Bittersweet milestone for Matt Brown

NORWOOD, Mass. -- By the time Matt Brown left the football field behind Norwood High School on Sunday there wasn't a soul left to ask him for a picture. The chorus line of well-wishers with their refrains of "Congratulations!" fell silent. The few who remained were workers clearing the foldable chairs and staging from the track area.

In one end zone, Matt's parents, Mike and Sue, and an aunt waited for him underneath the goalpost.

Matt says that graduation day is more about them -- his family -- than anything else, though you get the sense that "family" applies to more than flesh and blood. From the time the Class of 2012 lofted caps into the air until he met his family underneath the goalpost, a cavalcade of people who've lifted Matt during the past two-and-a-half years heaped praise on him.

The first to visit Matt was his girlfriend, Meghan O'Connor.

On Jan. 23 , 2010, Matt, then a sophomore, broke his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae during a varsity hockey game against Bay State Conference rival Weymouth, leaving him paralyzed. That day has forever altered Matt's life. But the previous day, Jan. 22, his life changed as well. It was the day he asked Meghan out on their first date.

She was present among the welcome crew in May 2010 when Matt arrived at the airport after spending 102 days at an Atlanta rehabilitation center. She has been by his side throughout, although they will be separated by distance next year. Meghan will study occupational therapy at Springfield College, while Matt will attend nearby Stonehill College.

"I'd like to think I've had an impact on her wanting to study that," Matt said.

Throngs of people moved in on Matt, whose persona in Mustang-land is one part rock star, one part politician. A host of his hockey teammates weaved in and out before the group banded together for one last team picture.

Mustangs hockey fell in the Division 1 South semifinals, pinched out in a 1-0 loss to Natick. Matt noted their tournament run as a highlight of his senior year. He was in attendance for all of the Mustangs' playoff games and a fixture at the rink throughout the season. Norwood head coach Bill Clifford gave Matt a de facto assistant coach's role with the team, noting that he took Matt's observations to heart as his "second pair of eyes."

"He sees things that I miss down on the ice," Clifford said during the hockey season. "He knows the game well."

As the group gathered around Matt for a photo-op, Norwood teacher and assistant football coach Wesley Burhoe spoke of Matt's sense of humor. It's a large part of what makes him so endearing to so many. Burhoe became particularly close with Matt since his return to high school. Serving as a "set of hands" for Matt in his time at the school, Burhoe estimated they've spent about 2,000 hours together.

"The best part about him is, today, he comes up to me and tells me that he loves me," Burhoe shared with head football coach John Sarianides while looking back at Matt. "That just got me."

Burhoe was part of an extensive support team that made Matt's transition back to the high school possible. When Matt returned to school in May of his sophomore year, the old building wasn't properly equipped for his wheelchair. Matt came in through a back entrance to the school, and each day he was greeted by principal George Usevich.

Norwood's new high school building is accessible by wheelchair from the front entrance. Usevich remained the first person Matt saw in school each day.

Matt received one of three Golden Diplomas handed out by Usevich on Sunday, recognizing students who overcame serious obstacles in completing their studies.

"You're not going to find a more special kid than Matt," Usevich beamed.

Matt continued through the seemingly endless receiving line, with kisses on the forehead from guidance counselors and hellos from parents of fellow students.

"I don't know if you remember me," one hesitant mother approached Matt.

"Of course, Mrs. Wong!" Matt shot back. "So nice to see you."

While Matt is enrolling at Stonehill undeclared, he's leaning toward business. He has hinted to his mother that he would like to try his hand at sports broadcasting, too. No matter the application, his natural warmth with people is something that will translate to whatever he endeavors.

"[My mom] tells me all the time that I can't be all over the place all the time," Matt said. "I have to focus on one thing at a time."

It's that attitude, coupled with his competitive streak, that has pushed Matt in his recovery.

The fall will bring change for Matt and his family. He plans to stay on-campus at Stonehill. The Browns' morning routine will no longer involve getting Matt ready for school, starting at 6:20 each morning. With change comes independence, and his dream is that one day he will find ultimate independence in regaining the ability to walk.

Until then, Matt has found success in the small victories: finding movement in his left arm, wrist and his fingers; the wiggle of his toes; the lifting of a thigh. He got himself back in the classroom, when others might have faltered. He graduated on time. He's going to college.

It's everything others might take for granted. It's everything that makes Matt an inspiration to everyone he touches.

He talked about his two-hour physical therapy sessions three days a week at Journey Forward, a non-profit organization in Canton.

"They're going to be the people that get me out of this chair," Brown says defiantly, his eyes locked in conviction.

He described his graduation day as bittersweet; proud of his accomplishment, he was going to miss seeing his teammates every day in the hallways.

"Things change and you all move on, but what I've developed with my teammates in the last couple of years, that's never going to change," Matt said.

He wheeled over to his family and they started toward the exit, nearly an hour past the end of the ceremony. The party would continue at home.

Thing is, Matt Brown will never leave Norwood High School.