By Becky Aubut
WESTPORT, Mass. — “How do you sum up Matt?” said his mother, Robin Benoit. “He was a wonderful, young man, wonderful son who loved his family, loved sports and was just an all-around great kid who was loved by everyone. He was a friend to everybody.”
Back in 2006, Matt Benoit was a senior at Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth. Active in the high school’s ministry, he was an athlete by nature, playing football, basketball — where he was captain — and baseball. Though Matt opted to give up football his senior year to play soccer, he still supported his former teammates and was coming home on a Friday evening after attending a football game with his sister, Angelique, a freshman at Bishop Stang.
“He had called me and said, ‘Mom, we’re on our way home. We just stopped at Wendy’s. I love you, mom.’ And I said, ‘I love you too, Matt,’ and hung up the phone,” recalled Robin. “The next call was from Angelique.”
After complaining of a headache, upset stomach and a loss of feeling in his legs, Angelique told Matt to pull over to get some air. Only a mile-and-a-half from home, Matt pulled over in the parking lot of a Methodist Church in Westport, got out of the car and collapsed. His father, George Benoit, Jr., was in Connecticut when he received a call from his mother-in-law about Matt. By the time Robin arrived, emergency services had been called and were working on Matt in the ambulance.
Matt was 17 years old when he died.
“He was never sick,” said Robin. “He just joined a gym and had been put in the elite category. He was so proud and told me it was because he was so conditioned, and he was. He was in a lot of sports and very active.”
“The pathology report stated Matt died from a dissection of the aorta and there wasn’t anything anyone could have done,” said George.
Every year, the senior class at Bishop Stang creates their own class slogan. That year’s slogan, ‘One class; one heartbeat,’ was a class motto that became a rallying cry of support after Matt’s death. Three thousand people showed up to Matt’s wake.
George said he immediately wanted to form a scholarship in Matt’s name, and the family got a start on raising funds as donations poured from friends of the Benoit family.
“We also got all kinds of donations in the mail, and that started it off,” said George.
A few months after Matt’s death, friends held a fund-raising dinner at White’s of Westport but the Benoit family could do little but attend the event.
“We didn’t do anything,” recalled George, adding that he and the family were still deeply grieving the loss of Matt. “We weren’t even in the world.”
“We just attended,” said Robin. “And then people wanted to do it again, so George and I got a little more involved to where it is today.”
Every year the Matt Benoit Scholarship fund gives away $20,000 dollars. Four thousand dollars are given to incoming freshmen attending Bishop Stang High School, and the rest is awarded to graduating seniors from public and Catholic high schools in the Southeastern Massachusetts area.
George is hands-on, getting the information out to high schools every year, and eight board members that include Matt’s parents and siblings look over each scholarship application to find those who exemplify the best qualities of Matt; students who can balance their faith with academics, sports and work.
“It is hard,” said George. “We got like 89 or 90 applications this year, and we sit there and go through them. The smart kids are going to get their scholarships. My son wasn’t the smartest kid — he wasn’t dumb by any means — but he was a B-student and an athlete. We’re looking for kids who are like Matt, who go out and play sports and work. We do give scholarships to kids who are number one or two in their class, but they’re also athletes. The biggest part of the scholarship is that essay that kids have to write about how they’re like Matt Benoit.”
“We look for kids who love their family,” added Robin. “They really have to tie in how they’re like Matt.”
All applicants are rated and while bigger awards go to Bishop Stang and Westport High School, other schools are included to honor Matt’s athletic ability. Since he played sports and against students in other schools, said Robin, it only seemed fair to include additional schools. This year, around two-dozen graduating seniors each received a scholarship.
For incoming Bishop Stang freshmen, eighth-grade graduating students coming from St. James-St. John School in New Bedford, where Matt attended and where Robin teaches, are eligible for the award, based on their need. This year the scholarship fund split the $4,000 earmarked for the incoming freshmen among six students.
The scholarship is primarily funded through two annual events — the Christmas dinner held the first Sunday in December at White’s of Westport and a golf tournament held at the Allendale Country Club.
At last year’s Christmas dinner, 325 people attended and 85 baskets were auctioned off. Ashley Medeiros, a classmate of Matt’s, made each basket.
“She’s right there for everything. She’s a wonderful girl and has been there since its inception,” said Robin. “She was an aide for me at my school, and now she’s a teacher at St. James-St. John.”
This year’s golf tournament has 172 golfers participating, “28 over the max,” said George. “For the golf tournament and Christmas dinner, it’s the same people who help sponsor.”
There are so many people who help bring their talents and support to the annual fund-raisers, including Rui Cordeiro, Butch and Michelle Souza, Dan and Rosa Moniz, John and Paula Freitas, “and countless others,” said Robin.
“There are some hardcore donors,” said George, as he pointed to a picture of Red Sox players hanging in his office. “My son and I bought that at a Boston Celtics game but I hadn’t hung it up. Matt passed away and I brought it to the auction, and my buddy Rui Cordeiro found out it was something I had bought with my son, and he bid $2,800 for that and gave it back to me, stating, ‘That’s not to be sold.’”
Every year sponsors bid during the Christmas fund-raiser to be the corporate sponsor for the summer’s golf tournament, but this year, said George, two companies continue to bid against each other, but had an underlying agenda.
“This year, because it’s the 10th anniversary, [they said] there will be no corporate sponsor, it will be the Matt Benoit Scholarship Fund. They don’t want their name on anything,” said George.
Stories about Matt began to emerge after his death. An especially touching moment came during Matt’s wake, where people waited upwards of four hours to pay their respects to his parents. Among them, and one of the last in the line of 3,000 people, were a boy and his mother.
“There was the kid who others would make fun of, and Matt asked him to play soccer. The last kid coming through the line was this kid, and it was like one o’clock in the morning, and he said he wanted to come because no one would let him play soccer and Matt let him play,” said George.
Then there was an elderly woman from Westport, whom the Benoit family didn’t know. She was so touched by the death of Matt and his impact on his friends and family, she kept every article written about him and his family’s efforts to keep his memory alive through the scholarship.
“She was in her 80s, and she started a scrapbook. [One day] she came up our driveway and said she had something for the Benoits. She said she was afraid she was going to pass away and we wouldn’t get it. She gave us this book and it’s beautiful. It was from the last 10 years or so, of every article written. We went to meet her at her house and thanked her personally,” said Robin. “She said she was so touched by his story and everything that’s happened since.”
George and Robin were Bishop Stang High School sweethearts, and their entire family life has been built around their Catholic faith. Every year a Mass is held at the chapel at Bishop Stang, and many of Matt’s former classmates attend. Each year the Benoit family asks one or two to stand up during the Mass and share their memories and stories of Matt.
“Stang has been very supportive,” said George. “When Matt passed away, we went to the school and the kids were all there. His jersey (No. 15) is up in the gym. Stang didn’t want to do that because they don’t ‘retire’ jerseys but [a petition was signed] and parents said this should be up there, and Stang did it.”
At Beech Grove Cemetery in Westport, instead of a headstone — because his sisters didn’t want a stone because it was “too final,” said Robin — the family planted a tree at Matt’s gravesite. Each month the family goes to decorate the tree; this month will see the tree decorated with golf balls to highlight the golf tournament.
“People kept telling us this would fizzle out after three or four years,” said Robin. “And every year people start asking in the fall [about the Christmas fund-raiser], and they attend. The chapel is full for his Mass, the golf tournament sells out every year and the Christmas fund-raiser always has more than 300 people. It’s wonderful people who have supported it.”