Community remembers Matt Stauffer ’96 two decades after his death

The stone sits atop a hill overlooking Cole Field, accompanied by a lone tree amongst the vast sheet of white snow covering the ground. It is rather humble in appearance, and hundreds of spectators arriving at Cole Field for Williams soccer games have passed by it each fall.

Perhaps some visitors do not know the man whose story lies behind the stone. Maybe they do not know that Matt Stauffer ’96, a tri-captain midfielder for the Ephs, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1995 and began chemotherapy just two days before the start of his senior soccer season. That year, Stauffer willed himself out of the hospital to attend NCAA tournament games, inspiring the Ephs on their way to winning their first national championship in school history.

Some visitors might not know that 20 years after Stauffer’s death, dozens of people whose lives he touched still think of him daily. Each year, on a weekend in January, as many as 100 friends, family members and teammates have gathered around the stone to celebrate and remember his life.

What Stauffer himself might never have imagined is that the identity of Williams soccer would become forever entwined with the values he held and the person he was. His retired No. 10 jersey now hangs in the men’s locker room, and both the men’s and women’s soccer teams still circle around his memorial stone before each home game. In 23 years of life, Stauffer set an example that friends, family, teammates and countless others have striven to replicate ever since.

***

It is Jan. 6, 2018, and Erin Sullivan ’96 walks across the icy parking lot above Cole Field. Per usual, he is one of the first to arrive. The temperature is dipping toward zero, but there was never a question of whether the gathering would happen.

“It would have been Matt’s idea of fun to come out here in sub-Arctic weather,” Sullivan jokes to a few old friends who have already arrived.

Now the head coach of men’s soccer, Sullivan was a teammate of Stauffer’s for four years. Every day during preseason, Stauffer, Sullivan and the rest of the team ran up the hill above which Stauffer’s stone stands. It was in that sprint that Stauffer had cemented his reputation as the fittest player on the team.

“Matt was usually at the front of the pack,” Sullivan said.

On the field, Stauffer made an impact through his boundless energy. Growing up in New Canaan, Conn., he had starred as a central midfielder at New Canaan High School. Then head coach Mike Russo was impressed by Stauffer’s fitness and recruited him to play at the College.

Standing five feet nine inches and weighing 145 pounds, Stauffer lacked the typical size of a player in the NESCAC, a conference known for its physicality. Yet his energy level and work ethic quickly made him one of the top first-years on the squad.

Mike Cotter ’96, one of the seven first-years on the 1992 team, remembers his first time playing with Stauffer during preseason.

“Coach took seven of us down to Cole and told us to play 4-on-3,” Cotter said. “I thought I was hot shit coming out of high school, but Matt was dusting everyone, running circles around us. I called my dad and said, ‘I think I’m seventh on the depth chart.’ He asked, ‘Who’s the best?’ I said, ‘This peanut-sized kid from New Canaan.’

“I thought, ‘Oh my god. If that’s the bar, I have some work to do.’”

Jake Upton ’93, who co-captained the 1992 team, was taken aback by the young midfielder’s precocious play. In a scrimmage at Dartmouth, Stauffer had masterfully covered Andrew Shue, a three-time All-Ivy League player who had played professionally in Zimbabwe.

“Matt threw everything into it,” Upton said. “I’d never seen someone play with that much energy sustained for a whole game – and as a freshman, too.”

Russo’s decision to place Stauffer’s memorial at the top of the hill was intentional.

“He ran the hill better than anyone,” Russo said. “We would do 20 a day, then Matt would say, ‘No, we’re not doing 20, we’re doing 24.’ He always set such high standards.

“He came as an 18-year-old and had values. I was 50 at the time and thought, ‘This kid has it all.’”

Off the field, Stauffer built a reputation as a model teammate and devoted friend. He valued kindness and hard work, encouraging others to improve themselves. He always had a smile on his face and brought a positive attitude to any task he took on.

Sullivan said Stauffer cared deeply for others, building an immediate rapport with everyone he met.

“He was a get-up-and-go kind of guy,” Sullivan said. “He wouldn’t ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ He would say, ‘You’re doing this? I’ll do it with you.’”

“Once you met him, you considered him a friend,” Sports Information Director Dick Quinn said.

“He had poise,” Upton said. “He always had that ability to connect with people. He looked you in the eye and focused on you. He was so genuine.”

***

Emily Stauffer Keenan steps out of her car into the parking lot, her four children in tow. She leads the group toward a nearby car, where they enthusiastically greet her younger sister, Hannah Stauffer Kolkin ’05.

Soccer ran in the Stauffer family, and both the Stauffer sisters were collegiate midfielders as well. Emily was a top player at Harvard, where she was twice named Ivy League Player of the Year and is now a member of the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame.

Eight years Matt’s junior, Hannah was a First Team All-NESCAC selection in each of the three seasons she played at the College. As a tribute to her brother, she wore No. 10 in her time on the women’s team.

“We were always a close family, so my brother and my sister were my heroes,” Kolkin said.

On Jan. 6, friends, family and the Williams soccer community gathered around the memorial stone to remember Matt Stauffer ’96.

For both sisters, the annual gathering has allowed an opportunity to make sense of their loss. The tragedy that they experienced jointly stitched a permanent bond between the Stauffer family and the Williams soccer community. Today, Stauffer’s sisters and teammates feel a level of kinship.

“We were all at the hospital 20 years ago saying goodbye to him, and that felt so tragic,” Keenan said. “For me, the real significance of the weekend is seeing that this group can still come back together and celebrate his life, feeling both joy and sadness at the same time.”

When her brother suffered a relapse in 1997, Keenan donated her bone marrow and gave up her senior soccer season to spend time with her brother. Her decision was not a difficult one.

“Matt was in a critical time, and I wanted to be with him,” she said. “Your priorities become very crystallized when you’re going through something really intense. I’m really grateful for that time with Matt.”

In early years, this gathering was a space primarily for young adults to grieve together at an age when few knew how to cope on their own. Most of the attendees in those days were Stauffer’s close friends, and the Stauffer family did not participate until several years later. Even when the Stauffers began attending the event, the void still felt immense.

“Even though it had been 10 years since he died, it still felt raw and very hard for me,” Keenan said. “I was still wounded. They say that time heals, and I think that’s true. It helps you approach your sorrow differently.”

Although the sadness has not entirely subsided, Keenan said the gathering has become more uplifting as time has passed.

“While there’s always some sorrow when we come back together, I now find this weekend to just be a celebration of Matt’s life, the legacy he left, the impact he had on everyone and the way he brought us all together,” she said.

Kolkin was just a high school sophomore when her brother passed away. His teammates have taught her more about the person he was and serve as an indication of who he might have become.

“In a lot of ways, I have gotten to know Matt much better posthumously,” Kolkin said. “I’m learning more about him and who he was as a person. As I’ve grown, I’ve been able to comprehend more.

“We see our brother in all these guys. All of a sudden, you think, ‘Wow. He would be older. He would be graying. He would be a full-on dad now.’ You get reminded of where he would have been.”

Having grown up attending the yearly gathering, Keenan’s and Kolkin’s children have also been shaped by the event. Kolkin’s first-born child is named “Stauffs,” Stauffer’s nickname at the College. Keenan’s first-born child bears the middle name “Matthew.”

“They’ve gotten to know their uncle through this experience,” Keenan said.

For Stauffer’s teammates, too, the presence of the children has been transformative. Cotter said he was once asked which of Stauffer’s values he wanted to see in his own children.

“All of them,” he replied. “I want my kid to be Matt Stauffer.”

***

On a wintry November weekend in 1995, Stauffer sat beside Russo on the bench as the Ephs won a national championship on Cole Field. If Matt Stauffer’s story had been a Hollywood movie, the closing credits would have played at the end of the title game. The final scene would have shown Stauffer, triumphantly lifting the trophy with his teammates to a cacophonous ovation on Cole Field.

Yet in reality, the team was on the verge of a very solemn realization.

“There was this hope that he would get better,” Paul Burke ’96 said. “In retrospect, we were naïve because his chances of survival were in the single digits. We thought that somehow he would overcome.”

Confronted by the mortality of a close friend in their late teens and early 20s, the young men were unsure of how to process the situation. They struggled to comprehend the reality of illness and death.

“I don’t know why we felt there was anything we could do about it, but we did,” Sullivan said. “Maybe at 22 we believed that winning a national title would cure leukemia – I don’t know. I don’t know what we really believed.

“Because of who he was, we always believed that he would come through it, whether it was that fall or the following spring. It was Matt. He was such an indomitable person, player and human.”

To Sullivan, that championship now feels insignificant in comparison to what his friend was going through at the time. After the Ephs won the semifinal game in a penalty shootout, Sullivan grabbed the ball and ran over to the sideline, where Stauffer was standing with tears in his eyes.

“We all would have liked to see Matt smiling, happy and cured of leukemia at that moment, even though that wasn’t possible,” Sullivan said. “We all would have said, ‘Anyone but him.’”

Despite the team’s success that year, Stauffer’s struggle haunted the group.

“Every time you stopped to think, woke up or walked out of a building, it was the first thing that crossed your mind,” Sullivan said. “There was no escaping it.”

As the men have grown older, they have come to better understand what they went through.

“For a couple of years, we were starting to come to grips and wrestle with it,” Sullivan said. “You come to grips with the fact that winning a soccer game or a title doesn’t cure leukemia and that there are things in life that are far bigger than sport or science.

“While there’s a painful personal story within their family and within the soccer program, we all have come to a place where we feel there is more to celebrate and remember – to share and inspire – even at the cost of some of the pain that comes with it.”

***

This year, nearly 100 people circled around the stone to remember Stauffer. Many never met the man but have learned about him through the stories his loved ones have told. In more ways than he could have known, Stauffer has continued to shape lives.

“I remember he had a little index card under his mirror that said, ‘Nothing is worth more than this day,’” Keenan said. “It is certainly something that has echoed in my head over the last 20 years and helped me to center myself.”

“Matt’s sickness taught him – and he taught us – that you make the best of whatever you’ve got,” Kolkin said. “You just find a way to make it a good time.”

Kolkin teaches at an all-boys school in Baltimore, Md., where she has spoken about her brother on many occasions. Stauffer’s story may not be fully comprehensible to middle school students, but the parts that Kolkin can communicate include “working hard” and “taking care of your friends.”

“If I can pass on a little bit of who he was to the young men that I teach and coach, I will have succeeded,” she said.

Sullivan seeks to inculcate the values Stauffer embodied into his team. Stauffer’s motto – “Run for yourself, run for your mates” – has become a customary signature in team emails. The majority of current players attend the annual January meeting.

“We’ve continued to tell his story and try to help more people understand why he was so meaningful,” Sullivan said. Many of those stories deal with self-improvement and compassion, values applicable to current student-athletes.

Those involved say they have no intention of ending the tradition of gathering each January.

“Matt is a bit of a shooting star in all of our minds in the sense that he was so brilliant,” Sullivan said. “Yet there was this fleeting piece by the end that you just wanted to capture and keep. I don’t believe any of us were ready to say goodbye when we were in the hospital with him. In a way, we haven’t.

“I don’t think the last chapter is written.”

“People take so much joy in it,” Keenan said. “It’s not a duty. It’s not a memorial. We come together to be with each other as much as we do to celebrate Matt.”

Sullivan can envision what a 50th year’s meeting might look like. Stauffs Kolkin might be a father, and he might bring his children to Williamstown.

It might be a sunny day, on which rays of light peek out over the mountains, illuminating the words inscribed on the rock:

“IN MEMORY OF

MATTHEW H. STAUFFER

CLASS OF 1996

WILLIAMS SOCCER

RUN FOR YOURSELF

RUN FOR YOUR MATES.”