Matt Letkeman’s Purpose Doesn’t End With Basketball
Matt Guynup, Athletes in Action
All over North America this year, there were university and college athletes graduating out of their respective institutions. It’s always interesting to see these athletes as they look back on their experiences and reflect on the lessons they’ve learned and friendships they’ve made.
Recently, I saw a picture on Twitter that captured my attention. It was of University of Calgary men’s basketball senior Matt Letkeman as the emotion of his last game on his home court overwhelmed him and he knelt courtside with Bill Hurley, the longtime water boy for the U of C Dinos. There was a reason the photo drew me in. I had a window into the backstory of this picture that few others had. Some of that story came out over the following weeks in articles from the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and The Province, but I want to give you the full story. The whole, epic thing.
In 2010 Matt Letkeman graduated from Yale Secondary in Abbotsford, B.C., and headed to the University of Calgary. He left as a provincial first team all-star, and a B.C. champion. Like every basketball player who moves on to play after high school, he had big dreams of making a mark, rising above the competition, and moving up to play at even higher levels. It didn’t take long for him to develop a vision for so much more than that.
University started well for Matt, but he quickly began to learn about more than just the classroom material. “You are your own master once you get to university, and I found that the things that I was experiencing weren’t fulfilling,” says Letkeman. “I started going to Athletes in Action meetings, and a church on campus. I grew up in Greendale, which is very Mennonite … so it wasn’t like the Christian stuff was new to me, but I had a distaste in my mouth for it. When I was a kid I understood spirituality to be thanking God for meals, and praying to be taller. I probably would never have gone to those meetings and church services if it hadn’t been for my high school teammate Marek Klassen and his family. Dave Klassen (Marek’s dad) was really my first spiritual mentor, and really allowed me to trust Christians. So because I felt unfulfilled and started asking ‘why’, I went to these meetings and to church. And after talking to the pastor of that church, I found out that he had been an atheist for 23 years. He talked to me about what he walked through in making his decisions, and that helped me to come to terms with where I stood and the steps I wanted to take.”
As this was happening, Matt was getting his first taste of CIS basketball, and was handling things pretty well on the court. That first year, Matt experienced a pretty high level of success. He was named the rookie of the year for the Canada West conference of CIS basketball. On its own this was a great accomplishment, but he also spent the summer competing overseas for Team Canada at the U19 world championships.
“That was the highest place I’ve ever been athletically,” he says. “I was playing with a bunch of future pros. Against guys that had been drafted (including current Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas), and even more that would be drafted in the future. On top of that, it had been my dream ever since I was little to play on a national team. So, kind of in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I give myself to God, and this is the first thing that happened? Oh, this is what it’s gonna be like to serve God … well let’s go! Why didn’t I do this earlier?’”
What Matt didn’t know was that he would not stay on the mountaintop. As practices and games continued, and into his offseason training, he noticed that his muscles were starting to be increasingly uncomfortable and causing him some pain. He shrugged it off and kept going, but couldn’t ignore it for long. Soon he was experiencing pain just shaking hands with people, and having trouble getting food to his mouth. Finally on the day of the Dinos regular season opener, the pain was too much, and an assistant coach took Matt to the hospital.
“I’m thinking, just do whatever you gotta do to patch me up, and get me back out there, but they quickly got my attention and let me know, ‘We’re not concerned about you playing, we’re concerned about you breathing,’” he recalls. “They were worried that my kidneys were going to burst.”
The initial diagnosis was rhabdomyolysis which is a breakdown of muscle tissue where the damaged tissue enters the bloodstream and damages the kidneys to the point of kidney failure. The diagnosis was later changed to polymyositis, which is chronic muscle inflammation and loss of muscle mass. Matt found himself in the hospital for several days, and so began a five-month journey that saw him eventually leave school, take the year away from basketball and rethink almost everything about his life: from playing basketball, to what his purpose might be.
For as long as he could, Matt tried to stay involved, and helped to start planning and fundraising for a sport mission trip to Rwanda. Realizing that there was no way he could go in his current condition, it was difficult to face the planning, but he helped when and how he could. He also stayed involved with the Athletes In Action group on campus. They would meet for Bible studies on Monday evenings. It wasn’t easy to stay committed, but Matt was there when he could be. One particular Monday night Matt really struggled to get out of bed, but he was determined, and made it to the meeting. It was in a room near the Dinos’ gym, and Matt will never forget that room or what happened that night. Toward the end of their time together, the group decided to pray for Matt. They all came around him, and prayed for healing.
“Nothing freaky or crazy happened that night,” he says. “I didn’t feel anything, but the next morning I woke up and felt great! I started moving around, and feeling energetic. I went back to the gym the next day, and the guys were telling me to take it easy. They were worried I was going to hurt myself. I can’t blame them, they had seem me go through it all, and I did not look good. I had lost 50 pounds – I was down from 240 to 190 pounds so I looked pretty fragile, but I started telling everyone what had happened.”
The next step of course was to figure out medically if everything was in fact as it should be. The doctor’s visits were pristine – no indications or markers of the previous five months torture. He was, in fact, healed.
It’s hard not to have some sort of reaction when you hear the story. Some don’t want to think about it. There are too many things that aren’t defined. The issues for Matt don’t lie in accepting the healing. He knows that the story can sound crazy to others, and people can be tempted to come up with their own understanding of what happened, but he looks at it from a different perspective. “What’s common with many people that I talk to, is that they attribute the healing to my faith (if they do believe in the miracle), or strength (my strength), or determination … not to God or his strength. The healing had nothing to do with me. I didn’t get healed because I worked it out, or was determined to be healed. I didn’t have super faith. This has nothing to do with me.”
The true beauty of it all was that Matt got to pack his bags and go to Rwanda. With him on the trip were some people from the group that prayed for him, which only made it sweeter as he got to enjoy the fruit of his perseverance in keeping at it when so many others would have quit.
Speaking of keeping at it, the recovery started in earnest for Letkeman as he now had to focus on getting some muscle back on his frame in preparation for the next season. After sitting out the year, he was beyond eager to get back on the court. As with anything Matt Letkeman does, he brought passion, enthusiasm and energy to the task, and in spite of spending a significant amount of his off season in Rwanda (hardly the place where you might go to bulk up), he was physically prepared and even won a U of C athletic award for his work in the off-season.
But just as it seemed that Matt was ready to move on, there was another roadblock. The three biggest lessons he learned during his time at the University of Calgary were 1) Humility, 2) Perseverance, and 3) Identity. This is where the lesson on humility really started.
As Matt was preparing to take the court for his first game back after a miraculous recovery from a debilitating illness, he suddenly and maddeningly broke a bone in his knee. He would miss the home opener for the second year in a row, and ultimately missed half of the year recovering from the break. But the first test that he had to deal with was just walking into the gym.
“I was so ashamed,” he says. “I was going to walk into the gym for the home opener on crutches? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell everyone about God healing me, and then come in on crutches.”
Maybe it felt like he had claimed something that wasn’t entirely true. Hard to believe the guy preaching healing from crutches.
“I ended up walking in without crutches, but I realized that I was trying to take some credit for God healing me. In a way, I was trying to be worthy of his healing, I was making it more about me, than about him. I had to be humble.”
But the lesson didn’t end there. When Matt was finally able to take to the court it had been over a year since he had played, and rusty didn’t even begin to describe his play.
“My body didn’t do what I told it to. I was really bad, and I started really questioning what I was doing. Maybe it’s time to move on? Maybe God wants to use me another way?”
After another poor performance on the road, he took his Bible and found a place to read, think, and pray. “When I got back to the room I ended up having an unreal conversation with a teammate about knowing God, and it did so much for me. I realized once again that my purpose with this team wasn’t just about playing. I had another job.”
Matt had learned that humility isn’t about what you’re doing or where you are. It’s about considering others before yourself. It’s about engaging in the growth of others and being a servant leader. As bad as he was right at that moment, he still had a job to do. He didn’t see much of the court at first, but he renewed his commitment to offer whatever he could to the team, and to challenge the men to spiritual growth and discovering truth for themselves. That first year back (his second year of eligibility) started a long journey, and the second great lesson of Matt’s time with the Dinos: Perseverance.
“Year 3 and 4 were all about perseverance”, says Matt. He had ongoing knee problems that resulted in a daily and weekly grind revolving around pain management, breaks for healing, rehab, and playing in spite of it all. “Nothing really helped with the pain, but those years were all about sticking it out, staying focused, staying engaged. Every season isn’t summer. It’s not all rose petals, and sunshine. There are hard times and you need to keep going.”
Perseverance is one of life’s hardest lessons to learn because you never truly learn until you go through it. This is a lesson that Matt has developed a special attachment to. “I think a lot of guys miss something special when they transfer out of their program, and go somewhere else. They miss that piece of their personal development that happens when you persevere. I really had to learn that in those years, and I think those were big years for my growth.”
Matt Letkeman started his final year as a role player on a team he thought he would be the dominant player for. It wasn’t the end result that his quick start seemed to promise, but it never bothered him. He embraced his new role with the team, but only because he had learned about his identity. He was not just a basketball player anymore.
“It’s tough, man!” Matt exclaims when talking about who and what you identify with. “It’s ten years of being a basketball player! That’s how people know me. The six years here on campus were even more so! No more Dino discounts, no more team gear, no more having so much of my schedule, and habits circulating around the team! That would be really hard to handle if I wasn’t secure in knowing that before anything else, I’m someone who is important because I’m loved and created by God for a reason … and that purpose doesn’t end with basketball.”
So it’s not as hard to understand that the man who can say goodbye to the game he loved and endured so much so that he could play, can also handle playing a lesser role so that his teammates could experience some success. And that final year they came so close to experiencing the highest level of success. They won the Canada West conference championship, and advanced all the way to the CIS national championship game. It was the result of a team that selflessly cheered each other on. The team seemed to embrace so much of what Matt had learned in his time there, and he loved seeing their character.
“This year was one of the coolest teams I played on,” he says. “Especially us big guys on the team. It was crazy to see because if you messed up, you came off, and you may not see the court again, but we learned to support the heck out of each other. Someone else might play really well, and as a result I don’t see the floor, but we all supported each other, and it had a big effect on the team.”
And so it was that Matt Letkeman ended his six years with the University of Calgary Dinos. It wasn’t what he thought it would be … not even close. But it turned out so much better.
One of the great goals of the Christian faith is to be able to surrender to what God would have you do. This life is truly about how you can offer it back to God in service. The reality is that it was never really ours to begin with. We didn’t choose what family we were born into, or what place we would experience our childhood in. We didn’t choose what color our skin is, or whether we would suffer through injury or illness. The test often is not about whether we surrender control, but how we deal with not having control.
That is, I believe, the real lesson in Matt’s story. So much has been lost and won, so much has been endured, and so many great things experienced, but at the end of it is great joy. Matt’s coach, Dan Vanhooren, may have said it best when he said to The Province, “To lose your identity as an athlete, but to stay as positive as he did after spending days in the hospital and then coming out as Mr. Jovial, he was an example to everyone of our players.”
He was an example to us all.
Athletes in Action is committed to helping athletes like Matt experience freedom, victory beyond competition and find their worth outside of sport. Find Athletes in Action on your campus.