A ray of light

Matt Light learned plenty of important lessons while playing football.  A three-year two-way starter at Greenville High in Darke County, Light earned a scholarship to play at Purdue University, where he spent three years protecting the blind side of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and helped lead the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 36 years. 

He was chosen in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft by the New England Patriots, who had finished a lowly 5-11 the year before. But that 2001 season was a momentous one — for the nation, for the NFL, for the Patriots, and for Light himself.

Two days after New England lost its opener to the Cincinnati Bengals, the 9/11 terrorist attacks shut everything down, everywhere. The NFL was among the first organizations to return, to try to give the nation a sense of normalcy, and among the first games scheduled was the Patriots against the New York Jets. 

That game is iconic in NFL history, first as a symbol of the country’s patriotism and resolve, and also because the Patriots’ quarterback was injured and replaced by little-known backup Tom Brady, who would go on to become arguably the best football player of all time.

Less celebrated, perhaps, is that it also marked the first career start for Light at left tackle — the position most responsible for protecting the quarterback. Light would spend 11 seasons in that spot, starting 153 of his 155 professional games — including five Super Bowls, three of which the Patriots won. He’s already in the Patriots Hall of Fame and was one of 173 players nominated for this year’s class of inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

It was that first year of professional football when he started making good on one of his earliest lessons.

“My grandmother (Arlene Light) used to tell me, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’” Light says. “I always wanted to make a difference and help people succeed, and I dreamed about starting a program where young people could learn lifelong skills.”

His wife, Susie, shared that same vision. The two had met at Purdue and married during his rookie season with the Patriots, and together, they created the Light Foundation.

The foundation is headquartered at Chenoweth Trails, near the Ohio-Indiana border west of Greenville, where it is served by Darke Rural Electric Cooperative. The foundation began developing the rustic 500 acres of land in 2009, adding trails and infrastructure, and today the facility hosts more than 7,500 young people and a small army of dedicated volunteers for its numerous programs each year.

Camp Vohokase (which means “light” in the Cheyenne language) represents the premier component of that programming. Considering applicants’ essays and recommendations, Light selects four incoming high school freshmen per year to enter the program. The boys come from at-risk communities in various parts of the country that have a connection to the Lights or the foundation. “Our mission is to take young people out of their everyday environment and provide them with unique opportunities that ignite their passion, purpose, and motivation to succeed,” Light says. “This aspect of the foundation will always hold a special place in our hearts.”

Light considers the nightly fireside chats during the Chenoweth Trails experience as a special highlight, with participants creating dialogue about the real and frequently difficult issues they face away from the peaceful Darke County setting.

Another program that draws eager participants is Timber Frame Leadership Camp. Working with local artisans and volunteers, youths learn to turn standing timber into lumber. That wood, along with hand-hewn beams and other rustic material Light salvages from old barns throughout Ohio and beyond, then forms the basis for many of the facility’s structures — a covered bridge, the bell tower, indoor kitchen and bathroom facilities, a timber-framed banquet hall, and the rustic headquarters building. Two large environmentally friendly yurts provide more overnight accommodations.

Participants work on base structures during the three-day events, with the foundation staff completing structures as time permits. “I guess my goal is to create a timber town, one building at a time,” Light says. “We’ve made progress over the years, but there are still more projects in the planning.”

The camp also hosts programs that reflect Light’s love of football, the outdoors, and fishing and hunting. 

Various youth groups and nonprofit organizations use the facilities throughout the year. Interested parties must apply, but there is no charge to the groups. In addition, the foundation supports a reading program that supplies books for first-grade students throughout the county, and awards $10,000 in college scholarships to graduating seniors.

The Lights and their four children continue to live in New England but spend much of each summer in the Greenville area, working at the foundation’s various camps and special events. The foundation has a national board of directors and maintains an office in Massachusetts that handles 90 percent of its fundraising activities. 

Light has no doubt the foundation will continue its work in years to come because it is family based — Matt and Susie’s four children also take part — and committed to community service. “Having it be a family affair is something that really sets us apart,” Light says. “Our goal is to inspire kids to work hard, put their best foot forward, and strive to become champions in the game of life.”  

Chenoweth Trails, 440 Greenville-Nashville Road, Greenville, OH 45331. www.mattlight72.com.

Matt Light played 11 seasons as the New England Patriots' left tackle (Courtesy of the New England Patriots/David Silverman).

Matt Light played 11 seasons as the New England Patriots' left tackle (Courtesy of the New England Patriots/David Silverman).

Campers and staffers gather at the firepit by Camp Chenoweth’s pavilion for fellowship and relaxation.