Matt Wallace held Sam Fryman's elbow as the buddies walked through University of Pennsylvania's ice rink in late January. Matt could feel a biting chill in the air. Could hear the clack-clack-clack of hockey pucks slapping against the boards. His senses, as always, were alive.
But Matt could see nothing. Not the face of his friend Sam, who guided him up 36 concrete steps to a broadcast platform. Not the Philadelphia skyline or the SEPTA train that had brought them into town from the suburbs. Not the scuff marks on the Plexiglas or the white ice on which the game he adores would soon be played.
Matt is blind. And he was about to broadcast, with Sam by his side, a Penn women's ice hockey match.
Sam: "Driscoll, back in the high slot, tried to backhand it there, almost gotten down by Jaume (pronounced HOW-may), she gets it and SCOOOORES! Patience paying off for Alexa Jaume. She got right in front of the net with Sam Tsychiya providing a great screen. And just like that, momentum from the power play. It is a tie game."
Matt: "They never let that puck out of the zone. That was great work by Sohn and Driscoll to move the puck around. I was just gonna say a little hesitation from Kate Sohn, maybe should have pulled the trigger a little earlier, but a great job by them to keep the play alive. And you set up your best player on this power play."
Sam fired off play-by-play with the auctioneer cadence of a pro like Mike Emrick. He painted on-ice pictures that Matt would filter through his mind-boggling sports-stats mind and convert to color commentary comparable to the NHL's great Bill Clement.
I couldn't believe my eyes and ears: One guy who sees it all, another who's been blind since birth — together defying the physics of human imperfection.
Sam, 26, the low-key son of a Center City law firm partner, was Matt's eyes. Matt, 26, the orphaned son of a long-disabled Delaware County pipefitter, was the brash sports savant making Sam better by being blind. Sam from affluent Lower Merion, Matt from an Eagleville trailer home. One with a job as a Whole Foods cashier while hustling for a broadcast career, the other living alone on $400 a month in spending money while being rejected, time and again, for a decent job because he's blind.
It was serendipity that reunited the Temple '15 grads only a few months ago. But their reunion would produce more than stunning sports journalism. It would yield gifts of the soul, the likes of which we should all be grateful to one day find.
Sam Fryman was a pretty shy kid at Temple. He'd graduated from Friends Central, his mom in the corporate world and his dad a lawyer at Ballard Spahr. The spotlight wasn't Sam's thing — just hockey and NASCAR. He figured a degree in media studies was the way to go.
Matt Wallace, on the other hand? Holy cow.
Matt brought down the house when he and another blind undergrad pitched — and then auditioned to lead — the first sports show for Temple University Television in 2010. They won the job in a faceoff against a sighted duo.
"They just blew us out of the water," recalled George Cummings, a broadcasting veteran who helps run TUTV. "They were 10 times better than the kids who could see. Everybody that was in the control room and the studio burst into spontaneous applause."
Matt's mind was mathematical, his mouth just mouthy enough for broadcast gold.
Working behind the scenes, Sam marveled at Matt. It inspired Sam to take a stab on-screen. They'd hang out and walk to the train station for Matt's commute back home. But that was it. No great deep connection just yet.
Matt's dad had been out of work with a bad back since a ditch collapsed onto him years earlier. Matt's mom had died of ovarian cancer when Matt was just 4. His other three brothers were 9, 14, and 15 at the time.
All Matt showed his Temple friends, though, was the bright side. And that included a miraculous penchant for broadcasting.
"When I hear him," Lucy Wallace told me, "I get very emotional."
Lucy is the "mom" Matt knows — the woman who married his widowed father and adopted Matt when he was little. The one who knows all he has overcome.
Matt's family grew up in Yeadon, then Lansdowne, then Springfield, places where sports share space on the mantle next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. He attended schools for the blind and graduated from Monsignor Bonner alongside kids who could see.
He and his dad, Jim, watched games endlessly together, his dad explaining what was going on. They'd go to Phillies games where Matt would hold a radio to his ear. Matt caught radio broadcasts, too. And with help from his older brothers, who'd cue up the video game for him, he learned everything about football by playing Madden a thousand times over.
"A lot of people who hate sports," Matt told me, "they don't understand the bond that fathers and sons have over sports. It brings them closer."
This was Matt telling me how much he loved his dad. A man who on June 5, 2017, died at the age of 61.
A day that left Matt devastated.
What a coincidence, then, that Sam Fryman called from out of the blue around that same time. He'd just lost a broadcasting job due to downsizing and was back in Philly. His question: Would Matt like to get together to catch up?
It was Sam's idea to call games at Penn. You know, keep the juices flowing and the resume hot. He and Matt do it for nothing because chasing your dreams doesn't come cheap. Sam is the yin, Matt the yang.
"Sam's analysis and play-by-play commentary is at a professional level," Penn women's coach Samantha Pulley told me, unprompted, when I grabbed her outside the locker room.
And Matt? He's her secret weapon. The coach pulls Matt aside between periods to find what they're doing wrong. She bases the team's adjustments on his insights.
"I want to know what he's hearing," she said. "He's always spot on."
Here's something the guys didn't expect: the friendship.
"He walked into my life at a time when I was very lonely," Matt said. "I think we're good void fillers for one another."
Sam has newfound perspective about life, and getting out of your own head.
"It humbles me," Sam said. "Just makes me a little more selfless. And I thank him for that."
Matt was recently "ghosted," he says, by an inhumane human resources apparatchik who'd strung him along for a customer service job. I'm heartbroken as he tells me about the saga inside his meticulous home.
This brilliant young man cannot find work. This man should have work. Good work — until someone develops the good sense to hire him and Sam as broadcasters.
If only people would stop sizing up Matt with their eyes and use their other senses. It's a lesson for us all.
"You need to talk," is Sam's advice to the know-it-all naysayers who may discount the blind. "You need to listen."