‘Live every day like him’: Family remembers son after his sudden death


LELAND, NC (WWAY) — On Wednesday, September 3, Michelle Clemmons answered a call no mother ever wants to get. Matt’s mother, who is a registered nurse, was at work when she got the terrible news her son would not wake up.

“I’m in the middle of a meeting, and I’m trying to tell somebody how to give CPR on my own son,” she said. “That’s the hardest thing in the world.”

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By then, Matt was already gone. There was nothing anyone could do. The 19 year old had passed away from a hypertrophic cardio myopathy in the middle of his sleep the night before.

“He never had any issues,” she added. “I’ve been trying to wrap my head around that. I find it so hard to believe for someone who was so healthy to have something like that. They did assure me he did not suffer. He took a breath and just went to sleep.”

“It was the hardest, darkest day of our lives when we found out the news, she said. “Being in the kind of profession I am, I feel guilty. I feel why could I not see it.”

But nobody could see it.

Even though his parents say he never smoked, partied or did drugs, his medical condition can only be detected by a medical test that would have only been administered if Matt was having problems.

The day after Matt passed, the family received a call from the medical examiner. One thing they did not know about Matt – he was a registered organ donor. The doctor told the family they desperately needed Matt’s eyes. After realizing the decision was not theirs, and Matt had already made up his mind, James and Michelle obliged.

“That person must be in a better place, seeing the world through Matthew’s eyes.”

That is just one of many stories the family told that personifies Matthew Clemmons.

Matt’s death has shaken his community. Each cities’ fire departments all have #73 on their trucks, because they believe it will help protect them. There is even a truck named after Matt. The Trojans current team has players who played with Matt, and it has been hard for them too. James Clemmons, Matt’s father, is the fire chief at Civietown Fire Rescue.

Growing up, Matt was very active. He played many sports, with his father James coaching, but football quickly became his passion.

James also mentions, through the countless hours the two spent together playing sports, fishing, working out, among other things, the relationship between father and son became blurred. Instead, he looked to Matt as his best friend.

“I coached baseball, football, basketball, rec and county wide,” he said. “Doing that we were together 24/7. Most fathers – their children look up to him as their heroes… he became my hero. Anybody I talked to, they would tell you all I did was brag on him. He made me the proudest father alive. I don’t feel I deserved a kid that good.”

Another part of the reason the bond was so strong, Matt adopted a nickname given to his father from James’ time at West Brunswick in the 80s and 90s – Bossy. Even his sister has a nickname.

“Sometimes I get angry being called it, but I love being – having a nickname after my brother. Because I love everything he did and I’m proud of him.”

The Clemmons say he entered his time at West Brunswick out of shape, over weight, and not ready top reach his potential, he wouldn’t give up. In fact, when he was a youth, his parents joke they dragged him to the football field. Due to weight, when he was 8, he played with 13-year-olds.

“He was scared.”

“But I think that’s the year he got the most improved award.”

Then, the transformation began.

“He set a goal to be as good as he had the potential to be. That kid started to hit the weight room in the off season, sometimes twice a day,” said James Clemmons. “The first game to see him go in that green and the wings on that helmet… my wife said you need to hold it together, and that didn’t work. I lost it in the stands.”

“His Freshman year, he went and worked hard. His senior year, he got every kind of recognition. All conference, all area…”

His head coach Brett Hickman says Matt was really what the West Brunswick Trojan program needed.

“When Matthew flipped the script from being just Mr. happy go lucky all the time to that nasty offensive lineman you could lean behind, our program really took off,” said Hickman. “He was such a major part of that from a culture standpoint off the field and then a tangible standpoint on the field as being a very, very good player.”

Hickman adds, “We are better people and better coaches because we got the opportunity to coach a fine young man like that.”

James recalls one time when the Trojans were on the goal line and about to score, but the drive was stalled by a personal foul for unnecessary roughness. James says he doesn’t believe in getting penalties in football, and was hollering when he found out the culprit was his son. After the game, Coach Brett Hickman told him, that was one penalty he didn’t mind. To finally have Matt show some emotion was worth it.

As exemplary of a football player Matt became, his parents say he was even more exemplary off the field. He was a straight A student, made the Dean’s list, had the highest GPA on the team, and was in the process of being inducted in to the leadership society at North Carolina Wesleyan.

On his last Friday alive, his parents said they got a phone call from Matt. His teammates went to a party, but he did not. He was too busy working on a paper that was due in two weeks.

“That’s just the type of kid he was.”

But the greatest of all his great qualities, his parents say was his humility.

“On the field and off the field, he knew what he wanted to do,” said Michelle. “Matthew never saw wrong in anybody. He was the gentle giant. They used to tell us to feed him coffee grinds just to get him mean. He would knock somebody down, but he would hold their hand and pick them right back up and make sure they were okay. He was like that in life.”

Michelle adds that was never more apparent during his funeral, seeing how many lives Matt touched. His teammates were his pallbearers: The West Brunswick 2019 football team on one side and The North Carolina Wesleyan 2020 football team on the other. Every fire truck from Brunswick County was there, each reading a beautiful message to Matt, referring to him as the Gentle Giant.

“It was just unreal… How many people he touched that I didn’t even know. Adults, children… He just had this glow around him that I think everyone took to, more than I thought. I know he’s my kid, but he did and I did not know how much he did until I saw it. He’s just gone too soon.”

But more than just his teammates, the family says Matt pushed adults just as much. James says they would wake up at 4 in the morning to go work out, and his son would push others in the fire department as if they were his teammates.

“Everybody in there said he pushed them to make them better.”

One of those men said he would not be in the kind of physical shape he is in today without working out with Matt.

Even though he was never a troublemaker, one last conversation the family recalls with Matt was a time he woke up his parents to tell them something. Both Michelle and James recall thinking, it must be something wrong or something wrong that he has done. But the conversation went differently.

It wasn’t about school, it wasn’t about football.

He said, ‘Mom, I’m in love.'”

McKenzie dated Matt for years. He brought her everywhere. She has been around the family through this tragedy.

“She’s apart of our family now. She’ll always be.”

The family implores the community to Live Like Matthew.

“He didn’t know rich, he didn’t know poor, he didn’t know color. He just knew people. Especially in this world today, they need to live like Matthew. Live every day like him.”

You can leave a message to the family about Matt here.