Matt Lampson didn’t need to make it to a patient’s bedside before he brightened someone’s day.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon in the lobby of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, the Minnesota United goalkeeper ran into Catarina Gomez, an 18-year-old he’d first met earlier this year during one of Gomez’s chemotherapy treatments. She has since attended all seven United home games, including the opener as Lampson’s guest.
The pair chatted before Gomez became the first of several patients that day to turn the tables on the professional athlete and sign the back of his orange No. 28 jersey.
“I haven’t met anybody who can relate to me on that level before Matt, even though he’s, like, 28,” Gomez said. “I don’t think Matt understands how significant his visits are to some of the younger patients. … It’s something that sticks with them because having somebody who understands and who’s come back and who’s successful and who’s on the other side of it is really amazing.”
When he was Gomez’s age, Lampson survived IVB Hodgkin’s lymphoma — the latest stage for the disease — to eventually become a pro soccer player in his home state of Ohio. That same year, when he realized he wasn’t doing enough to give back, he became a uniquely devoted philanthropist, creating his own foundation dedicated to helping young cancer patients.
Impressive for a once-cynical teenager, who says with a straight face he doesn’t “like a lot of people,” even though people as close to him as his mother see that as “a crock.’’
All part of the contradiction that is Matt Lampson: curmudgeon with a heart.
“It is kind of oxymoronic,” said Lampson, who joined the Loons before this season, “that I am so passionate about helping pediatric cancer patients.”
June 10, 2007
Lampson was a mischievous daredevil of a kid who to this day loves Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and going to the zoo, according to his mom, Mecy Lampson. He turned into an independent and sometimes stubborn teen, unconcerned with his symptoms, including weight loss, shortness of breath, dizziness, night sweats and lumps in his neck.
It wasn’t until a school blood drive turned him away from donating because of low blood counts that his parents — his mom is a nurse, dad an anesthesiologist — forced him to see a doctor and eventually have his lymph nodes biopsied.
On June 10, 2007, his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma was official. But his parents waited to tell him until after his orientation at Northern Illinois University, where he was set to play soccer in the fall. They wanted him to have a taste of college in case that was his only opportunity.
Lampson took the news with a teenager’s instincts: He jumped on the internet to research his disease.
“I never dwelled on the possibility of death. So I think ultimately that helped me because my immediate response was, ‘What do I do to beat it?’ ” Lampson said. “I never really grasped the gravity of having a cancer diagnosis.”
Even after learning the cancer had spread through his chest — years later he found out such cases had about a 65 percent five-year survival rate — Lampson still made the trip from his Hilliard, Ohio, home to Iowa for his club soccer team’s regional tournament. The next day, he began an aggressive chemotherapy regimen, which is no longer used, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
The drugs attacked the cancer, and the experience sapped Lampson’s youthful innocence.
“It took an incredibly large toll on me as a person,” said Lampson, who had to put college on hold. “Obviously at 17 years old, everybody graduates high school. Everybody else goes on with their lives. So you find out who really loves you very quickly. … I got incredibly cynical. I started to hate everything.”
But Lampson also changed in good ways. He finished treatment in February 2008, though he considers his first clean scan on Sept. 24, 2007, as his official cancer-free date. He said beating cancer gave him the focus and drive needed to become a professional goalkeeper.
“I matured incredibly quickly, found out what my priorities were, my values in life, my morals in life, at 18 years old,” Lampson said. “It made me a much better person because of that.”
Springing into action
By June 2008, Lampson was training with the Columbus Crew academy, working to regain his fitness and stamina after gaining 80 pounds during treatment. Still dealing with medical complications his first season at Northern Illinois, he transferred to Ohio State. Columbus signed him as a homegrown player ahead of the 2012 MLS season.
During that rookie year, the mom of one of Lampson’s close friends from high school died of leukemia, making him realize this illness didn’t just affect him.
He began working with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Central Ohio in 2013, raising money, giving speeches and visiting patients at the same hospital he once frequented. He also started his hero program, hosting pediatric cancer patients such as Gomez at his games and meeting them on the field after the final whistle.
But Lampson soon started to question where donated money went in those larger nonprofits. In 2014, he started his own, the Lampstrong Foundation. It’s collectively run by his parents, three older siblings and staff at the Columbus Crew, all on a volunteer basis.
In Columbus, he started events such as the Kick Cancer Cup, with local celebrities playing a game at Columbus’ stadium to raise money for his foundation. When his contract ran out, Lampson signed with the Chicago Fire for the 2016 season and forged a partnership with the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He did several fundraising events involving doughnuts, his favorite food, from running a counter at a local shop to hosting a doughnut tour around the city.
When Chicago traded him to the Loons this season, Lampson’s work began again.
He toured hospitals before settling on working with Masonic Children’s. United also has been supportive, from helping set up the hospital visits and heroes for home and away games to his teammates and club staff buying and wearing his Lampstrong Foundation T-shirts.
One area he focuses on is helping cancer patients get back in shape after their treatments through fitness and nutrition, something he struggled with and still commits himself to as a pro athlete. He has yearly checkups to safeguard against long-term side effects from his treatment, including cardiac, pulmonary and fertility issues.
He also targets teenage patients, who he feels are a forgotten group. He said he’s thinking of donating about $20,000 to the hospital to start specific programming for teens. He wants to bring together those recently diagnosed to survivors, not only for continuing education purposes but also for fun. He wants the first such event to be at a United game.
“It’s always the teenagers that identify with me that well because they see in me what they can become, whether it’s a professional athlete or whatever they want to be,” Lampson said. “It means a lot to me. It’s very humbling, and it keeps me doing what I’m doing.”
‘You give them such hope’
Back on that Tuesday visit, Lampson put on a paper gown and plastic gloves with practiced ease before seeing Parker Ehrreich, who has the same type of cancer Lampson did. They had met once before, but this time wasn’t as good a day for the 12-year-old. But the pair still talked about Ehrreich’s Avengers Lego set, and Lampson was able to coax a little smile out of him.
“It sucks being in the hospital. You’re miserable,’’ Lampson said. “If you can just be treated like a normal kid for five minutes and forget that you’re in the hospital for five minutes and be happy for five minutes, that means the world. This kid probably wasn’t smiling for months, and then I go to see him, and I get his autograph, and he beams up. For him to smile and actually be happy for a second, that’s the real deal.”
Lampson had the same message for all six patients he met with that day: He has been through what they have. He has the chemo port scar on his chest to prove it. And there is a better future ahead. All of the kids received a United hat and scarf as well as an invitation to be one of his heroes at a game.
Nathalia Hawley, 14, took him up on that offer last weekend at the game against Montreal. When she met Lampson the previous Tuesday, she was giggly and vivacious, despite being in the hospital for osteosarcoma pain management. She told him about the last soccer game she went to, a 2015 Women’s World Cup match.
But on the TCF Bank Stadium field after the game, she burst into tears. That, in turn, made her family cry, too.
He’s seen that reaction before.
“I remember one of the first times he met the people here in Columbus, and he had his heroes after the game, he came home and goes, ‘Gosh, the moms were crying,’ ” Mecy Lampson said. “And I said, ‘Matt, you don’t understand. You give them such hope.’ ”
Lampson, though, can’t quite see himself that way. In fact, he uses deadpan sarcasm to deter people from finding his kind side.
“It took me a good two, three, four months where I was like, ‘Man, do I like this guy?’ ” said Ethan Finlay, a teammate at Columbus and United. “His humor’s a little bit different, but once you kind of break down, you peel back the onion, Matt’s a really good guy.”
First impressions of Lampson don’t usually match up with the selfless person he is. That is, unless he’s meeting a young cancer patient.
“I’m not truly a cynical person,” Lampson said. “I’m a big teddy bear.
“I don’t think anyone should have to go through what I went through. And if they do, I want to make their lives better when they do it.”