STEWART: Former Tiger Matt Derenbecker's life stood tall
8/19/2014 6:00:00 AM

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.

Posted by: Robert Stewart | Submit comment | Tell a friend

Categories: Basketball  |  Men's Basketball

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8/19/2014 11:41:15 AM
Great work, Robert. Coach Derenbecker once pulled me and my dad aside after a high school game just to pay me a compliment on how I played and to introduce me to his son. That meant a lot to both me and my dad. Matt was a great player, and in the few times I got to talk to him, I got the impression that he was as good of a guy as his friends, coaches, and family remember him to be.
8/19/2014 8:10:04 PM
Robert, tremendous work and tremendous article. We have know known Matt and his family since we first met Matt when he was 6 years old. I coached him with his dad and my sone played with Matt and ins brothers. Matt was a fantastic kid. Thanks for writing a great article.
8/19/2014 11:52:34 PM
Great article mentioning the most important people
Was wonderful to read. Writers who mention subjects and people
Should always be sensitive with every word written.
You don't know what a person is thinking or ever going through especially
When they read what someone writes about them.
Whether you show your talents, win awards, waiting to win an award or
Wish you can perform enough to win. The way you treat people
Means more than any accomplishment. I'm glad you embraced the
Good of Matt,his Parents and Dominick and Ludwig.
They are all very special people and carry with them
Something so special no one can ever tarnish or take away
From them for they contributed and help recognize
And mold the best person in the world to show everyone
There is so much more to life. People's feelings and trials and sufferings.
Thanks Robert. I think it's a great article that Made me feel
Really good to read. It's been very sad the past week
But Thank God Matt is in God's hands even though we want him here and it hurts
But God is handling our every moment we think of him. He taught us all
So much, even never meeting him you can just feel
The good and greatness of his life how we all should be and the importance
Of what one smile and nice gesture can make to another human being can change there whole life.
Thank you!
8/20/2014 10:19:09 AM
Thank you Robert! What a great article on a fantastic kid. We all miss him so much. Matt was a tremendous person!!
8/21/2014 5:03:55 PM
Thank you for a wonderful article. Matt was my nephew (I am Trina's sister), and these written words and quotes from those who knew and loved him so accurately portray Matt. To know my incredible nephew was to love him. He never met a stranger and was the most loving, kind, affectionate , fun-loving person you could ever meet. My descriptive list of Matt could go on and on!! I wish you had been able to meet him, Robert- you too would have loved him. Matt will be missed by all, but the wonderful memories will live on with us forever and a day will never pass that I won't smile when I am thinking of him. We know that he is busy entertaining everyone in heaven- and being loved by all !!! Thank you again for this article.
8/22/2014 12:13:38 PM
Thank you for such a beautiful tribute to a wonderful life. You painted a picture of honor. What a precious gift for his family.
8/25/2014 10:31:00 PM
I only got to meet Matt once a few weeks before he passed away, but my son has known him since 2010. In fact, Myles was on a football scholarship to Nicholls St. He met Matt through some mutual friends and became close. Matt took Myles on a personal tour of the Pete Maravich Center. Myles told me that he felt like a 10 year old kid with Matt taking him on a wonderful adventure. Matt convinced Myles to come to LSU and fulfill his dream of being an LSU Tiger. Myles became a walk-on member of the football team. Just before Matt passed away, Myles got to thank him again because he received a full scholarship for his last year of football. If it hadn't been for Matt, Myles would never had gotten this opportunity. Matt was a wonderful person. I am so happy my son was able to have such a great friend.
8/27/2014 12:30:28 AM
What a wonderful tribute to Matt's life. I met Matt when he was seven years old and never will forget that day! Matt was a wonderful boy and young man; he was so giving and compassionate. He never put himself before others. I am so glad that your article actually reflects the young man we all know and love!! A picture of an honorable man; no matter how young; makes us all so humbly proud! This is a glorious tribute to his memory...
8/27/2014 5:10:46 PM
Please accept my appreciation for the story that otherwise, I would never have known. As a parent of a child with a mental disorder- I POINT directly at medical professionals and shake my finger! We parents trust them to know how to direct illnesses to the BEST outcomes- so an outcome like this is unacceptable- I HOPE all family and 1500 friends take home with them the fact that MDs must KNOW and TREAT mental illnesses BETTER than they do- Lives DEPEND on it!
I am so sorry for your loss, John- and I hope your wife can manage, too. You two are fine people and do not ever blame yourselves- The entire medical profession let y'all down! I am sorry. It can happen to any of us-
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