In kindergarten, he was hard to miss.
He would walk into class slow and sluggish with a pallid hue, trying to smile through his puffy face. Then he would put his balding head on the desk and sleep.
His teacher understood. The other kids didn’t.
Growing up, they’d point and laugh. “Chubby!” they'd say.
But Matt couldn’t help his cravings. He often needed chicken nuggets in the middle of the night, and his mom always woke up and put a dozen in the deep fryer.
When he shopped for clothes, nothing fit.
He didn’t have play dates. He had hospital visits.
That was 12 years ago.
Today, at Winona State University, Matt Browne is still hard to miss. The sturdy, sculpted young man with a tanned physique is always moving in the gym, lifting, pushing himself to his limits. He has a full slate of classes and a near-perfect GPA, plans to graduate this fall with a degree in physical education, and juggles training Winona clients and cramming in his own workout plan. When he gets a break, he cooks himself grass-fed beef, free-range chicken or fish.
Today, Matt looks like a man of perfect health.
As a child he fought for his life.
It started the spring he was 5. Matt, an active, energetic boy, slid on his brand-new black rollerblades with fluorescent yellow lightning bolts on the sides. All day long he scooted down the sidewalk until it was time for bed.
That night Matt’s mom awoke to cries from his bedroom, unusual for her son. She checked on him but thought it was just sore shins from the rollerblades.
But the pain didn’t go away, and Matt began to bruise every time he even brushed up against something. His parents took him in for a check-up.
“Shin splints,” the doctor said, “but let’s do blood work just in case.”
Later that day, the doctor called. Not with results, but a diagnosis.
Matt had leukemia and a 65 percent survival rate.
From that point forward, his life drastically changed. His energy dropped and his once-active childhood became defined by bedrest. Day-to-day activities consisted of spinal taps, chemotherapy, handfuls of pills, surgeries, steroid treatments and needles constantly in his arm.
Being so young, it never occurred to Matt that his daily life was out of the ordinary.
“I’ve always said that at that age, what you’re doing, you just think everyone else is doing too,” he said. “That was life, and life went on without me, and I didn’t really understand that.”
Matt also didn't understand his body changes, particularly his rapid weight gain.
Cancer affects people differently, and in Matt’s case, it made him hungry. His midnight cravings for McDonalds and deep-fried chicken nuggets became routine. His weight began to haunt him at school. Kids called him “fat” and “chubby” to his face and under their breath.
Yet even when his health and self-esteem were at their worst, he carried on, becoming an inspiration for his older sisters Mollee and Britta.
“When he was little and found out he was sick, he was too young to say, ‘I’m going to beat this,’ but you could tell he wasn’t going to give up,” Mollee said. “Even being a younger brother, he was always looking out for us, and when he was sick it was always, ‘Never pity me.’”
It took time, but Mollee was right—Matt got better.
He pushed through chemo and spent less time in the hospital. After morning blood work, Matt would kill time goofing around with his father, riding mini mechanical jeeps at Toys ‘R’ Us.
Life slowly took a positive turn, and at 10, after five years of enduring the disease, Matt and his family received the best news yet: Matt's cancer was in remission.
But that didn’t change the damage Matt's body had endured. He was still overweight, still ridiculed at school.
It wasn’t until Matt entered Winona Senior High School that he finally hit a growth spurt and the teasing stopped.
“It was the first time I looked like everyone else,” Matt said, “but I thought, ‘I’m not in as good of shape as I could be.’”
Matt got involved in basketball, baseball and track. The physical activity put him in a position to seek total transformation.
He found that transformation in the weight room.
“I stepped in the weight room and finally had a tool I could use to get to where I wanted to go,” Matt said. “I think there are so many aspects of life where we don’t have control. In my personal well-being, I couldn’t control the fact that I got cancer. (Fitness) is a part of life that you can control.”
Matt began working with a trainer, Jim Yahnke, who quickly became his fitness mentor. Yahnke taught him lifts and conditioning techniques that Matt utilized when training with his teams. It didn’t take long for Matt to catch up to his peers. By senior year he had developed a solid foundation as a “tremendous athlete,” Yahnke said.
For Matt, fitness began as a tool to get in shape. Then it became a way of life.
Matt went to college at San Diego State University where he worked with what he called world-class strength and conditioning coaches. But after two years of heavy training and soaking in extensive knowledge, he missed Winona.
He returned home to enroll at Winona State University for kinesiology. He brought with him nearly 30 new pounds of muscle.
“The difference was unbelievable,” Jim said. “He had his goal. He set his goal. He knows how our lives can change in an instant. He used his illness as a positive tool to better himself.”
Today, Matt has gained 10 more pounds of muscle. He weighs in at 200 pounds and his body fat is only 7 percent. Now, using his former illness as motivation, it’s largely about sharing his story.
“Knowing what I went through, I find an importance in sharing my story with others,” he said. “No matter what they’re going through, anytime you can share a story where a person who has gone through a hard time, you can have a direct impact on someone’s life.”
Last March, Matt got the opportunity to do just that. He sent a letter to Men’s Fitness magazine. In a few months he was offered a story and photo shoot for a piece in an upcoming issue.
“(That's) when I kind of sat back and said to myself, I’m going somewhere with this,’” he said. “I got to share my story on such a mass level. It was a very humbling experience to walk into a Barnes and Noble or any department store and pick up a magazine and see myself in it. It was nice to be in the spotlight for a bit of time.”
Matt's childhood experience continues to drive him to break new limits and change lives. He continues to share his past with his clients through personal training and teaching fitness classes.
Matt's only hospital visit these days is a yearly checkup at Rochester Mayo Clinic, and there is little chance his cancer will return.
It's a new life for a man who as a child was bedridden and battling a deadly illness.
“I live my life knowing that any day really could be your last,” Matt said. “I just want to try to make most out of the time I’m here.”