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Prep Rally

Inspirational Santa Monica teen overcomes long odds to play three varsity sports

Ben Rohrbach
Prep Rally

They say the best gifts come in small packages, and nobody knows that better than Rudy Tapia.

When his son Matt was born three months premature at 1.5 pounds, doctors told Rudy his boy had a 5 percent chance at survival and would be in "a vegetative state" even if he lived. Now? Matt Tapia is the subject of a short film chronicling his inspirational season on the Santa Monica (Calif.) High football team.

 Courtesy of Diesel Films, director Seth Shapiro — Rudy and Matt Tapia's neighbor in Southern California — captured the heart and soul of all that is prep sports in his 13-minute film aptly titled, "MATT."

From the moment Matt tried out for SaMoHi's football team, coach Travis Clark and his players noticed a remarkable spirit in the teen that would drive their run to California's Southern Section quarterfinals.

"I didn't even think twice about it," Clark says in the film. "Anybody who wants to play football for me, I want to get as many kids as I can possilby get. So, when he asked to play, I said, 'Of course. Absolutely.'"

Matt showed up to every meeting, every practice, every game with an enthusiasm you only read about.

"He just makes everything so much more fun," says teammate Christian Winter. "He's such a happy kid."

So, when the moment finally presented itself — as the seconds ticked off the clock late in the fourth quarter of a 27-0 blowout of Oxnard Channel Islands in the first round of the playoffs this past fall — Clark inserted Matt into his first game. He lined up in the backfield, and SaMoHi kneeled on a victory.

"I was jumping up and down," says Rudy Tapia. "My feet must have gone 10 feet in the air, and it was maybe the happiest moment of my life. To remember him in the incubator — the size of my hand the first time I saw him and him grabbing my finger with that tiny little hand of his and me kissing him and saying, 'I'm your daddy, and I'll always love you and I'll always be here for you' — and to have him see his dream come true, there will be no greater joy than I ever experience in my life than that moment."

And the best part? Matt Tapia wasn't satisfied.

"In the case of Matt, everyone was so happy that 'he got in the game,'" Shapiro tells Yahoo Sports. "They thought that would be the greatest moment of his life. But to Matt, it was really 'sort of a disappointment.' He wanted more. He wanted to 'run to the pylon and score that touchdown' that he’d always dreamed about. To him, just taking a knee wasn’t enough, or as exhilarating as everyone thought it would be for him, including his dad. I think, so often, we live to the expectations of others and what we should be accomplishing. We live to the bar they set for us. In reality, we should live up to our own bar, and in that 'room without a roof' that I keep hearing Pharrell sing about on my radio."

Remarkably, despite continuing to struggle with day-to-day activities, Matt also scored a basket for SaMoHi's basketball team and wielded a bat for the baseball team. He will attend UCLA in the fall.

"What have I learned from Matt?" asks teammate Kevin Person. "Anything is possible. Anything you want to do, you can do it. Nothing can stop you. Don't let anybody say what you can and can't do, because if you want to play football, if you want to do anything, you can do it. He's shown us that."

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