KENT: Many factors often come into play when it comes to standout high school athletes beginning the process of choosing a college.
But for Kent Roosevelt senior linebacker Matt Sommers, there was just one: remaining close to his family.
After losing his father, Randy, to leukemia after a nine-year battle in the fall of 2011, Sommers’ priority became continuing his football career close to home in order to be near his mother and sister.
Growing up in Kent just a few minutes from the Kent State campus and Dix Stadium, the obvious choice was clear.
“One of Matt’s first comments to me about committing early to Kent State was, ‘I’ll be near home in case you need something,’ ” mom Sherry Sommers said. “I thought that was very sweet. Of course, I think the idea of being close to home for laundry purposes came into play there as well.”
For many teenagers, mom’s laundry service and free meals can be a big plus in attending a college near home. But like her brother, Sommers’ sister Danielle came home — transferring from Otterbein College in Columbus to Kent State — for the purpose of being home with her mother and brother.
“One thing about our family; when bad things happen, we tend to close ranks and take care of each other,” Sherry Sommers said. “I really appreciate that about my kids.”
Being both mom and dad to her kids hasn’t been easy for Sherry Sommers the past two years, but having the kids close helps.
“It is hard, because I know what [Matt’s] missing with not having his father around for this time of his life,” she said. “I try very hard to think of what Randy would want and what he would say in certain situations. I tend to say, ‘Be careful!’ or ‘You can’t do that!’ Randy, on the other hand, was the opposite.”
When Matt was 5 years old, his father bought the soon-to-be daredevil a bicycle.
“I was outside with them going, ‘Oh my, it’s too big for him! He’ll fall and hurt himself!’ ” Sherry Sommers said. “Randy gently grabbed me, turned me around and whispered, ‘When we need an ambulance, we’ll call for you.’ ”
As with most boys involved in football, the need for an ambulance did eventually come when Sommers broke an ankle during the Rough Riders’ playoff run as a sophomore. When it happened, Mom summoned her skills as a nurse and the courage of her late husband. She not only handled the situation well, but also began to learn she was becoming much stronger than she ever knew she could be.
“Growing up, my dad never acted sick, even while going though chemo,” said Matt Sommers, who was in second grade when his father was diagnosed. “But they never hid anything from me. Even now, [Mom] doesn’t hide anything from me. We deal with things together.”
In addition to being actively recruited by Kent State, a handful of other close Mid-American Conference schools showed interest in Sommers during his junior season last year. Having watched former teammate and quarterback Tra’Von Chapman go through the process of committing early to the University of Pittsburgh and then being able to enjoy a carefree senior season, Sommers decided he wanted to go the same route.
“Bowling Green and Toledo were interested and Buffalo offered me [a scholarship],” Sommers said. “At first I was waiting to see what was going to happen, but then I figured why go somewhere where they’re waiting to see if they want you when you have a school already committed to you, even through a coaching change?”
Former Kent State coach Darrell Hazell and his staff originally recruited Sommers and extended a scholarship offer. But an offseason coaching change at any school can change that in a second.
“I was scared during the few weeks in between the change,” Sommers said. “When they switched coaches, Kent State was my only offer at the time. I’m thinking, what if I lose this and nothing else comes around?”
That’s why it meant the world to the Sommers that after Hazell left for Purdue in December, his replacement, Paul Haynes, and new linebackers coach Ben Needham informed Matt that he still had a scholarship offer.
“The first time I went over to campus to talk with Coach Haynes, we sat in his office, and it was like talking to an old friend,” Sommers said.
When visitors walk into the front door of the Sommers home, the first thing they’re likely to notice is Hank. The energetic golden retriever believes he hasn’t properly introduced himself until he’s up on his hind legs administering a proper hug and licking faces hello.
The next thing that comes into view is Loretta, the family’s boisterous pot-bellied pig, whose cage sits on the left-hand side of the front room near the home’s entryway.
“[Danielle] moved out for a short period and her landlord said she couldn’t have a cat or a dog, so she bought a pig,” Sherry Sommers said. “And then they both came back home.”
Even with Hank and Loretta on watch, Sommers’ close friends don’t bother with the formality of using the front door or announcing themselves with a ring of the doorbell. On any given day, a stream of male and female friends mosey in and out of the house unannounced, coming through the side garage that leads to a back entrance into the kitchen that’s in the process of being remodeled.
“Matt has a wonderful group of friends and they’re here a lot,” Sherry Sommers said. “Between all the kids in the house and all the animals, there’s not been a dull moment. But that’s been the key, keeping busy.”
Football and life
Randy Sommers never pushed his 6-foot-2, 230-pound son to play football. But he sure enjoyed watching him play and becoming a close friend of the Roosevelt program.
“Matt is such an outstanding football player and a fierce competitor,” Roosevelt coach John Nemec said of Matt Sommers, the reigning Portage Trail Conference Metro Defensive Player of the Year. “He pushed himself and demands a lot out of himself. He’s probably one of the hardest-working off-season players I’ve ever had.”
Sometime, Sherry Sommers allows herself to think how much her husband is missing these days.
“That’s the hardest thing about now, not having Randy here to watch his face as Matt plays,” Sherry Sommers said. “He loved watching Matt play.”
As good of a football player Sommers is, Nemec believes he’s an even better person.
“His parents have done such a marvelous job with him,” Nemec said. “His father and mother have prepared him for life. They taught him a great work ethic and through their own lives, have showed him how to be genuine and good to other people.”
Sommers has not only proven to be a helpful teammate, but off the field, he boasts a maturity well beyond his years that serves he and his friends well as they’re on the verge of stepping into adulthood.
“Matt’s a very responsible young man, the kind of kid who if you’re leaving for a week, you leave him to watch over the house and your family,” Nemec said. “He’s just so mature way past his years. My wife always says he’s the kind of young man you want your daughter to bring home.”
Even with dealing with some of life’s hardest lessons the past few years, Nemec and the Roosevelt football players and families were still shaken by Randy’s death. He was always hanging around the team during practices and games, gladly offering the kids rides home if they needed it.
“When his father passed, it was a huge blow for us — and we’ve taken our share of blows at Roosevelt as far as deaths go and facing difficult situations,” Nemec said. “Mr. Sommers had been in to see our team about 10 days before he started his stem-cell transplant and we presented him with a helmet because he’d always been like a father to the whole team.
“So, when he passed, it was devastating. I remember calling my wife from school and saying, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the kids like this.’ They were really shaken because they’d lost a trusted friend. We have a lot of young men on the team who, unfortunately for various reasons, aren’t close with their fathers, but whom felt a real bond with Mr. Sommers.”
Despite the difficult and emotional time, it was Matt Sommers who helped lead the Rough Riders though the pain and into acceptance.
“Matt, in his maturity, probably helped our kids get through it more than anybody, even more than I did as an adult,” Nemec said. “He lost his dad on a Thursday and yet he played Friday — and played well. Matt, his mother and his sister, they’re quite a family. They stick together. And Mr. Sommers would be very proud of them all right now.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.