FOXBORO – Matt Judon stood on the outside of the dance floor underneath a tent with several other college teammates. As the music played and people danced, Judon easily stuck out thanks to his 6-foot-3, 255-pound frame.
This was the first night at Camp Sunshine, where volunteer counselors provide a special experience for people aged 12-to-50 with mild to moderate cognitive impairments. A dance is put on to break the ice and back in 2014, people had no idea Judon would turn into an NFL Pro Bowl pass rusher. It was here on the shores of Lake Michigan where Judon was about to make one of the biggest impacts of his life.
He just didn't know it yet.
“You know they're 21-22-year old and standing on the edge of the tent like, 'what the heck did I just get into,” said Doug Ammeraal, the camp's former recruiter. “But by the end of that, they're leading the Congo line and they're in the middle of everything... Matt truly set an example for so many people that were around. He was so much bigger than everybody. A big personality. A big spirit. This big heart.”
Camp Sunshine creates a unique experience where a camper works with one counselor for their entire stay at Camp Blodgett, located in West Olive, Michigan. Ammeraal’s job was to find volunteers for the four-day, three-night experience. With Grand Valley State sitting about 25 minutes from the camp, the recruiter met with the football team that year. He explained the impact they could have on someone's life.
All it took was stepping out of your comfort zone.
"They were like it'll just be one on one pairing up with the camper and it gets pretty intimate. It gets spiritual,” Judon said. “And then you kind of get close with your camper. And that it's a wide range of disabilities that they have, but every single one of them loves coming to Camp Sunshine. I'm just sitting there and I'm a big like, 'why not guy."
Seven years ago, Matt Judon stepped up to help others. In return, the experience shaped his life.
Here's how Matt Judon made an impact at Camp Sunshine Matt Judon was on the cusp of greatness. People just didn't know it yet. Coming off a season ending knee injury, he was about to take the Division-II football world by storm. But before he became a record-setting All-American, Judon showed a different side of himself at Camp Sunshine.
When the activities started, camp employees were overjoyed with Judon's help. He immersed himself in the life of his camper. He stood arm-and-arm singing songs. He was patient and compassionate. The memory makes Cindy Terlouw, who was the Executive Director of Camp Sunshine for 22 years, choke up thinking back on it.
“He was so humble... The program has one camper, one counselor. So Matt Judon had his own camper and Matt would sleep on the top bunk and then a camper would sleep on the lower bunk and 24/7 they were together,” Terlouw said. “They ate together. They did arts and crafts together, did their sports, did their spiritual stories, did everything together, all their free time and so on. This is a partnership. This is a buddy.” Judon needed to put two beds together since he wasn't fitting on a twin mattress, but he made it work. By the end, he was on stage dancing during his camper's talent show. He became so enamored by the experience, he volunteered his time again the next summer in 2015.
"You just kind of fall in love with camp and the idea of you giving your undivided attention to a person with needs,” Judon explained. “You know a lot of people with disabilities, and my two campers, they actually helped me learn lessons and helped me out as much as I was helping them.”
Following a standout season at Grand Valley, when Judon returned the next summer, people naturally followed in his lead.
“I know he impacted the campers that he worked with because he has such a gentle spirit to him," Ammeraal said. “And I know that he impacted the lives of so many of our counselors who were young men who watched him. Who said I don't have to have a certain persona to play football to come out here to serve and impact the life of someone else. And I can let that guard down because look at Matt Judon do it.”
Why Matt Judon has a different perspective on disabilities
The word disability comes with a stigma in our society. Matt Judon knows about that all too well. Born in Baton Rouge, Matt Judon grew up in Michigan. At one point in his youth, he remembers going to a new Elementary School where his teachers thought he had a disability. As a boy, he spoke slower with a drawl.
His speech made teachers question his learning ability and he had to take tests to prove otherwise.
"I got a couple family members (with disabilities) and my drawl - I talk slow so my teachers thought I was slow, but I just talk slow," Judon said. “So they had me take tests and like take IQ tests and all that stuff. But you know, I did well. I just talked slow. I'm just not in any rush to get my words out.”
Between his own personal experience and his two stints as a counselor with Camp Sunshine,
Judon had a different perspective on people with cognitive impairments. That stuck out to his coach at Grand Valley State, Matt Mitchell.
Back in Allendale Charter Township, Michigan, Judon left a huge impression. There was the way he worked himself back from a season-ending torn ACL in 2014. During his 2015 senior season, he led all college football with 20 sacks. Judon went from Division-2 player to Pro Bowl NFL pass rusher.
You don't forget about players like this.
Another moment Mitchell will never forget is when one of his Grand Valley players used a derogatory ‘r-word' inside the building. That set Judon off. He stood up and passionately explained why that word should never be used.
“He was really vocal about that. He stood up and really made a huge point about that, and I'll never forget that moment either," Mitchell said. “He did a lot of community service projects. The dude is full of life and full of energy. He's not afraid to speak his opinion. He has a lot of self-confidence. He was the main guy that got a bunch of our players over there every summer to spend a week with developmentally disabled, adults and kids.”
Here's how Camp Sunshine made an impact on Matt Judon
Doug Ammeraal was in the car with Matt Judon and his teammate Matt Mosley when he started talking about what they did at Camp Sunshine. They provided an unforgettable experience to a person who had been through a lot. Moments like that are priceless.
“I said, You guys will probably never fully understand the impact that you're having on Camp Sunshine and they said ‘no, we do, and that's why we come back and that's why we give,” Ammeraal said. “For me, that speaks to the heart of Matt. We can watch him go and get after Tom Brady and get sacks, but that's how I know Matt.
"He was a godsend in terms of who he was as a person and the impact he had on our camp.”
Judon learned a lot about himself, too. For a man who creates chaos on the football field, he found a gentler side to himself. He discovered the joy that comes with helping people. He thinks about the experience and says it helped him become a better father to his daughter, Aniyah and son, Leonidas.
“It helped me just have patience. You have to have a lot of patience with that group,” Judon said. You have to be kind, be gentle, be loving and sometimes you gotta be stern, but it just helped me kind of like with my own kids... Just being gracious and have gratitude, the compassion to show another person. Those three-four days just gives you a little glimpse of how you can handle the world and affect the world. I enjoyed it.”
Judon never stopped giving back. After he was drafted by Baltimore in 2016, he worked with the Maryland Special Olympics. He's still involved in other charitable endeavors to help people with disabilities and others who need help.
Judon saw firsthand how that could affect your life. “I'm not doing it for anything to come back to me. I'm not doing anything just to hear my name in the paper and stuff like that,” Judon said. “I'm doing it because so many people helped me out growing up, I just feel like that's what a good person is.”
Now in his first season with the Patriots, Judon, 29, is currently second in the NFL in sacks. He is a two-time Pro Bowler and on his way to another. He also learned that he could make even a bigger impact off the field.
Matt Judon showed that ability a long time ago. This article originally appeared in the Providence Journal.