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In Memoriam: Matt Klutka Taught Us What Real Strength Is

He defied all odds by fighting a rare form of cancer in the gym—and along the way, inspired everyone around him. His battle is over, but his legacy lives on.

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The pitch came through in a text message. A friend of a friend telling me about “the most jacked cancer patient ever.” The wording made me snort, but of course I had to see. He told me to look up Matt Klutka. A quick glance at Twitter and Facebook and I could tell he was active, loved the outdoors, and lifted—and I couldn’t really tell how sick he was. How bad was the cancer? This guy had abs and pecs, and… Matt only had weeks, my friend said. And it had already been a month and a half.

Our photo director immediately hired a photographer to go to Matt’s house. I scheduled a phone interview for the day after the shoot. A few hours before we were supposed to talk, the shots came through. We looked at the training shots first. He was jacked. Yes, the disease had taken a toll, but the muscle definition was, amazingly, still there. It was unbelievable. Then the photo director showed me the portraits. He was smiling in all of them.

When I called him, he talked about how great the shoot was and how excited he was to be in the magazine. It had been a lifelong goal. Then I started with the obvious question: How did he get here?

He spared no detail as he ran through the last two years of his life in matter-of-fact terms. How the shortness of breath and swelling in his legs led him to the doctor and a diagnosis of a rare and aggressive cancer. He told me about the multiple surgeries that followed, how training his ass off had been his self-medication and escape, how he was making as much time as possible to spend with his son Cebran, how he met his girlfriend while he was sick.

Then he told me what he had learned.

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“The things I used to worry about or obsess over, I know they’re just meaningless,” he said. “Time is the most precious currency we have. You never know when your time is up. You have to take advantage of every moment you have with your friends and family and loved ones because that can be taken away in an instant. Everything else can be replaced.”

It’s the kind of thing that’s a meaningless platitude coming out of anyone else’s mouth—share bait for Instagram. But coming from Matt, who stopped periodically throughout the call to cough, the tumors in his lungs making it hard to breathe, it punched me in the gut. What bullshit had I been annoyed by or upset about moments before? It was embarrassing to think about. At that moment, I was just thankful I had closed the door to my office. No one had to see that I wasn’t handling the call very well. I tried to hide it from Matt, but by the time I had fully broken down, it was pointless. I asked if he must be used to it. Yes he was, but he embraced his role as an inspiration to others.

“My friends have been awesome,” he said. “They come to visit and some of them get upset. I just say, ‘Hey, I’m still here. I still feel pretty good. There’s no reason to be upset. Let’s be happy and go do something fun.’ I try to motivate people and make them happy.”

A man with terminal cancer cheering everyone else up—and now trying to cheer me up. I pointed out the absurdity of that and we had a good laugh.

The story I wrote about Matt went into the December 2015 issue of M&F. Given the circumstances, we put the story online first so it could be shared. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, our cover guy and guest editor for December, asked to see some of the other stories that were going into his issue. When he read Matt’s story he asked for a phone number. Fifteen minutes later, they were chatting like old friends, swapping war stories about the gym. And 15 minutes after that, The Rock took to social media to share what an amazing experience he had just had.

I knew the feeling. Because at the end of my call with Matt—a man I never met face-to-face—I found myself blurting out, “I love you, man.” He didn’t hesitate to say it back. I also told him that I had no clue about what his idea of God might be, but I was certain that we’d meet one day. He agreed. Against all odds, Matt lived another two months—and what a two months they were. On top of training, he raced Ferraris, went on the sidelines to see the Steelers and the Alabama Crimson Tide, and spent a lot of quality time with his son, his girlfriend, and his parents.

For those close to Matt, I can only begin to imagine how much it hurts right now. But I also know they’re the lucky ones to have had such an incredible example in their lives. If time is the most precious commodity we have, it was especially true for Matt in the last days of his life. He chose to give me a half hour of that time and my life is far richer for it.

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