Two decades ago Matt Rhyner was a special needs student at D.C. Everest Senior High who got involved with sports. His presence has been a beloved part of Everest athletics ever since.
A bus loaded with the D.C. Everest High School girls basketball team pulled up to the entrance of their hotel in Green Bay. It was in late winter of 2015, and for the first time in a while, the team had earned a bid to the state tournament.
The week before, the team under head coach Matt Bullis had defeated regional championship opponent Neenah by 17 points to earn this spot in the semi finals. They were ready for their taste of March Madness at the Resch Center in Green Bay, two games away from a potential state championship.
A funny thing happened when the bus pulled into the hotel that evening, Bullis says. They saw a familiar face that everyone knew well but hadn’t expected to see: Matt Rhyner.
That the team would go to state that year wasn’t a surprise to Rhyner; he predicts every season that the team is going to state, Bullis says. Rhyner’s official title is manager, but anyone who knows Everest sports knows better: Rhyner is as much a part of the teams he cheers on as the players and coaches.
Back in the 1990s, Rhyner, now 39, was a special needs student at D.C. Everest. After graduating in 1999, he never really left the school, and is always found on the sidelines, cheering on the football team in the fall, helping with girls basketball practices in winter, and attending to the girls track and field team in spring.
The arrangement over nearly two decades might seem unusual to an outsider. But “Matty” is a beloved presence to people involved in school sports. Referees, coaches and players throughout the state, who have been around long enough know who Matt is, often come up to shake his hand or pat him on the back. They’re not surprised to see him on the sidelines or coming in for coaches’ conferences.
So it wasn’t entirely a surprise to see Matt outside the hotel as the team pulled up that day in March, everyone including him abuzz with hopes of the team earning the state title. His enthusiasm is infectious and always present, whether the state title is on the line, or even the season opener, such as last Thursday’s non-conference matchup against Brookfield Central.
“He’s our team manager, but he’s much more than that,” Bullis says. “He’s an extension of our coaching staff. He loves all Everest sports.”
A proud Evergreen
Matt sits at the table at his Weston home, his parents Shirley and John behind him in the kitchen ready to assist with questions. Matt, with his blondish flat-top hair cut and often wearing a D.C. Everest baseball cap or winter hat, lights up immediately, leaning in with excitement at the mere mention of D.C. Everest sports.
Matt’s career as a manager began with the football team, Shirley says. Then under coach Wayne Steffenhagen, Matt traveled with the team to the state tournament several times. For every game, Matt would happily help load buses with the team’s equipment, and always walked the sidelines, cheering on the team. (Though several years retired, Steffenhagen still exchanges Christmas cards with Matt.)
Eventually that interest spread to other sports. Matt started performing those manager duties with the girls basketball team and the track and field team in the spring. Each team embraced him as one of their own team members, Shirley Rhyner says.
His love of sports isn’t limited to those particular programs, but there’s only so much “Matty” to go around. Those three sports cover the fall, winter and spring seasons. But that doesn’t stop him from cheering on other sports when there’s time. The Rhyners happily drive him not only to state tournaments, but also team practices when the weather is foul. Otherwise, Matt rides his bike on most days. “He never misses a practice, except if he’s out of town,” John Rhyner says.
“He’s made so many friends and everyone likes him so much, he always sticks with it,” Shirley says. “He never gives up, he’s always positive. If we don’t win this time, we will win the next game.”
A basketball game fist bump with junior Krista Koenig
Matt’s connection to athletics started while he was in school, thanks to an initiative to get special needs students at D.C. Everest more involved in school activities. Matt was interested in sports, and he and another student started helping out the various teams.
Steffenhagen embraced him on the football team, says Greg Peterson, coach for D.C. Everest girls track. It seemed to work well enough and Matt enjoyed himself. Football players would high-five Matt and play catch with him in downtime. When spring rolled around, one of the football coaches approached Peterson about Matt helping out with track. Peterson agreed.
Matt today is still very active with the girls track team. He fills the cooler with water bottles, packs equipment on the buses, and makes sure all the gear is accounted for. He sets up the mini-hurdles and lays out the speed ladders. At track meets he sometimes acts as the team messenger—anyone who has seen the overwhelming buzz of a sprawling track meet knows how invaluable that can be. It’s all a big help to the team, Peterson says.
Not everyone back in the 90s thought Matt’s involvement was such a good idea, Peterson says. “Now there aren’t any questions about Matt working with the Everest sports program,” Peterson says. “If you could get anyone to be as involved with their community and their local high school like Matt is, it would be great.”
He does take a little looking after sometimes. Peterson recounts a story about a football game in Marshfield when, after the game, they couldn’t find “Matty.” The coaches and team were worried, but had a good laugh when they realized he’d gone home with his parents without telling anyone.
Some tending is a small price to pay for someone who has such a dedication to the team, Peterson says. “I looked at the value of having a student who wanted to help,” Peterson says. “Being a manager of a sports team, you don’t find many people volunteering to do that. No one wants to pack the bags, carry the ice chests. I think Matt loves what he’s doing.”
Enthusiasm and love
Basketball team members Lexie Higgins and Taylor Petit
When the D.C. Everest Girls Basketball team defeated Arrowhead by ten points at the Resch Center to earn its spot at the state championship game in 2015, Bullis knew in advance just how excited Matt would be about the win. He knew well enough, in fact, that the bench thought ahead of time to hold him back. And as expected, when the announcer called out the winning Evergreen team, Matt was ready to rush out to grab the plaque before any of the other players had a chance to hold it.
It’s important to note that the level of excitement is what Matt brings to the table all of the time.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the first game of the season or the state championship, Matty is enthusiastic,” Bullis says.
For example, when D.C. Everest volleyball won their regional tournament this fall, the team wasn’t as prepared as the basketball team was in 2015. Matt had traveled to watch the volleyball team. He was so overcome with enthusiasm that he rushed onto the court to grab the plaque faster than anyone could stop him, and bring it back to the team with a huge smile on his face.
“He’s like the No. 1 D.C. Everest fan,” says Lexie Higgins, a senior and member of the basketball and volleyball teams. “He brings a light-hearted energy to any sporting event.”
Taylor Petit, a senior on the basketball team, says Matt’s involvement is inspiring. Both girls were on that state semi-final winning team in 2015. “He feels like a part of our team,” Petit says. “We make sure he is part of the team.”
It’s not all exciting wins and devastating losses. There have been many light-hearted “Matty” moments in between.
Before one basketball game, the team played a trick and had the announcer call Matt as the head coach and Bullis as the manager, which brought a big smile. And the year the Evergreen girls went to state, Bullis held a surprise parents versus students game, with Matt given official coaching duties for the night, complete with a whistle and whiteboard for drawing plays. Matt was practically shaking he was so excited and nervous as he led the team.
“A lot of people have this thing where they want to spend the day with the Packers or another professional sports team,” Bullis says. “That’s how Matty views us, which is a cool thing. We’re as big of a deal to him as [a pro sports team] is to others. It’s such a neat thing.”
Matt’s presence is also a lesson for student athletes, Bullis says. “The kids really enjoy Matt’s presence,” Bullis says. “It’s a good life experience to see how something like this can impact someone’s life, just by treating him like everyone else.”
A life of sports
Girls basketball coach Matt Bullis on the sidelines with Matt Rhyner
I asked Matt what other kinds of things he’s into besides D.C. Everest sports. He quickly lists off the Wisconsin Woodchucks and the Green Bay Packers. A visit to his TV room shows his other interests, the Milwaukee Brewers and Wisconsin Badgers. And of course the room is filled with plenty of D.C. Everest paraphernalia.
I changed my question, asking if there was anything that he liked besides sports. He quickly answered “NASCAR!”
His parents say he’s a huge NASCAR fan, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is his favorite driver. He loves local racing too, often attending State Park Speedway events and being a fan of some local drivers. Racing and cheering on his beloved Wisconsin Woodchucks at Athletic Park fill his summers. That he’s been to Athletic Park several times is evidenced by the many Woody Woodchuck bobble heads sitting on a shelf in his room.
There’s just not a thing that Matt would rather be doing other than being involved in sports, particularly at D.C. Everest. In his younger years, Matt competed and won medals in the Special Olympics, and had worked at Big Lots until it closed.
These days, it’s his involvement in Everest athletics that gives him purpose, and there’s nowhere Matt Rhyner would rather be than on the sidelines of an Everest football game or standing courtside cheering on the girls basketball team, or dragging out those hurdles onto the track course.
And all the kids and coaches are happy to have him, Petit says. “Just seeing him on the sidelines, jumping and pumping his fist in the air, you can’t help but smile.”