Alumnus Matt Higgins '02 Featured in New York TimesOctober 23, 2009
Cancer did not slow Matt Higgins. If anything, it affirmed the depth of his resolve. He took one day off for surgery and plunged back into work, crying only when he had to tell his bosses.
Cancer did not enlighten Higgins with fresh perspective. He treated it like another obstacle on his meteoric rise to becoming the Jets’ executive vice president for business operations.
Cancer did not change Higgins. Running did.
As he prepares for the New York City Marathon, raising money for Lance Armstrong’s foundation, Higgins has lost 55 pounds and gained the balance that his success failed to provide.
“Running forces you to slow down,” Higgins said. “Because the only way you can finish is to allow time to elapse. That was important because I had never lived my life that way. I could always accelerate everything through the sheer force of will.”
Higgins, 34, always achieved by pushing, pushing, pushing, never slowing down, never considering the consequences. He started working at age 14 and dropped out of high school two years later to care for his ailing mother, Linda.
He spent what seemed like half his life wheeling his mother into emergency rooms, where he sat outside on curbs studying for exams at Fordham Law School. He became president of the debate team and made law review, but his life was filled with contradictions, his career and his mother’s health spiraling in opposite directions.
On the day he started as press secretary for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — at age 26, he was the youngest person to hold that job in New York — his mother died from congestive heart failure.
His career continued upward. After he joined the Jets in 2004, Higgins received two promotions in the next four years. Crain’s New York tabbed him as a rising young business star in its 40 under 40 rankings.
“Matt is the kind of guy who never appears like he’s struggling,” said Woody Johnson, the Jets’ owner.
Or so it seemed. Three months after the birth of his first child, Matthew Jr., Higgins and his wife, Michele, went to Rhode Island. Higgins felt a nagging pain in his right testicle, and he went to the doctor only at his wife’s insistence, in April 2007.
The exam took place on a Monday. On Tuesday, he received the diagnosis of testicular cancer. On Wednesday, he had surgery. Shortly after, he went back to work.
Higgins was desperate to hide even a hint of weakness. Two days after surgery, he attended dinner with Jets coaches, where he drank wine and never mentioned cancer, despite the deep gash still healing on his side.
He treated cancer like the flu, Higgins sheepishly admitted. He scheduled radiation therapy after work, receiving treatment every day for one month.
“I saw cancer as something that could derail everything I’d worked toward,” Higgins said. “I was proud of my response. But it’s ridiculous to be sideswiped by a potentially fatal disease and not learn anything. It’s almost like tempting fate.
“Next time, it might be a .45-caliber bullet instead of a .22.”
Higgins started signing off on e-mail messages with a tagline that essentially read, half the anatomy, twice the man. That summed up his approach, which he described with the following words: defiant, belligerent, self-deprecating.
But when his weight ballooned to 250 pounds, causing his feet to ache, Higgins discovered that he had “misread the tea leaves.” Instead of viewing cancer as another opportunity to conquer adversity, it should have served as an impetus for change.
He met with a trainer, started running, shedding pounds. He changed his eating habits, switching to grilled foods, more vegetables, recognizing that “there’s not some otherworldly force making me eat gyros at 11 p.m.”
Johnson noticed how Higgins’s obsessive personality fit perfectly with running. But running provided more than an outlet. It brought clarity, with pavement substituting for a therapist’s couch.
Higgins found something of a kindred spirit in Curtis Martin, the retired Pro Bowl running back. Higgins advised Martin on Martin’s goal of becoming an N.F.L. owner. Martin told Higgins how to handle shin splints.
Martin’s father died of lung cancer earlier this year, on the day after Father’s Day, and in both his father and Higgins, he said he saw optimism, a fighter’s spirit. He thought back to something Bill Parcells once told him about the difference between routine and commitment. Most suffer through routine, Parcells said, but few commit to another level.
Through running, Higgins was committing to life beyond his grand ambitions.
“Matt has wisdom,” Martin said. “He’s wise beyond his age, and you see it in the way he carries himself. If I was an owner, and he wasn’t with the Jets, I’d make sure I kept him close to me.”
Last week, Higgins jogged around the picturesque grounds at the Jets’ facility. With labored breathing, he talked about the first time he returned from running and how the cafeteria applauded. He described how people mistake him for his young brother, or assume, because of the weight loss, that the cancer has returned.
He pointed out the steps the Jets have taken to become what Johnson hopes is “the healthiest organization in America” — like changing their vendor, cutting foods high in fat, making their nutritionist available to all employees. Johnson once sent someone to fetch Higgins’s running shoes after he forgot them en route to the airport. By running the marathon, Higgins hopes his story reminds men to be tested, to go to the doctor, to listen to their wives. He is cancer free, but is still tested every six months.
Now, Higgins carries a bag everywhere. He fills it with sneakers, compression shorts, antichafing cream, orthotics made by team trainers, even a heart monitor. Now, the man who avoided doctors says he orders unnecessary CT scans.
Over lunch in Midtown Manhattan recently, Higgins pulled out the team media guide. There, on page 11, was his picture, 55 pounds ago. He offered a nervous laugh.
Higgins took another bite of grilled vegetables. He had work to do, family to see and another run to complete that afternoon. In all aspects of his life, he has found new balance.