By Jacie Scott | LSU Student
Mathmatics senior Matthew Clark was dressed in his usual game-day attire: LSU paraphernalia from head to toe, Mardi Gras beads and that unmistakable yellow wig.
Stationed in the student section - collectively known as the "Sidekicks" - Clark was one of 2,542 fans attending the grand opening of the LSU Soccer Stadium.
The target of his taunts? The mid-fielder of the visiting Oregon Ducks.
"Shanelle! Don't walk away from me when I'm talking to you, Shanelle!"
The female athlete hurried down the field, trying her hardest to ignore Clark's barbs.
"Don't deny me, Shanelle. Marry me, Shanelle."
Clark known campus-wide as the "guy in the yellow wig," has become a staple of LSU athletics. Be it a football game in Tiger Stadium, basketball in the PMAC or swimming and diving meet, the yellow wig stands out in the crowd. Clark shows his Tiger spirit by cheering his team or by taunting the opponent. Regardless, he keeps it classy.
"My main goal is to just distract them from whatever they're doing so that we can get possession," he explained. "I'm not going to curse, or say anything mean. I know my limits and it's all in fun."
Matthew Clark is the epitome of what it means to love purple and live gold. The 22-year-old says he has the university's best intentions at heart in everything he does. So much so he uses only three words to describe himself: "Louisiana State University." Now a senior, majoring in mathematics, Clark focuses more on giving back to the university than on his considerable personal struggles.
Clark suffers from cerebral palsy spastic diplegia, a disorder that affects the legs, causing stiff or contracted muscles. The disease has weakened his legs. He walks with a distinct sway.
His condition may be physically limiting, but Clark doesn't let it impede his dedication to LSU. He immersed himself in everything LSU from the minute he stepped foot on campus, joining various organizations, including Geaux Teach and LSU Ambassadors.
Clark describes this campus involvement as his "me time." That speaks volumes because Clark makes LSU his No. 1 priority. He has postponed two surgeries during his college career that would have helped repair the muscles in his legs.
Clark's attitude about his condition is that it doesn't define him as a person but realizes that it affects his life daily. He recalled a moment of panic after being selected as an associate LSU ambassador his freshman year. His greatest fear was falling while escorting students at an orientation. He wasn't sure if he could handle even an "accidental laugh."
Before coming to LSU, Clark's ambition was to become a member of Team Mike, a group of students who serve as the school's mascot. He couldn't think of a better way to represent the university that he loved. His dreams were shattered when he realized there were no suits to fit his 5-foot-6 frame. And, he would be required to run on and off the field during games.
Clark acknowledges there are there are sobering moments that remind him that he is different. "It's when I'm like walking past a mirror or next to a building on campus and I catch my reflection… And when I see it, I'm just like, that's right."
Matthew Xavier Clark Jr. was born three months premature at 2 pounds 3 ounces on July 3, 1989, in Saint Joseph, La. During delivery, the heartbeats of both Clark and his mother, Tracy Parker, were momentarily lost. A significant amount of oxygen left the infant's brain, causing damage the left side. Baby Clark occupied the neonatal intensive care unit at a time when he should have been in the womb.
Parker finally brought her son home when he was four months old, but she grew more concerned about his condition as each month passed. At nine months, the baby showed minimal progress in his mobility. Parker knew something was wrong.
"Even then he still was not rolling over, pulling up or crawling," said Parker. "I would take him to the doctor and was told that I was a paranoid mother and that nothing was wrong other than he was just delayed."
That explanation wasn't good enough. After visiting several doctors and a barrage of tests, Parker learned her son suffered brain damage from the loss of oxygen. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder – conditions that would force him to spend the majority of his childhood in and out of hospitals, rather than on playgrounds.
Clark's early years brought the toughest battles, including frequent seizures and constant struggles to stand, to walk and even to talk. "Aww" was the only sound he could make.
"After he turned seven, doctors told us that he would never walk or talk," said Parker. "They wanted to label him mentally retarded."
Had it not been for her faith and trust in God, Parker said she would have accepted that prognosis and left it at that. She made difficult decisions as a mother, choosing to put Clark through rigorous speech therapy and additional surgeries. Parker knew it would be a tough road, but she also knew her son was not mentally retarded.
Parker said her son's determination became evident at an early age and she believes sports played a major role in shaping his life. Clark was an extreme Michael Jordan fan who had the Jordan logo airbrushed on his casts after surgeries.
One afternoon, while watching a Chicago Bulls basketball game, Clark made a breakthrough. During the game, his mother said, Jordan made an awesome jump shot. In excitement, Clark stood up, took a few steps with his walker and then threw it across the room, breaking free from his chains. Those few triumphant steps proved the medical experts wrong.
"When he realized he was walking, he fell to the floor," recalled Parker. "Needless to say, he never used the walker again."
Clark spent his high school years in North Carolina. While he attributes his amicable personality to his mother, he believes the move to the Tar Heel State helped him hone his people skills.
On his first day in a North Carolina school, Clark recalls sitting alone on a bench feeling like the awkward new kid in school. A girl asked if he wanted to play soccer with a few of her friends. Clark declined because he knew his legs wouldn't allow it, but her gesture taught him a valuable lesson. "That moment for me solidified that there's no harm in just walking up to somebody and saying hey."
From that time on, that's exactly what he's done. He seldom passes a person without smiling and saying hello. And he has a way of making a connection with just about everyone he comes in contact with.
Clark's welcoming quality, along with his purple and gold heart, helped him become a familiar face for the LSU community and LSU athletics. Daniel Nunes, marketing coordinator in the LSU athletic department, recognized Clark's passion for the university and the way he easily connects with people. He sought Clark's help to improve the student fan base and to promote the traditions of LSU Athletics.
"He's so enthusiastic about LSU athletics and LSU as a whole," said Nunes. "He is the example of what an LSU student should be."
In May 2012 Clark will graduate. He jokingly says that he stretched it out so he could catch the end of all the athletic seasons. His goal is to become a mathematics teacher.
His mom, naturally, beams with pride.
"I watched him go through so much pain, so many obstacles and limitations. And I saw him overcome. He is my strength and I'm honored to be his mother."