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Life, failure, perseverance: Matt DeFina tells MHS graduates to never give up

On Friday evening, Matt DeFina stepped to the speaker’s podium at Memorial Stadium to address Madera High School’s graduating seniors, the Class of 2017.

As he looked out across the sea of caps and gowns in front of him, he remembered 21 years ago when he was sitting where these graduates were now seated.

From the rostrum on stage, he looked to his right. He could see his wife, Denise, and their nine-year-old daughter, Gracie. Next to them were his parents, Chuck and Sherri DeFina. He looked at his family and remembered. Then he launched into the delivery of his commencement address, a riveting speech in which he challenged the graduating seniors never to give up — to persevere always.

DeFina warmed to his topic by giving the graduates several examples of some famous people who personified perseverance by not quitting after encountering a variety of failures. They included Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, the Beatles, Abraham Lincoln, and Michael Phelps.

Then he turned to a quintessential example of perseverance — a little baby who was born in 1977 with cystic fibrosis. DeFina held his audience spellbound with the story.

In 1977, there was much that was unknown about cystic fibrosis, and the prognosis for infants with the disease was very poor. In the case of this baby, the parents were told that he probably would not live to see his 4th birthday.

Fighting almost insurmountable odds, the parents and the child struggled against their deadly enemy. They never wallowed in self-pity but decided they would make the most of life regardless of how long the youngster lived.

So they set out to focus on living — not dying. They vowed to be diligent and conscientious in fighting the enemy with daily therapy.

As he grew up, the youngster required hospitalization two or three times a year, but he pressed on to earn college degrees at Fresno State and St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia.

By 2008 he was to married Denise Grigsby and become the father of an eight-week-old daughter, Gracie.

The young man’s 20's were actually fairly healthy years. He kept the enemy at bay, was never fearful, and exercised frequently during that time. He even dabbled in body-building. He knew, however, those days would never last — not with the opponent he was fighting. Then when he turned 30, the inevitable raised its ugly head. The enemy turned more aggressive.

His lung function began to decline more rapidly, and between ages 30 and 34, he lost an average of 10 percent of his lung function each year. Finally in 2012, the doctors told him he might expect another two years of life. Time was running out.

Still unwilling to quit, he decided to seek a double lung transplant. He told himself that he would fight this disease to the end. He believed that he could push himself to stay alive until he could receive a transplant.

On April 26, 2012, he went on the lung transplant list, and in May he had two new lungs.

Two days after the operation, Matt DeFina (by now the audience had guessed that he was telling his own story) was walking, He was discharged on day nine and was back in the gym 121 days after the transplant.

Nothing is holding Matt back. In between fighting his body’s attempt to reject his new lungs, he and Denise have gone on to found the De Fina Family Cellars, their own very successful wine company. In concluding his remarks, DeFina brought the graduates to a fever pitch. As he passionately charged them to enjoy a lifetime of “breath-taking” moments and never to take one of them for granted, the Class of 2017 jumped to its feet to give DeFina a rare standing ovation.

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