our parking-lot exchange late last month Matt and I became great friends. We worked together, killed time together and talked about our lives together.

My wife and I welcomed our first child, a daughter, in January 2011, right in the middle of Northern Colorado Men's Basketball's run to its first NCAA Tournament, and earlier in the fall, when he had heard through the grapevine that we were expecting, Matt went out of his way to pass along congratulations and excitement at the news. 

Audrey is now 2 and will turn 3 this winter, and Matt was always so engaging with her every time their paths would cross at various UNC events. He always talked to her, explained his wheelchair when she would wonder, "What's that?" and comment on her curly red hair. She would usually make some sort of nervous squeal and run off in any number of directions, and he would cackle in delight. And I do mean cackle. Matt had a great laugh.

I've been thinking a lot about Matt today*, and I think the thing I'm the most sad about is that my daughter won't ever get to know him and really know what a hero looks like. She's not going to remember their meetings, and me just telling her about him someday isn't going to do justice to his tremendous story.


One of our favorite pastimes was to rib each other about our sports-fan allegiances. Matt was a diehard Broncos and Nuggets fan, while I'm a Kansas City guy. I would give him grief because he liked the Broncos and liked the NBA period, and he would make fun of me for rooting for the Chiefs and not being a savvy enough basketball fan to understand the finer points of the NBA.

I've heard a few people mention since news of his passing broke that Matt never complained, and that's mostly true—he never used his disability as a reason for complaint—but I'll tell you that he did complain sometimes, especially when it came to the Denver Nuggets. I'll just say that I'm glad George Karl was replaced by Brian Shaw earlier this year, before Matt passed away, or Matt likely would have haunted the Pepsi Center for years to come! Matt was not Karl's biggest fan, and I'm sure that sentiment grew following this year's Denver playoff exit.

Matt was the epitome of strength, patience, and hard work. Toss in his humanity and decency in every situation, and you had a guy who was worthy of emulation and worthy of having his story told, instead of the other way around. 

Matt never wanted you to feel sorry for him, and he never allowed you to be uncomfortable around him. He had to overcome so much in his daily life that I'm sure he eliminated at an early age that, "Should I ask for help ... am I being a burden?" inner dialogue most of us deal with daily.

When he would pull his wheelchair into the press box at Nottingham Field the sea in front of him would split because it had to split. It was simple as that. Matt wasn't going to stop until he was to his spot and set up before kickoff. 

There were times his body would get too cold and he'd basically lose mobility in his fingers. That would probably be enough to send most of home to a warm shower, me included, but it was merely a roadblock for Matt, who would simply ask me or anyone else near him to literally pick up his hand and place it back on his wheelchair control. And, while you were at it, "If you could hit the record button on my recorder, that would be great, too." 

He was as humble as they come, and I'll always be in awe of that.

Whenever I would prep new Northern Colorado student-athletes or coaches for an interview with Matt I would always start my conversation with, "Don't worry about shaking his hand. He can't do it very easily, and he won't think you're rude if you don't. Just talk to him like anybody else. He's a great guy." 

Sometimes I would forget, though, and one of our football players or basketball guys or volleyball girls would walk up with their hands extended, trying to give off a great first impression. It always made me catch my breath because that type of exchange between many other people on this planet would result in an awkward moment followed by many more awkward moments of silence—not an ideal situation for a media interview—but with Matt, it was never an issue.

Not even once. 

He would just brush it off with a, "Eh … I can't shake your hand actually, but it's great to meet you. Now, what was it like to split that high screen and hit that 20-footer?" 

I have an aunt who was crippled as a teenager, so I always tried my best to be aware of things that could make Matt's life and job more difficult. But, as my dealings with him were limited mainly to the UNC campus, I'm sure I have no idea what he had to do just to get out the door in the morning, let alone report on the near-daily dealings of an NCAA Division I athletics department.

I do know, though, that he was a great man and a great friend, and he was a great reporter who was passionate about UNC and as passionate as anyone about telling the stories of its successes and failures. He started exclusively covering the Bears in 2008, right around the time I met him, and he's been a fixture in the press box or on the sidelines ever since.

I'll always remember his "Team Taylor" stocking cap, his flip-open cell phone, and his disdain for anyone in the press box who talked about how fast a particular game was going, as it was a sure jinx on the swiftness of the event and was going to result in some sort of overtime situation where he would miss his deadline and we would all miss our bedtimes.

I'll always remember, too, his silhouette moving around Northern Colorado's and Greeley's sidewalks. I don't think I'll ever notice someone on a motorized wheelchair for the rest of my life and not think of Matt. This morning, for example, after I knew he was gone, I saw a man riding east on 20th Street, and an incredible sadness came over me when I knew there was no chance it was Matt.

I came to Northern Colorado from the University of Missouri, after spending a few years in Kansas City, and I was a fish out of water at Northern Colorado. I was used to triple-decker basketball stadiums and football games under the lights and on national TV. I was used to press conferences being chock-full of reporters, and I was used to those reporters being of the grizzled and grumpy variety. 

Matt was neither. Instead, he was always patient, happy, outgoing, funny, honest, humble, decent and any other word that you might use to describe the very nicest person you know or have ever met. 

The world owed Matt Schuman a lot—it's just not fair that he was born the way he was, and I was born the way I was—but he would have disagreed with this sentence. He never came looking to collect on the debt. He tackled every day with zest and energy and kept his eyes on the box scores, looking for the next great story to tell. 

I'm going to miss him, and I'm never going to forget him. 

I hope he's in a place now where he can run and catch some footballs over the middle. Where he can leg out a triple, run a 400, hit a nasty return serve and really see what it's like to split that high screen and hit that 20-footer.

For nearly 30 years Matt told the stories of others who could do those things with the littlest of effort. He deserves the chance now, and I hope there's a reporter there ready to document his successes.