Go Spartan! Fight Spartan, Fight On!

by Alyssa Quintero on November 1, 2006 - 5:00pm

QUEST Vol. 13, No. 6

Michigan State University’s fight song dictates, “… All through the game they’ll fight … Fight for the only colors, green and white …”.

Matt Gerhardt, 2007 MDA National Personal Achievement Award recipient
MDA National Personal Achievement Award recipient, Matthew "Mo" Gerhardt, credits education and a competitive spirit in his drive for success. Gerhardt is assisted by his service dog, Ted. Photo by Kevin Fowler

These words bring Michigan State University Spartans to their feet as they cheer their team on to victory. For Matthew ”Mo” Gerhardt of East Lansing, Mich., these words have a deeper meaning, as they’ve helped to motivate the lifelong, green-and-white-wearing Spartan to fight on through the game that’s life.

Gerhardt, 29, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, was selected as MDA’s 2007 National Personal Achievement Award recipient. The award, announced during the national broadcast of the 2006 Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, is the highest honor in MDA’s program recognizing the achievements and community involvement of people across the country who are affected by neuromuscular diseases.

A competitve spirit

Even though he was the slowest boy on his youth soccer team, Gerhardt’s competitive spirit fueled an incessant drive for success. He’s always believed that he can, regardless of the obstacles.

So when neuromuscular disease took away his ability to play sports as a youth, he focused his attention elsewhere — on education.

“As a kid, I looked at academics as my sport, or as my way to compete,” Gerhardt said. “I’m a very competitive person, and with the sports playing field taken away from me, I had to find another way to compete.”

Wanting to excel in his studies, Gerhardt was unwilling to sit at home after high school. His mission was to enjoy learning, earn a degree and help others appreciate the importance of higher education.

In 2000, Gerhardt graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from MSU, and two years later, earned a master’s degree in sports administration.

“There’s nothing that should set you back physically from trying to achieve your dreams academically,” Gerhardt explained. “You’re on an even playing field where your physical disability doesn’t impact your studies in any way.”

Helping others succeed

When Gerhardt was 8, doctors thought he had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but in 2001 the diagnosis was changed to the milder Becker MD. Then earlier this year, Gerhardt learned that he actually has a form of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. Talk about your proverbial curve ball.

Yet even as he faces this latest challenge — learning more about his new diagnosis — Gerhardt fights on by helping college students confront their challenges on the path to success.

The loyal Spartan alumnus devotes his professional life to helping incoming freshmen make a successful transition to college and experience a good first year.

With the aid of his service dog, Ted, a black lab/golden retriever mix, Gerhardt works full-time as an academic enrichment coordinator in MSU’s Office of Supportive Services, where he oversees the College Achievement Admissions Program (CAAP).

CAAP, a tutorial program that assists about 600 incoming freshmen each year, works primarily with first-generation college students, low-income students and students with disabilities.

“The program is meant to help put them on the same playing field right from the moment they walk onto the campus,” Gerhardt said.

Gerhardt also helps with academic advising, and this fall is teaching his first freshman seminar class. Offered through his office, the course focuses on diversity and social justice issues, and Gerhardt’s “superexcited about the opportunity.”

It’s an honor

When Gerhardt was an undergraduate, his adviser predicted that he’d also end up as a student adviser someday. At the time, Gerhardt didn’t give it much thought, but today he thrives on “sharing my love for the university with the students and making them feel positive about themselves.

“It’s an unbelievably gratifying feeling, something money can’t buy. I love the one-on-one interaction with the students and getting to know them on an individual level. I want to help them realize their dreams, too.”

For the 2005-06 school year, Gerhardt received Michigan State’s Outstanding Faculty/Staff Award, which recognizes remarkable contributions to creating equal opportunity and an environment of excellence.

Gerhardt was especially touched because the selection was based on a student’s nomination.

“It was a totally new experience for me because here was a student that felt I’d impacted her life in such a positive way that she would take the extra time to nominate me for the award,” he said.

“In some ways, it reinforced everything up to that point in my professional career, and it was a culmination of all my efforts.”

Competitive spirit reignited

After reading an article in Quest six years ago, Gerhardt found a new way to channel his competitive juices — wheelchair hockey. Within days, he joined Michigan’s Wheelchair Hockey League.

“I worked up the confidence to go and play, and fell in love with it from the instant I hit the floor,” he said.

The league consists of five teams and 40 members who use both manual and power wheelchairs. He’s a member of the Michigan Mustangs and the league’s deputy commissioner.

“It has been a huge positive in my life, both physically and emotionally,” he explained. “I remember when I joined the league and received my jersey. It had my name across the back, and that was the first time I felt like I was truly a member of the team.

“Sports aren’t for everyone, but for those who love sports and have that taken away, it’s very tough to accept. Hockey has added so much to my life, and I feel very fortunate to be able to participate.”

With some upper-body strength, Gerhardt is able to hold the hockey stick. He relishes the power and full-speed action, as well as the remarkable abilities exhibited by his teammates. After all, “everyone’s out there to win just like in any other sport.”

When you believe…

Gerhardt, who was profiled on Northern Michigan’s local MDA Telethon broadcast this year, has assisted in his local Telethon for 20 years, volunteered at MDA fund-raisers and done some public speaking for the Association.

Now, Gerhardt is ready for a new challenge — serving as a role model for young people affected by muscle diseases and their families across the country.

“I’m very excited about sharing my experiences with other families on a local, state and national level,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to give families hope because when there’s hope, there’s happiness.”

In the dictionary, a Spartan is defined as a person of great courage and self-discipline. By sharing his unfinished story with others, Gerhardt hopes to demonstrate that “you can do so much with your life and become almost anything you want to be,” because “a wheelchair is a difference that doesn’t make a difference.”

 

Mo Gerhardt and Kevin Sonnemann have been best friends since they were babies — really. They grew up in Traverse City, Mich., and although they now live in different states — Michigan and Minnesota — their bond is unbreakable.

Matt Gerhardt with his best   friend, Kevin Sonnemann, and Kevin's wife, Emily.
Mo Gerhardt and Kevin and Emily Sonnemann enjoyed a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field in 2005. The two men have been best friends since they were toddlers.

“Before we even knew we were friends, we were friends,” Gerhardt laughed.

Sonnemann, 29, added, “We were the best of friends from the get-go, and he’s the only best friend that I’ve ever had.”

When Gerhardt was 11 months old, his mom returned to work full-time and hired Sonnemann’s mother as his babysitter. The two boys became instant playmates.

For years, the boys saw each other almost every day — except for the day in 1985 when Mo received a diagnosis of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).

“I remember being told that he had to get a muscle test with the doctor, and that he had Duchenne,” Sonnemann explained. “I decided then and there to go cure this thing.”

For some people, it takes years to figure out what they want to do with their lives. At age 8, Kevin Sonnemann’s mission was clear — find a cure for his best friend’s disease.

In December 2005, Sonnemann received his doctorate in molecular and cellular biology from the University of Wisconsin. Today, he lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Emily, and works with an MDA-funded research team in the James Ervasti lab at the University of Minnesota.

Since 2001, he’s been researching why muscle cells die in DMD. His first research paper as lead author was published in September.

This year, Gerhardt learned that he has a form of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy instead of DMD, which is the focus of Sonneman’s research.

Gerhardt said, “I almost feel guilty, but Kevin’s been unbelievable. It’s amazing how much research he’s done on his own to help me learn more [about limb-girdle]. His number one goal is still to find a cure for me, and we realize that all research eventually will help everyone with a neuromuscular disease.”

Sonnemann is now working on ways to incorporate Gerhardt’s new diagnosis into his research efforts.

“It’s the reason that I’m in science,” Sonnemann said. “If the disease is cured tomorrow, I would get out of the lab and go do something else. Mo’s diagnos

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