At 6-feet-8-inches, it’s hard not to be noticed, but Fort Mill High senior Matt Kjeldsen knows that feeling all too well.
For Kjeldsen, who has autism – though he is considered “high-functioning” despite the vexing disorder – it was almost like he was invisible when he lived in New Jersey.
Invisible to his classmates. Invisible to administrators. Overlooked by basketball coaches, despite his height.
That all changed when the Kjeldsens moved to Fort Mill four years ago and enrolled Matt, 17, into Fort Mill High. Kjeldsen now is part of something as a member of the varsity basketball team that started its season last weekend. He has come out of his shell and is starting to bloom.
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“Basketball has always been a part of his therapy as a kid,” said his father, Ron Kjeldsen. “All the kids on the team and coach (Dwayne) Hartsoe are supportive of him and look after him.”
Kjeldsen played on the ninth-grade team as a freshman and the JV team the past two seasons as a sophomore and junior.
Ron Kjeldsen said things weren’t always like that for his son, especially when it came to sports in New Jersey. “They wouldn’t even give him a chance,” Ron Kjeldsen said.
Matt Kjeldsen was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and as his family learned about autism and its implications, Matt made a discovery of his own: basketball.
“I like playing on the court and giving it all you got,” he said.
Kjeldsen first started playing basketball at 5 with the help of his father, who coached him through middle school; but unless he coaches the team, a father can take his son only so far.
So when the Kjeldsens saw Matt wasn’t going to get the chance other kids might have, they decided to move.
“He doesn’t see himself as any different as anyone else,” said Matt’s mother, Ellien Kjeldsen.
The Kjeldsens’ older son already was in college at Winthrop University, so the family decided to do research on the local schools and ended up coming to Fort Mill.
That’s when Matt’s life began to change.
“I can’t say enough about Fort Mill High,” Ellien said. “Where we came from, the kids didn’t even pay attention to him. All I wanted was for him to be a part of something. He has always played basketball and to not be given the chance crushed him. The coaches here have really embraced him. The kids are so accepting and supportive.”
But for Matt, it was more than just finding a good school. There were always bigger goals. There was always basketball.
Hartsoe saw Matt and knew he could use him, overlooking what others saw as potential setbacks. “We feel like it’s more about what you can do for the kids,” Hartsoe said.
“The other kids rally around him. He knows his role on the team. He knows his limitations, but he loves basketball and he always has a big smile. It gives him an outlet. It’s amazing to see him come out of that shell.”
Hartsoe said having Matt on the team is not just good for Matt but for the other players.
“They call him ‘Big Matt,’ ” Hartsoe said. “They love Big Matt. They like having him around. They help him in practice. It’s neat to watch the kids rally around other kids.”
However, Hartsoe said, he doesn’t take it easy on Matt just because he has a disorder.
In his first minutes of the young season, Kjeldsen scored two points and pulled down a rebound in Fort Mill’s season-opening win against Forestview on Dec. 5.
“He has worked very hard for four years to be a part of our program. He has made every weight room workout, individual and team off season workouts, and been to team camp with us. Every team member has a role on the team, and he understands his role with our team. It has been a joy to see him get better each year.”
Lisa Knight, Matt’s primary teacher at Fort Mill High, said being part of the basketball team gives Matt that extra spark. Unlike in New Jersey, when Matt walks down the hall at school he now gets shout-outs and high fives from other students.
“He is such a part of the school,” Knight said. “He has tremendous sense of pride for the school and being a part of the program is huge. It is a sense of belonging for him.”
Despite the joy Matt Kjeldsen brings others, he said, he feels special to be part of the team. “They are like family to me and are a great bunch of guys,” he said.