Matthew Jacques took the opening handoff of the 2013 Spring Brawl and ran 20 yards to the end zone with everyone at Vanacore Field all smiles to see the wide-eyed grin on the face of this courageous six-year-old boy.
The North Haven community had joined together on June 21 for the football team's yearly intra-squad scrimmage, an event that raises money for local people in need. This year, that person is Matthew Jacques, a kindergarten student at the Montowese School who needs a heart transplant. The Indians wanted this year's game to be the biggest and best yet to provide as much support to the Jacques family as possible. That's exactly what occurred as the ninth annual Spring Brawl featured a record crowd, gorgeous weather, countless volunteer efforts, and approximately $9,000 donated to Matthew and his family, more than twice as much as last year's game raised.
But before the final numbers were tallied, the number everyone's eyes were fixed on was 35 on the maroon jersey of Matthew Jacques as he took the ball from Cole Pecora, went to the end zone while North Haven's athletes watched with glee, and then spiked the ball as the crowd roared and fire engines sounded their horns. Matthew had attended practice the day before to rehearse the scripted play that was shown on Good Morning America and proved the highlight of a great night for the Jacques family and the town of North Haven.
"We were overwhelmed with the generosity of everybody. We felt supported and that we are not alone. Before all of this, we felt isolated, but with everyone coming forth, you feel relieved and see that people care and we're grateful for that. There was a lot of love there and it was great," said Matthew's father Al Jacques, a North Haven native who lives in town with his wife Melissa. "Matthew felt like he was king of the world that day, walking around with his helmet and uniform on and saying 'Hi' to everyone. I could see in his eyes that he was proud."
When Matthew's mother was four months pregnant, Matthew was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallott, a congenital heart defect that blocks the flow of blood from the heart to the lungs. Upon being born, he was diagnosed with pulmonary atresia, which has resulted in blood going only to his right lung. The severity of these conditions is typically such that, "Matthew should be bedridden," according to his father, who adds, "But he's a medical mystery who's resilient and just won't give up." Matthew is currently on the waiting list for a heart transplant at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian.
Indians' senior Alex Baglioni can relate to the Jacques's family situation for his sister Erika has undergone five open-heart surgeries. Baglioni heard about Matthew's situation, suggested this year's Spring Brawl benefit the Jacques family, and the event took shape with North Haven's seniors leading the way. Alex played for Team White, which defeated Team Maroon by the score of 27-0, although Indians' Coach Anthony Sagnella wasn't that concerned with the outcome-he was more focused on the care and concern his athletes showed in organizing such an impactful event in which everyone emerged victorious.
"I'm proud that our team came together and displayed such compassion for somebody outside of our program. They did something special that made them feel good and that's what education is all about," Coach Sagnella said. "This event is growing every year and we had a huge crowd like one we would have on a Friday night with an enormous amount of support from the town and the school system. It was a day full of giving and I think Matthew's mother and father were overwhelmed with the way everyone embraced their son and their family. I'm thrilled with how much money we raised and hope it goes a long way to relieve the family of some of their expenses."
Along with his mom and dad, Matthew had other members of his family on hand that day in his older brother Tyler, an 11-year old who plays in North Haven's Youth Football league, along with their grandmother Deborah Gaudio and great-grandfather Alphonse Gaudio, both of whom are on Matthew's dad's side of the family.
Matthew's mother said she felt inspired by how a group of young men organized an event that not only provided financial support for her family, but emotional support, as well.
"Their actions truly inspire us and keep us very positive. Matthew has a positive attitude and that's what makes him so resilient and keeps him fighting hard," Melissa Jacques said. "It's emotional to think about high school kids doing something for a little boy in their community and the fact that they chose Matthew means so much to us. The look on Matthew's face was priceless."
Four of the athletes who organized the event are North Haven's senior captains in Mike Siwek, Patrick Mikos, Ethan Suraci, and Austin Mahon. Siwek and Suraci played for triumphant Team White, which received a quick boost as Evan Manemeit returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and then notched its second score when fellow senior Mike Halloran rushed one in. Suraci scored the last two TDs and sophomore Sabrina Fronte kicked three extra points. Siwek's squad was sponsored by AM radio station WQUN 1220 and coached by recent graduates Matt Marcarelli, John Spencer, and Connor McDonald.
"It makes me feel so glad that our program could make an impact and give back to a community that gives so much to us," said two-way lineman Siwek. "I'll never forget the look on the faces of Matthew's family when we met them. There were tears in their eyes, but they also looked so thankful and happy. I just want to say thank you to everyone who donated and made this such a positive experience."
Meanwhile, Mikos and Mahon competed for Team Maroon, which was sponsored by 960 WELI and coached by Indians' alums Jalon White, Joe Lopez, Quincy Pecora, and Kyle Mahon.
"I thought the day went great and the crowd was really into it," said Mikos, a blocking back/linebacker. "The Spring Brawl has now become a tradition that people in North Haven want to be a part of so they can do something special for someone."
One of the most special moments of the 2013 Spring Brawl came late in the game when, with Team Maroon trailing and one of its players getting injured, Matthew told his mom that she had to go find Sagnella and have the coach put him in the game because, "They need me," Matthew said. That comment prompted a round of laughter and culminated a day that Matthew Jacques, his family, and everyone else who was involved with will never forget.
"It's pretty amazing what these kids did to make our son feel so special," Al Jacques said. "Our family just wants to thank everyone in North Haven so much from the deepest part of our hearts."