How One Special Teen Inspired a High School Football Team (VIDEO)

Players at Santa Monica High School say Matt Tapia, a student with special needs, was the glue that held their team together

Photo: Diesel Films

Rudy Tapia was nervous when his son, Matt, told him he wanted to join his high school football team.

But the student with special needs, who’d been born three months premature weighing only 1½ lbs., was determined. And when the pair approached Santa Monica High School coach Travis Clark, “I didn’t think twice about it,” Clark said. “When he asked to play, I said, ‘Of course, absolutely no problem.’ ”

What happened next is chronicled by director Seth Shapiro in the inspiring new short film Matt. “We were fortunate enough to stumble into a special situation that, it became clear, was life-changing for everyone,” Shapiro tells PEOPLE.

When Matt was born, doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of survival and told his father that he’d never walk or talk if he did survive. But he not only survived, he thrived.

“Doctors said he had this indomitable will, and that’s what kept him alive,” Rudy says in the film. “He doesn’t see himself as having any problems. He sees himself as normal … He refuses to accept that he’s not.”

Turning up to every practice, Matt quickly bonded with his teammates. “He’s the guy that really, I feel, has glued this team together,” says teammate Josh de la Rosa-Isaac.

Clark remembers Matt telling him he just wanted to fit in and be one of the guys. “I said, ‘You are. You don’t have to do anything different. All you have to do is be you.’ ”

Matt kept asking his coach to put him in the game, and when the team made the first round of CIF playoffs, Matt was eagerly waiting on the sidelines. Near the end of the game, Clark put him in the game.

“When we see him on the field, it’s like a dream come true for all of us,” player Kevin Person says.

After the football season was over, Matt joined the basketball team, and in the fall he will attend UCLA with dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster.

“What I learned from Matt is anything is possible,” Person says. “Nothing can stop you.”

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