Matt DeRiggi and Danny Garofalo will never run again.
Matt, 16, and Danny, 11, are both confined to wheelchairs due to Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare and particularly cruel disease that almost exclusively afflicts young boys.
Matt and Danny were diagnosed with DMD at an early age and have been in wheelchairs for the past three years. Their condition has not dampened their passion for sports, especially Rutgers football.
They regularly attend Rutgers practices, but they experienced a first on Saturday. They joined the Rutgers players on the High Point Solutions Stadium field, where Matt took a handoff from quarterback Gary Nova and Danny came around for a reverse. Danny took the ball and followed a wall of blockers to reach the end zone where he was mobbed by the entire team (watch the video below).
“He loved it,” said Danny’s father, Dan. “That’s what makes it all worth it. As small as something like that seems, it really is a big difference.”
A SPECIAL BOND WITH RUTGERS FOOTBALL
Tom and Barbara DeRiggi weren’t overly concerned when the youngest of their three children didn’t begin walking until he was about 2 years old. But over time, it became clear that something wasn’t right with Matt’s muscular development and, after a lengthy process, he was diagnosed with DMD when he was 6.
Matt, a Toms River native, grew up around sports. Tom coached youth basketball for years and Matt was a fixture on the bench. He had the same spot on the Toms River North High bench for a few years beginning at age 8.
“Matty was telling some of my former players things to do,” Tom said. “He says little things, ‘Dad, he should have done this.’ “
Matt’s connection to Rutgers football began seven years ago when a mutual friend introduced the family to Kevin Malast, then a junior linebacker. Malast, who is from neighboring Manchester, came to visit Matt and brought his Rutgers jersey.
Before long, Matt was a regular at Rutgers’ practices. He became close with a number of players and then-coach Greg Schiano, and they remain in contact.
Every summer, the DeRiggis take a road trip to NFL training camps to catch up with former Rutgers players. Last summer, their three-week tour began in Cincinnati, where they visited wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and watched Toms River product and Rutgers alum Todd Frazier play for the Reds. Then they went to Chicago to visit linebacker Khaseem Greene, and the trip ended with five days in Tampa, where they reunited with Schiano and a handful of former Rutgers players on the Buccaneers.
“When we go out there, the kids love seeing Matty,” Tom said. “They spoil him a little bit. We take the big van and we just go on a road trip. It’s a special time for him so that’s why we try to do it.”
Matt was able to walk until he fell and broke his hip shortly before his 13th birthday. He’s been in a wheelchair since, but that didn’t stop him from scoring a touchdown in a Toms River North freshman game last fall.
Matt was a member of the team all season, sitting on the sideline in his wheelchair alongside his teammates. In the final game of the season, Matt came onto the field and took a handoff from the 10-yard line. He wheeled into the end zone, much to the delight of the crowd, which included Malast.
“They have a very special bond,” Tom said.
The DeRiggis’ relationship with Rutgers continued when Kyle Flood succeeded Schiano in 2012. They have season tickets and Matt and Tom are on the sidelines before every game.
“We just enjoy the moment,” Tom said. “He just loves being around sports. I think that’s his medicine beyond the other things he has to take.”
WELCOMED INTO THE RUTGERS FAMILY
Danny Garofalo and Kyle Flood’s oldest son share the same birthday and have been friends since kindergarten. Danny already had been diagnosed with DMD at that point and by the time he was 8, he was using his wheelchair full-time.
Like Matt, sports have been a form of therapy for Danny. He couldn’t play a full game, but he stayed involved with Little League, hitting from a tee. When he could no longer do that, he began announcing his brother’s games.
“He doesn’t want to shy away from it all,” Dan said. “If other kids are playing basketball, he can’t do it, but he’s happy to be a part of it and watching them out there.”
Technology helps fuel Danny’s love of sports. All of the stats and information about his beloved Yankees are at the tips of his fingers.
“He could tell you more stats about the Yanks and where they all came from and who their parents are,” Dan said.
When Flood was an assistant, the Garofalos had an open invitation to practices. They’ve become more regular visitors since Flood became head coach.
“We’re good friends with Kyle and he’s really been good to Danny all along,” Dan said. “It really is an extended family. They make them feel very welcome. Danny’s always had a liking for sports and Rutgers being close and obviously Kyle being who he is, he just loves to be a part of it.”
THE MEMORY OF A LIFETIME
The DeRiggis and Garofalos met last year at a Rutgers game. The families instantly bonded over the shared experience of their battle with DMD.
The DeRiggis planned to go to Saturday’s practice so Tom invited the Garofalos to join them. In all of the Rutgers’ practices they had attended, the boys had never been asked to run a play. But Flood drew up the reverse and Matt and Danny took the field at the end of Saturday’s practice.
There was a brief pause as Matt and Danny met at the 25-yard line for the handoff, and Matt joked that they had bad ball security.
“There was a little point there where it paused because, obviously, it’s not easy holding a ball or even handing off a ball,” Dan said. “Then Danny came across to the corner of the end zone. They all huddled around him after and that was great.”
The Rutgers players were as excited as Matt and Danny, celebrating with them in the end zone.
“Those two guys are special guys in our program,” Flood said. “To have them both out here, I thought we could try to create a good experience for them and a good experience for our players. It was fun to see them out there run the reverse.”
It was the type of moment that balances out some of their tougher days. While DMD presents many challenges, the DeRiggis and Garofalos are determined to give their sons as many memorable experiences as possible.
“If there’s not a lot of time for him to be a kid, we want to make the best out of that time,” Dan said. “They want to do everything that everyone else can do, they just have to do it differently. If that means you pick them up and you carry them when you go somewhere, you can still get wherever you want.”
Thanks to the Rutgers football team, Matt and Danny have a memory that will last the rest of their lives.
“The mind is the last thing to go with these kids,” DeRiggi said. “The mind is always there. Everything else breaks down over time, as of now with the way the illness is, but the mind is pure right to the bitter end. Our focus with him is just to enjoy his life and have balance because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
For more information about Duchenne muscular dystrophy, visit parentprojectmd.org.