When the Baltimore Ravens seemed as far from the bright dawn of their 9-2 start as possible, Matthew Jeffers wrote an email early one morning to the team after it had lost three straight games.
In a simple three-paragraph note written early on the morning of Dec. 20, the senior theater major at Towson University became what Coach John Harbaugh called an inspiration in the team's darkest hour.
"The ONLY disability in life," Jeffers, 21, wrote, "is a bad attitude. … A positive attitude is the most powerful combatant to life's misfortunes."
Life's misfortunes introduced themselves to Jeffers early.
The 4-foot-2 Jeffers needed a tracheotomy at 5 months old to repair a respiratory compression and, during the summer of 2001, at age 10, he underwent a surgery each week for a month before his lower body was immobilized like a wishbone in a hip spica cast.
He has endured 20 surgeries. Some were related to the tracheotomy, while procedures to repair his bow knees and align his hips targeted his dwarfism. When it appeared he and his family were in the clear — he hasn't required surgery since age 12 — the family learned in 2011 that his mother, Marcie, was diagnosed with a Stage 4 brain tumor.
His optimism in the face of each was a conscious choice he made and one, he wrote in his letter, the Ravens could make too.
His note was one of many yarns the team wove into a Super Bowl berth.
"He's a really bright, thoughtful guy who's been through a lot in his life, who basically let us know that there are no winning streaks in life, and there are no losing streaks in life," Harbaugh said. "There's only how you approach those things, there's only attitude, and your attitude is what makes everything. Our guys really responded to that, and I think he really made a difference in our season."
Harbaugh forwarded the email to his team days before they snapped their three-game losing streak on Dec. 23 with a home rout of the Giants. The team brought Jeffers and his father, Michael, to visit practice a week later.
"(Harbaugh) does a good job of having impactful guests come visit the team, so we understand how fortunate we are to be in this position, and how fortunate other people are even to be living, going through the things they've gone through in life," reserve safety James Ihedigbo said.
Jeffers isn't naïve enough to believe the squad toppled two of the AFC's best — Denver and New England — en route to the Super Bowl simply because of his email. He can't believe the letter warranted the time he later spent on the field with Harbaugh and the receiving line of 53 men waiting to shake his hand after the Dec. 28 practice.
Yet one month after his visit, many players still feel Jeffers' impact.
"We're here playing at the pinnacle of our careers and this guy had multiple surgeries … but he's still striving and still being who he is," running back Ray Rice said.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who tweeted a thank-you message for Jeffers' email when the team received it, said it's "always great to have a reminder that life's bigger than football."
'I want to eliminate typecasting'
For Jeffers, the opposite is true. Ravens games are an escape from life outside M&T Bank Stadium.
After his last surgery in 2003, Jeffers resumed his active life as a basketball and table tennis player. He was Schroeder in an eighth-grade Charlie Brown play at Beth Tfiloh Community School in Pikesvile and caught the acting bug, but all along he and his father had their Sunday tickets to the Ravens.
With his mother's condition in constant flux — a recent seizure was "a bump in the road," he said — the games have become even more of a refuge for him and his father. Their planned trip to New Orleans to attend the Super Bowl comes at a time when a hospice nurse has begun caring for Marcie at their house.
"It's our way to kind of forget about the real world and give three hours to a team we passionately care about," Jeffers said.
"You think about everything that he's been through and his passion for us and the game, it's awesome to have that type of support and it means a lot to us," Ihedigbo said. "He shouldn't think for a second — and no one should think for a second — that we take that type of thing for granted, because it really does mean a lot to us and touches a lot of our hearts."
Jeffers insisted the email was spontaneous, and said he feels undeserving of the attention he's received — including a feature on the team website and a visit from ESPN, whom he said plans to air a segment on his letter during its Super Bowl pregame show.
But for the talented young actor, inspiration and acclaim have become more frequent. Certainly, his optimism in the face misfortune has led him to national renown in collegiate theater.
Earlier this month, he was named a finalist for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship, which Jeffers called the Heisman Trophy of college theater. After three sets of adjudications, Jeffers bested 274 performers from the region to earn one of two spots on stage in the prestigious The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in April.
Jeffers, who starred as Tom Wingfield in the university's fall production of "The Glass Menagerie" and plans to reprise the role this summer with the Vagabond Players in Fells Point, said he's the rare thespian who's also obsessed with sports.
He aspires to the big screen, a desire he knows may be hindered by his size.
"As an actor — a short-statured actor — there are challenges that face me," he said. But that's my goal… I want to eliminate that stigma and that typecasting. Just like the Ravens have a challenge in the face of constant naysayers and doubters, they go out and they continue to perform and they continue to amaze."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun