It’s been roughly two months since Matt “Dezy” DiStefano announced the founding of the Dezy Strong Foundation. It’s already had a profound impact on those he considers his family in the Long Island volleyball community.
The assistant boys volleyball coach and special education teacher at Sachem North High School was diagnosed with kidney cancer in February, and he said his form of cancer doesn’t have a high-percentage chance for survival. But that’s hardly crippled his spirit.
Since the inception of his foundation on Aug. 5, DiStefano, 41, has devoted his time and effort to two things — his own treatment and the growth of a movement he hopes will impact families affected by cancer.
“I don’t go to church as much as I should, but I talk to God and maybe this is the path I’m on right now,” DiStefano said. “I don’t know if this happened to me for a crazy reason, to start this new journey in my life to help other people and motivate other people.”
A member of the Sachem Sports Hall of Fame after a prolific athletic career in volleyball and basketball, DiStefano’s message didn’t take long to spread.
The Hofstra women’s volleyball team welcomed its largest regular-season crowd in the program’s 44-year history on Sept. 21 during the Hofstra Invitational, a three-day event featuring national powerhouses in Oregon, Duke and St. John’s that raised awareness for the foundation.
“The emotions of having that gym so full was really pretty special,” Hofstra coach Emily Mansur said. “His energy and his smile, you’d never think that he’s going through such a tough time. It was very inspirational to have him here.”
On the day before the invitational, DiStefano spoke to 15 Hofstra administrators and athletes from women’s volleyball, softball, field hockey, women’s soccer and baseball. Athletic director Rick Cole Jr., a longtime friend of DiStefano’s, said the speech was powerful. One athlete even thanked Cole afterward for inviting DiStefano to speak.
“I thought he was off the charts,” said Cole, who added that DiStefano could have a future in motivational speaking. “The message is just so awesome. You’ve got a guy with Stage 4 cancer talking about how he, you and me should all focus on the fact that we get to live this life.”
Local high school volleyball programs will follow Hofstra’s example. DiStefano said he wanted to start a grassroots initiative in Suffolk, and the county’s varsity teams have stepped up. He said 19 of 22 varsity boys teams will host a Dezy Strong game this year, while Bayport-Blue Point coach Toni Mulgrave said 39 of 52 girls teams will do the same.
Mulgrave, who is also the president of the Suffolk Girls Volleyball Coaches Association, said the Phantoms’ fundraiser on Wednesday was in place of the team’s usual fundraiser for Dig Pink, a foundation that benefits breast cancer research.
“We’ve been doing Dig Pink for a number of years now, and cancer’s big in many people’s lives, but this is family,” Mulgrave said. “This is right in our backyards. Why wouldn’t we help our family members? To help family right in our backyards, there’s nothing better.
“We all know him. He’s like my brother. I’ve grown up with Dezy.”
DiStefano said he was preparing more than 1,400 powder blue “Dezy Strong” shirts to be sent out to participating girls teams. During warmups, athletes will wear the shirts that can be spotted in gymnasiums across Long Island.
UCLA and Pepperdine men’s volleyball teams — two of the most storied collegiate programs in the country — will play a Dezy Strong game on March 13, and Duke and North Carolina will play a Dezy Strong game in women’s volleyball on Nov. 7, DiStefano said.
The movement isn’t exclusive to volleyball. Sachem East football hosted Whitman on Sept. 27 and encouraged donations, too. DiStefano said the support has been overwhelming.
“Even at the Hofstra game, there’s people walking in with my shirt on and I don’t even know these people,” DiStefano said. “I went out to dinner with my family the other night, and someone came up to me at the hostess stand and said, ‘Listen, you don’t know me, but you’re my inspiration.’ ”
“His energy and his smile, you’d never think that he’s going through such a tough time. It was very inspirational to have him here.”
— Hofstra coach Emily Mansur on Matt “Dezy” DiStefano