Matthew "Dezy" DiStefano lived every moment. Not a single second was wasted, not a single opportunity taken for granted. When the longtime Sachem North High School assistant boys volleyball coach was diagnosed with kidney cancer last February, he saw it as an opportunity to showcase his trademark fighting spirit, while helping others in the process.
“When he first was diagnosed, he’s got an army of support,” said Hofstra athletic director and friend Rick Cole Jr. “But he didn’t want anything for himself. Once it was communicated to him what he could do for others, he was all in. He has spoken to thousands and thousands of people . . . He was everywhere. He was incredibly engaging and motivational, unbelievably so.”
DiStefano, of Ronkonkoma, who started the Dezy Strong Foundation in August, died early Monday morning at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, his family said. He was 42.
The foundation looks to provide opportunities for cancer patients to have access to experiences that "directly affect a positive mental well-being," its website said. Since its launch, the foundation has held events with the Islanders, the Hofstra volleyball program and the Sachem East High School football team.
“The big mantra was #WeGetTo,” Cole said. “There are things we look at that we have to do, and really, we should be looking at life as you get to do those things, whether it's go to work, or study, or work out or whatever. He just continued to empower people to look through the lens of ‘we get to.’ "
A father of three children — Gianna, 9, Giuliana, 6, and Giovanni, 5 — DiStefano was a family man who cherished every day with them and his wife of 10 years, Jennifer.
“He was head over heels until he took his last breath,” said sister Melissa Thurston, 40, of Farmingville.
Born Nov. 24, 1977, at St. John’s Hospital in Smithtown, DiStefano grew up in Holbrook. He went to Sachem High School, where he played volleyball and basketball. After graduating Sachem in 1996, DiStefano played volleyball and basketball at the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale and graduated as part of the Class of 2000. DiStefano is in both the Sachem and Mount St. Vincent halls of fame. He will be posthumously inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame in May.
“He was phenomenal,” friend and Bayport-Blue Point girls volleyball coach Toni Mulgrave said. “He was one of the best athletes you could ever imagine.”
DiStefano spent 19 years as a special education teacher at Sachem North High School. He had a short stint as an assistant girls basketball coach and head boys volleyball coach at the school and served as a boys volleyball assistant for the last 14 years.
Despite battling cancer, DiStefano remained committed to his players. When Sachem North played in the Long Island Championship this fall, DiStefano was adamant about not missing a moment.
“He was in the hospital all day,” head coach Matt Rivera said. “He and I are on the phone, texting back and forth as the day went on. We were supposed to play at 7 p.m., then the game got pushed back to 8 p.m., we didn’t take the court until almost 8:30 p.m. He was at home, resting, waiting.”
Then the game started — and DiStefano was there.
“Five minutes before the game starts, he came in the back door and was able to stay on the bench for the whole game,” Rivera said. “It took everything he had. He did not feel well. He sat on the bench, and I have no doubt that it meant that much to our players, just that he was able to get himself there.”
Rivera continued: “What a great lesson for young people, when things matter to you, you do whatever you can to be there. He certainly did that.”
That weekend, DiStefano made the trip to Albany to help coach the team to the state finals, where they lost in the final set.
"It’s simply been amazing,” DiStefano told Newsday after the match. “When you have a group of young men that come to battle for you every day. It truly means a lot to me . . . Their efforts were amazing . . . But what they’ve done for me emotionally, I found my strength through these guys.”
In addition to his wife and children, DiStefano is survived by parents MaryAnne and Vincent of Holbrook, and sisters Jennifer Kolongowski of Mastic, Michele Mullady of Coram, and Melissa Thurston of Farmingville, and eight nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be held 6:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and 2 to 4 p.m. and 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Moloney’s Lake Funeral Home and Cremation Center in Lake Ronkonkoma. A service will be held 10 a.m. Friday at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Holbrook. He will be buried at Washington Memorial Park in Mount Sinai. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to the Dezy Strong Foundation and that Thursday visitors wear their "Dezy Blue."