By ROBERT STEWART
Tiger Rag Editor
Matt Derenbecker was a tall man.
At 6-foot-7, his lanky body towered over others, especially his mother, Trina, who looks about 5-foot-7 at best. He acquired his long frame from his dad, a college basketball player just like him.
But Matt’s heart stood even taller than his lengthy physique.
Matt’s body is no longer full of the energy that once defined him. The young Derenbecker, at only 22 years old, has been taken away, no longer able to enjoy the life and sport he loved so much, after he was reportedly found dead in a pool in Ponchatoula about a week ago.
"He truly wanted people to be happy around him,” Trina Derenbecker said. "He cared about people’s happiness and could brighten up any room.”
Even though the cause of Matt’s death is still being investigated by the Tangipahoa Parish Coroner’s Office, reports have come out about Matt battling personal demons toward the end of his life.
Let’s stop right there for a second.
Yes, Matt struggled with bi-polar disorder, which, according to his parents, was diagnosed within only about the last year. His parents, in an interview Friday, said the signs only began manifesting themselves around his senior year at Metairie Park Country Day School.
From here on in this column, I could focus on the negative things in Matt’s life — his tussles with the disorder, his transfers that led him away from LSU after his freshman season in 2011, his frequent visits to counselors — and turn it into some kind of odd cautionary tale that doesn’t quite add up.
But to do so would be jumping to horrible conclusions — and it would ignore the lasting memory Matt has left behind.
"He had a real magnetic personality and made people feel really included and made people feel comfortable,” Trina Derenbecker said. "If I visited him at LSU and we walked around campus, he’d have his arm around me.”
Matt’s biggest impact in the public consciousness was all those points he scored on the basketball court.
He was drawn to the sport at a young age, guided in part by his father John, who played at Vanderbilt in the 1980s. Matt didn’t start growing markedly until his ninth grade year, so he learned how to handle the ball as a point guard before making the change to forward.
"I’ve never seen someone so selfless,” said Dominick Scelfo, a former AAU teammate of Matt’s who also played against him while at Jesuit High School. "He honestly did not care who scored, whether it was me, whether it was someone else on the bench. He just wanted to win.”
But even with all those basketball moments, Matt’s greater impact may have been off the court.
In a life filled with so many memories, it’s hard to pick one over any other.
Maybe it was his junior year at Country Day, when he befriended a fellow student in his Spanish class who wasn’t making friends quite as quickly. Or perhaps it’s the countless times he ran off from friends to say hello to his mother, who was a teacher at the school.
Maybe it’s the time Matt and Dominick went to a party with their friend Mitch, when Matt made a point to introduce all of his friends to Mitch so he wouldn’t feel left out. Or maybe it’s any of Matt and Dominick’s golf outings, even though they were terrible at the sport.
"We got our first pars together and actually got my first birdie. When I hit it in, he immediately jumped on me,” Dominick said.
Or maybe it’s the state championship he and Eddie Ludwig won in 2009, in which Matt fought through a high ankle sprain to score 24 points en route to being named the game’s MVP — even though he believed teammate Eddie Ludwig was the team’s most important player.
"That was just his personality,” said Ludwig, whom Matt joined at LSU in 2010. "He wanted everyone to feel good about themselves. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Or perhaps it’s the championship of the 2009 Great Florida Shootout, when he scored 49 points to lead his Country Day squad past an American Heritage High School team led by eventual Florida standout Kenny Boynton.
"It was the best performance that I have ever seen from any player at any level,” Country Day coach Mike McGuire said. "Matt just willed us to a win.”
But to name one moment wouldn’t do him justice.
"Every moment with Matt was always memorable,” Ludwig said. "He could turn a dull trip to the grocery store into the adventure of a lifetime. That was just his personality.”
Matt’s list of friends was as long as his arms. Need proof? An estimated 1,500 people attended his funeral services at First United Methodist Church in Hammond, where his parents now reside.
So many showed up that some had to leave, either because there wasn’t enough space at the church or they felt ill from standing in the heat.
"I found myself just looking out over the people in the church to have a sense of the enormity of Matt’s impact and influence and the love people had for him,” John Derenbecker said. "I didn’t even know what was outside the church at the time.”
If there’s anything else to discuss about Matt’s bi-polar disorder, it’s this: the condition is a frequently misunderstood one, shaken off more like a hamstring injury than a broken leg.
It’s far more like an ACL tear that never fully heals: it’s always there, weighing you down, keeping you from sprinting through life at full speed.
"He suffered a lot of pain and a lot of torture, which looked like it was behavioral,” John Derenbecker said. "He wasn’t equipped to (handle) that.”
But Matt did everything he could to keep pressing forward, enjoying life to the fullest, even with everything dragging him back.
Let me be clear about one thing: I never met Matt Derenbecker. I’ve only received testimonials from friends and family about his personality.
But one picture kept being painted as I spoke to those close to him: an image of a kid at heart who could make friends with a skunk.
"He just had that personality, that charisma, that smile that the second you met him, you felt like he was your best friend,” Scelfo said.