ESPN’s loss is a gain for everyone else — from the folks of Greenville to at-risk teens from places like Providence, R.I., Nashville, West Lafayette, Ind., and Worcester, Mass., as well as here in Darke County.
Exactly a year ago Matt Light — just retired from a stellar 11-year career with the New England Patriots that had yielded three Super Bowl rings, four Pro Bowl seasons and a reputation as one of the best left tackles of his generation — was getting ready for a broadcasting job with ESPN.
The sports network had chosen him over several other former players because he can be off-the-wall funny, he’s principled and not afraid to speak his mind and he’d certainly have plenty of insight after a storied career protecting Tom Brady’s blindside.
Light did end up appearing on several of the network’s NFL shows and was good right out of the box, but then, after just a few months, he suddenly sacked himself.
“Putting a suit on and talking sports, I could do that, but I just knew it wasn’t me,” Light admitted Wednesday. “I just knew it was not something I wanted to do.”
Light never was a guy who was immersed in sports. Growing up in Greenville, he hunted and fished and enjoyed the outdoors. And over the years — even with all his NFL success — his heart did not change.
“Truthfully, I don’t know the game of football,” he said with a smile. “I know the defensive ends, the guys I lined up against, but not the coaches, not the history. I just wasn’t into all that.”
What he is into — and what he does know like few others — is his fellow man and what he can do to make the human condition better for others. And he does that with the same hands-on, in-your-face attention he once directed at 300-pound defenders hellbent on turning Brady into road kill.
Several years ago he launched the Light Foundation, which strives to empower young people to work hard, do the right thing and reach their potential. He offers scholarships, has community improvement programs and is best known for hosting an outdoor leadership skills camp for at-risk teens at Chenoweth Trails, his wooded, 600-acre complex eight miles west of Greenville.
Camp Vohokase, as the annual gathering is known, began again Sunday for 17 teenagers from around the nation, each tied to someplace or someone that brought Light success in his own life. They have all committed themselves to the four-year program that ties to their classroom performances and positive efforts during the school year.
Each summer the strenuous 10-day camp involves everything from activities like archery and this year a three-hour canoe trip down the Greenville Creek to community-betterment projects and fireside chats where the teens talk about issues they face in everyday life. There is no football.
“I’ve had my own issues over the years — health, things like that — and by fighting through them, I’ve been very fortunate,” Light said. “I’m grateful for that, but when I look around I see so many people who have never had that and don’t even know what it looks like or how to approach it.
“It’s up to me, to all of us, to help them realize the potential. Not by giving them things, but by having them earn it.
“Some of these kids in our program have had unbelievably difficult backgrounds. They’ve lost friends or family members to violence. Some have been labeled themselves, told they are no good or stupid or whatever — and there’s nothing better than to see them realize they do have potential.”
Light and those who help him run the camp — and that includes everybody from family members and lifelong friends to a new staffer from Worcester who, Light said, was once a gang-banger himself and has turned his life around and been a classroom star at Harvard — push the teens to go outside their comfort zones and take in new experiences.
Wednesday, they toured the Cox Media Center and then were guests of the Dayton Dragons, where they met players before the game, got a behind-the-scenes look at Fifth Third Field and then watched Light throw out the first pitch.
Although Light, his wife Susie and their three children live in the Boston area, they are here often to see Light’s parents, who are active in the foundation, and to stay involved in Greenville.
Light owns properties in his hometown (especially the historic downtown area he’s trying to help preserve), he’s put on free football camps in Greenville, bought equipment for the high school weight room and now is trying to help pass an August bond issue for the school.
Maybe he didn’t want to talk the ESPN talk, but back home — and especially with at-risk teens around the country — he sure walks the walk.