BEACON FALLS — Ryan Matthews, the founder of The Susie Foundation and a Beacon Falls native, used to feel the same way about the New England Patriots as just about every other non-Patriots fan does.
“I think that the general population of football fans not living in the commonwealth of Massachusetts probably has mixed feelings about the Patriots after Deflategate and all that stuff,” Matthews said, putting it mildly. “They’re sort of like Duke basketball.”
He feels a little bit differently today.
The New England Patriots Charitable Foundation awarded a $10,000 Myra Kraft Community MVP Award to Matthews and The Susie Foundation for their work helping Connecticut families living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Matthews and 25 others received their awards at a banquet this month in Foxborough, Mass. The Susie Foundation was one of 10 organizations to receive second-place awards. The charity’s board of directors applied for the award during the winter without telling Matthews, who also works at Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“It’s mostly based on 40 (yard dash) time and bench press,” Matthews joked.
Matthews, a former standout pitcher at Woodland High and a 2009 UConn graduate, founded The Susie Foundation in 2013, two years after his mother, Susan, died from ALS. Through various fundraisers, including a kickball tournament in Beacon Falls, the organization has raised more than $75,000 to support families who have to adapt to the struggles of a loved one living with ALS.
So far, the foundation has awarded grants to cover costs of medication, in-home health care services and home modifications for nearly 40 families.
The Patriots began awarding community grants in 1998. The team named the awards after Myra Kraft, the late wife of team owner Robert Kraft, after she died in 2011.
“When I purchased the New England Patriots 23 years ago, not only did we set out to build a winning organization, but we also wanted to help build a spirit of giving amongst our fans,” Kraft said in a statement. “There are some incredible people in our local communities that have dedicated much of their lives to volunteering.”
Kraft and former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett congratulated each of the award winners in what Matthews described as a warm, personal ceremony.
“Sometimes with these awards, the organization can be a little dismissive and not take the time to know each individual nonprofit,” Matthews said. “Bob and Andre were having a conversation with me about what I do, and they were really interested. Bob’s wife, Myra, had cancer, so he understands how difficult having a loved one dying from a disease is. The genuineness of their interaction was surprising to me.”
The Patriots were also wrapping up their June minicamp on the same day as the ceremony. Players, including Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, dropped by to congratulate the recipients, and Matthews had a chance to chat with Brady’s top two targets.
“I started talking with them about practice and the Super Bowl hangover, and then we were having a conversation about how Tom Brady makes them run a lot and how he’s already focused on (Super Bowl title) No. 6,” Matthews said. “But then they asked about what I do. They could have just shown up, shook hands and left, but they were really interested. You don’t expect people like that to actually care, but they did.”
Matthews will still call himself a New Orleans Saints fan — harkening to his time volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in the Crescent City — but he said he’ll have added respect for the opponent when the Patriots visit the Superdome on Sept. 17.
“I will be rooting for the Saints that day, but with a little more appreciation for the people who make up the Patriots organization,” Matthews said. “They’re not the people they’re sometimes cast to be — the city on the hill, Bill Belichick as Darth Vader.”
That Patriots-Saints game will come one day after The Susie Foundation hosts its fifth annual Susie Classic kickball tournament at the Beacon Falls Recreation Complex. Registration is now open at thesusiefoundation.org for the event, which fields up to 20 teams.
Matthews expects proceeds from this year’s event to top $10,000, bringing the lifetime fundraising total of the tournament to more than $50,000.
“The Susie Classic is representative of the type of community we’ve build around the Susie Foundation,” Matthews said. “Even if people only interact with us once or twice a year, people are so generous to us. It’s one of the highlights of my entire year.”