Community’s support for stricken coach: ‘It’s absolutely amazing!’
Livonia shows its love for selfless youth-sports contributor
The morning of April 9, 2022, was one of those gray, blustery, 35-degree early-spring days in Livonia when one would choose, if given the opportunity, to slip on some flannel pajamas and never leave the couch.
Yet an estimated throng of 500-plus people – at least 400 more than attend a typical regular-season game – congregated around the Livonia Churchill softball field to deliver this resounding message to longtime youth softball coach Matt Jones: We love and appreciate you.
Jones is one of those behind-the-scenes, selfless volunteers that make youth sports possible. For several years, he kept the scorebook for his daughters’ Livonia Junior Athletic League, travel and high school softball teams, and helped the players maintain their focus in the dugout.
In recent years he has served as a coach for Churchill’s junior varsity and varsity softball teams.
Never one to seek the spotlight, it found Jones on April 9.
Just days before the annual fundraising doubleheader featuring the host Chargers and crosstown rival Stevenson, a barrage of tests confirmed a mid-February diagnosis: Jones’ body had been invaded by lymphoma, a cancer that affects lymphocytes, which travel through the blood and lymphatic system to defend the body against bacteria and viruses (lymphoma.org).
“The support I’ve received from the community since my diagnosis has been absolutely amazing,” Jones said. “To see that many people show up (April 9) on such a miserable day … I was on an emotional high throughout the doubleheader and for at least 48 hours after.
“So many of my former players showed up. It just meant the world to me and my family.”
For the past decade, the doubleheader had served as a fundraiser for everything from the American Heart Association (former Churchill head coach Steve Gentilia ignited the fundraiser idea after his dad died from a sudden and massive heart attack), to an organization supporting people living with autism, which Jones’ 23-year-old son Brendan was diagnosed with two decades earlier.
Prior to Jones’ out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis, this year’s benefactor was going to be a youth mental health organization. The moment Churchill head coach Abe Vinitski learned of Jones’ daunting diagnosis, plans started changing.
“I’ve known Abe long enough to know how he thinks, and I knew what was coming when he asked me if I’d be comfortable with them raising money for me that day,” Jones explained. “He knows I’m not one of those woe-is-me people who wants the spotlight. I was hesitant at first, but Abe kept working me over, saying, ‘I think we need to do this.’ After I talked it over with my wife (Christina), I thanked him and said, ‘Let’s go for it’.”
The fundraiser served as a “giant GoFundMe” for Jones, he said.
“I have decent health insurance through Blue Cross, but there were a lot of out-of-pocket charges adding up,” he said. “The funds raised have been incredibly helpful and I can’t thank everyone enough.”
Jones emphasized that while the funds to help offset the out-of-pocket medical expenses were greatly appreciated, the steady stream of encouragement-coated you’ve-got-this comments have been equally valuable.
Melissa Bater has known Jones through softball coaching circles – competing with and against him – for close to 20 years and she has witnessed first-hand the lasting impact he has made on their community’s youth since Day One.
“The one thing I love about Matt is whenever our teams meet up or I see him on a softball field he always has a big hug for me, even though I am the coach for a rival school,” Bater said. “Matt Jones is a great coach, all-around great guy and I am so proud to call him my friend and enjoy the many memories we have shared on and off the field.”
Although leaving the 55-year-old Jones worn out during post-treatment stretches, a barrage of chemotherapy infusions has helped repel the cancer, he revealed.
He endured his fourth of six chemo treatments in late-June and reported in early-July that he was feeling good.
“Following my second treatment, my oncologist said everything is looking good,” said Jones, who continued to coach throughout the energy-sapping infusions. “The lymph node numbers are coming down and some are even in the normal range.”
Great news for the Jones family – both his immediate one and the community-wide contingent whose support has made a grueling battle more bearable.
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