Matt Deery spent just one year at Lipscomb University. His impact will last much longer.
Hundreds filled Collins Alumni Auditorium on Thursday to remember the track and field standout. Teammates, classmates, coaches and administrators choked back tears and sparked laughter as they shared memories of Deery, who died in a car accident on Aug. 1 near his hometown of Phillipsburg, N.J. He was 19 and was just weeks away from his sophomore year at Lipscomb.
More than 20 family members, including Deery’s parents and two brothers, made the trip from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to celebrate the talented young man with the contagious smile, humble demeanor and genuine concern for others’ well-being.
“Matt’s accident was a gigantic tragedy and a huge loss for us,” Lipscomb head coach Bill Taylor told those in attendance. “But Matt’s in our hearts always and his life can be an example and an inspiration to everyone who knew him and people who didn’t know him. ... You each have the opportunity to take Matt’s best qualities and live them out more fully.”
While many knew of his athletic prowess — he was named the team’s freshman of the year and broke five school records, including in the pole vault and heptathlon — stories about Deery’s selfless attitude and outgoing personality filled up the memorial service.
Teammate Nelson Scott recalled how Deery always greeted friends — and even strangers — with a loud hello and smile.
“The kid had a smile that could turn your whole day around,” assistant coach Marcus Evans said.
One teammate remembered when Deery dressed up in a gorilla suit to cheer on his teammates at the first cross country meet.
Taylor Mason, a pole vaulter like Deery, shared a story that epitomized his caring nature.
Last spring, after the Bisons competed in the Vanderbilt Invitational, Deery offered to drive Mason home. But, having a bad week and wanting to be alone, she lied to Deery, telling him she had another ride back. Instead, she walked to campus.
As she made the long trek, Deery, and teammate Kenny Smith, drove by and spotted her. Upset and concerned, he told her to get in but she refused. So Deery stopped and started running toward Mason. But he didn’t make it all the way as he tripped over a curb, tumbled down the hill and landed on the asphalt – face first.
“He completely ate the pavement,” remembered Mason.
Bloodied knees and a dinged up face weren’t enough to discourage Mason. So Deery stormed off and headed back to his Jeep. Once there, he quickly turned around and started running down the hill, intentionally tripping himself and falling again, collecting more bruises and scars along the way.
“He looks at me and says, ‘Are you ready to go now or you going to make me do that one more time?’” Mason recalled, igniting laughter in the auditorium. “To me, that really just captures the essence of who Matt was as a person. He would do anything to cheer any of us. And, in this particular incident, he had physically and intentionally hurt himself in order to make me laugh and forget about my week.”
Lipscomb plans to make sure Deery is not forgotten.
Teammate Tucker Peabody made purple wristbands with Deery’s name, the date of his death and the words, “In our hearts forever.” His initials have been stitched onto weight-training T-shirts.
The “Fightin’ Bison” award, which is given to the toughest competitor on the team and which Deery won last year, will be renamed in his honor. The school will establish the Matthew Richard Deery Memorial Scholarship to be awarded annually to a member of the track and field team. A Princeton American elm tree was also planted on campus as a memorial to Deery.
“Dubbed the survivor tree, we thought it was appropriate to plant the Princeton elm in memorial of Matt as a living reminder on the influence he has had,” vice president for student development Scott McDowell said. “We’re grateful as institution to have had him for a year. The time was too short but he made a difference here.”