The Real Deal: More Than a Number
By: Mandy Housenick
GoLeopards.com Featured Columnist
Even a year later, Matthew Cortese still feels the pain of unexpectedly losing one of his lifelong friends, Eddie Blatz Jr.
The details, kept private by Blatz’s family, aren't important. What matters is that Cortese, who had gone to school and played sports with Blatz since kindergarten, has spent the last year doing his best to honor the friend he admired, the friend who made him laugh, the friend whose life ended too soon.
“Eddie was the most decorated athlete to come out of my high school, the kid who would put a smile on your face when he entered the room,” Cortese said. “He's the guy who you are so happy to call your friend. Everyone wanted to be around him. That made his death so unexpected.”
Leading up to this season, Cortese, a senior on the Lafayette College men's lacrosse team, swapped out his No. 7 jersey for No. 14, which was the number Blatz wore for his whole high school athletic career. Six of his other high school teammates also managed to trade their college numbers so they could wear Blatz's No. 14 this year.
Wearing No. 14 serves as more than just a physical reminder
of Blatz. It allows Cortese to think about and work to
implement all the principles that Blatz took to heart, and in
turn, Cortese works tirelessly to try to pass along those beliefs.
“Being a senior on my team, I constantly remind guys to take pride in what they do and to try to find a purpose in the little things,” Cortese said. “I think it goes a long way. People don't always realize exactly what I'm talking about, and that I'm referring to my friend. But I am talking about the lessons I've learned in losing him and making sure guys are taking care of little things – taking care of their studies, taking care of their bodies – all the things that go along with being a student-athlete. The other thing is understanding the value of life. I want them to realize that with everything they do, there are consequences. There is always some end result in what you're doing. Think about what you're doing and be happy with what you're doing. Do what makes you happy.”
Blatz's passing was a huge shock to Cortese and their friends. It was just about a year ago when Cortese was at a hospital near his home in Long Island visiting his grandfather with the rest of his family when his mom got a phone call from one of her friend's. She heard that Blatz had passed away that morning.
Cortese, reluctant to believe what he thought had to be a bad rumor, called Blatz, but no one answered. Then he reached out to three other friends, all of whom heard the same news. That prompted Cortese to call Lafayette coach Jim Rogalski. Within 10 minutes, Rogalski called him back.
“I pretty much broke down crying,” Cortese said. “We had a long talk and discussed how I felt, and he asked if there was anything he could do for me. He cares about his players a lot.”
In an effort to not be thinking about Blatz 24/7, Cortese opted to drive back to Lafayette that Sunday. He reached out and told his friends and teammates about what happened and warned his professors that he'd likely be missing some classes in the coming week to attend Blatz’s viewing and funeral back home.
By that Friday, he was heading back home for the services. Nothing could have prepared him for the sadness that was ahead.
“The initial shock of attending the wake was a lot to take,” Cortese admitted. “There was a lot of sadness but I found some solace in being with our friends. We didn't talk too much at first. We did a lot of praying. We saw how many people he touched in his life. That was definitely a positive to take away. We didn't realize how lucky we were to have him as our friend. The whole town came out to show their respects and share in celebrating his life.”
As time passed during the viewing, Cortese and his friends reminisced and told stories about their senior year of high school, including their run to the Long Island football championship, for which Blatz was a star wide receiver, and their lacrosse state title.
“We reminisced for hours and hours about how much fun it was to have him out there,” Cortese recalled. “His sense of humor would always come out in his competitive edge. He was always the first one coming back after sprints. There he was laughing and begging for one more sprint when everyone else was hunched over and couldn't breathe. He always wanted us to hold our heads high.”
The funeral, which proved to be even more emotional, was also packed. So packed that if attendees didn't arrive early enough, they were standing and lining the walls of the church.
“The funeral was really difficult because that's the true goodbye,” Cortese said. “Him going down the aisle was probably the toughest moment. You came to the realization that he was actually gone. Thinking back on it, that was the closure we probably needed.”
"It really just means a lot to play for him. We tried to make him as proud as possible."
Five days later, Cortese returned to school. Thanks to understanding and supportive professors, he slowly eased back into his routine.
Over the summer, Cortese and some of his former high school teammates decided they'd all try to find a way to wear Blatz's number for the 2017 season. That meant Cortese had to approach Eric Joseph, the Leopards' owner of No. 14 for the previous three seasons.
“When Matt asked me, I said to myself, 'If I were in Matt's position, I would hope someone would do the same thing for me,'” Joseph recalled. “I know Matt would have it so it really was a no-brainer for me. These guys kind of become your brothers, and you always do anything when a family member asks you to. I knew it meant a lot to him.”
And it still does. Cortese said a day never passes when he puts on that jersey and doesn't think of Blatz.
“It represents a couple things,” Cortese said. “One, it's a peace of mind. Certain days, when I'm in the goal and things aren't going my way, it can be a challenge, and I find myself taking a step back and I look at that jersey and I realize who I'm wearing it for and why. It also reminds me to always show Eddie's most valuable trait and that is to smile and have fun with whatever you're doing. And all of us try to embody, 'Don't count the days, make the days count.' That was his quote in our yearbook. When I have that No. 14 on, I take that mindset and find a purpose and take pride in that. It really just means a lot to play for him. We tried to make him as proud as possible.”
Undoubtedly, Cortese and his friends are doing that.