La Salle's Matt Paulus reminds us that good people still exist
In these extraordinarily divisive and dangerous times, I encourage everyone to find the Matt Paulus in their everyday lives.
In these extraordinarily divisive and dangerous times when cowards use cars as weapons, and intolerance, ignorance, and hate are spewed online as carelessly as bullets fly on the streets, I encourage everyone to find the Matt Paulus in their everyday lives.
When I heard that recent La Salle High grad Jarrod Stukes had been shot multiple times earlier this week, my heart dropped.
Guile and guts had made the 5-foot-8 point guard a personal favorite. I've witnessed his game, confidence and tenacity blossom during his four years as an Explorer and hoped to follow his career at Clarion.
Remember, this news came just days after a depraved individual killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others with his vehicle in Charlottesville, Va., during a peaceful protest of the hate that had descended upon the city.
As a result, I struggled to reconcile the dispassionate fact-finder I've been trained to become with the empathetic human being that couldn't bear news of more senseless violence.
Thankfully, my reporting eventually led me to Matt, whose love for Jarrod — his friend, teammate and "brother" — transcends their many differences: Matt, a white kid from the suburbs; Jarrod, a black kid from the city.
It was a much-needed reminder that good still exists.
And, because the volatility and vitriol so prevalent today can at times seem so dark and overwhelming, I think it's important to celebrate when we find some light.
So I met with Matt, a 5-foot-10 shooting guard who will play at Ursinus this season and was a team captain with Jarrod last season.
"I live in a pretty suburban area," said Matt, who comes from Solebury, Bucks County. "I went to a school that I would say is [mostly] white. Just getting to know Jarrod, getting to know him as a human, he's a phenomenal person."
Matt added: "I would say it's about making sure you get to know a person, the story behind a person, what they're going through instead of just the person you see. I think I've gotten to know him on a deeper level. It's cool to know someone [that way]. I consider him a brother, and I'm going to be friends with him for the rest of my life."
Jarrod is recuperating well at Presbyterian Hospital, where he's been since someone sprayed at least 30 bullets late Sunday night at a block party near 39th and Melon Streets. Police continue to investigate the incident.
La Salle coach Joe Dempsey said Jarrod is sitting up and doctors have commented on how well he is responding to treatment.
That wasn't the case Tuesday when Matt first visited.
"When I went in, his eyes were closed," he said. "He could hear me talk and he could acknowledge what I said by shaking his head."
Matt's voice, once sturdy and joyous as he recounted their friendship, dipped before ultimately trailing off.
His eyes looked down then listed slowly right, as if fleeing the image in his mind.
"The first thing I remember was him opening his eyes and then he started crying," said Matt, whose greenish-blue eyes welled with tears. "It was terrible."
He continued after a pause.
"I've just never seen him like that. I'm used to seeing Jarrod laughing and joking around with me. Just seeing him in a hospital bed like that, I just didn't even want to process that."
They first met at a summer basketball camp at La Salle in eighth grade.
Almost rivals at the camp back then, Dempsey told them they would be backcourt mates and encouraged them to bond.
They have ever since.
Each summer since ninth grade, Matt said, the duo has worked out together at La Salle University. They even worked out a few weeks ago before the shooting.
"Those two were kind of peanut butter and jelly for four years," Dempsey said. "They're about the same size. They're both good guards. One was a point guard, one was a shooting guard, one a city kid, one a suburban kid, one a white kid, one a black kid. They kind of completed each other."
So when Matt heard the news Monday afternoon …
"I was at a loss for words. I yelled out to my mom," his voice trailed off again and his eyes filled with tears, but didn't spill a drop.
Another brief pause brought some resolve.
"I was just in shock at that point," he said. "I thought I was going to lose him."
After a mostly restless night, Matt had an idea to buy posterboard. He and his mother, Valerie, took it to La Salle so that friends and classmates could sign it and send well-wishes.
Before long, it was filled with signatures from Explorers far and wide. The plan was to present it to Jarrod on Saturday.
Former teammate, Dan Corr, now a junior at Notre Dame, drove up from the Jersey Shore, stopped by the hospital Thursday and went to La Salle to sign the card before eventually making the nearly 10-hour drive to South Bend.
It didn't matter that Jarrod's father, Dhaamin Stukes, prayed to Allah for his son's health while others looked elsewhere for spiritual guidance.
"I was just trying to find a way where everyone could show their support and find some way to keep Jarrod's spirits up," Matt said.
The carload of former teammates who trekked to Presbyterian Hospital or called or texted did the same.
Via Facebook on Friday, Dhaamin Stukes posted words of appreciation for the city-wide support his family continues to receive.
The juxtaposition between that love and the wanton disregard for life that necessitated it is a story for another day.
Until then, I'm grateful that Matt Paulus reminded me that good people still exist. I hope his light inspires me for a while and I hope Jarrod's strength does the same.
I encourage everyone to look for hints of those two in their everyday lives. They're out there. Sometimes you just have to look.