MATTHEW LA PORTE believed he was blessed with a second chance in life.
The self-described "troubled boy" from North Jersey entered seventh grade at a military boarding school in 1999 filled with doubt and bitterness.
But during his years at Carson Long Military Institute in central Pennsylvania, La Porte turned himself around. He forged friendships, got good grades and evolved into a campus leader.
In a heartfelt yearbook entry, La Porte described a spiritual journey, a metamorphosis from foolish boy to responsible man upon his 2005 graduation with top honors.
"He felt himself changing," La Porte wrote. "He changed so much, that I am not quite sure if that boy and I are the same person. Now I know that Carson Long was my second chance. . . . I'm ever thankful. I've made it."
His second chance was short-lived. The 20-year-old Virginia Tech freshman from Dumont, N.J., died Monday in the nation's deadliest school shooting.
In one cruel instant, a gunman on a rampage ended La Porte's path to redemption.
"Mom, I'm sorry if I ever disappointed you," La Porte wrote in his yearbook. "Dad, I hope that I've become a man in your eyes, and that whatever I do in life, you are proud of me."
Yesterday, La Porte's MySpace page was flooded with tributes from friends who knew him by his nickname, "Turtle."
"I know you aren't reading this but I'm not really sure what to say," one friend wrote. "You were a great guy, and you deserved all of the wonderful opportunities life can give you."
La Porte brimmed with opportunity. At Carson Long, he had been a member of the drum and bugle corps, the color guard and the glee club. He played baseball and soccer. He won a scholarship to Virginia Tech.
He loved rock music and science-fiction novels. He loved God and country. In his yearbook, La Porte quoted Patrick Henry's 1775 speech, credited with spurring the American Revolution.
"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? . . . I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" *