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The long walk back for Ty’Jason Roberts from spinal fracture

It has been described as such: Like a concrete wall lying across your body. Like you’re trying to dead lift at the gym and can’t move the bar an inch. Your brain is screaming to scratch that itch and yet a subset of neurons never trigger a response.

Ty’Jason Roberts described it as this: “I couldn’t wiggle my toes. I couldn’t move my legs. All I wanted to know when we got to the hospital is if I would walk again.”

Hope is difficult to embrace when you have lost all muscle function below the waist, when paralysis is mentioned as a potential outcome while you’re being wheeled into surgery.

Roberts distinctly remembers the play that led to such a frightening possibility, a UNLV defensive back in 2018 who during the second quarter of a blowout win against Prairie View A&M came up to tackle an opposing runner.

“I remember making contact and then blacked out,” Roberts said. “When I woke up …”

He is talking extensively for the first time about that fateful moment and the months of rehabilitation that followed, Roberts having planned on walking with his graduating class this weekend until COVID-19 led to such on-campus events being canceled.

Walking is the operative word. How incredibly far Roberts has come.

UNLV Rebels defensive back Ty'Jason Roberts (38) is taken off the field by medical staff after ...
UNLV Rebels defensive back Ty'Jason Roberts (38) is taken off the field by medical staff after getting injured during the first half of a football game against the Prairie View A&M Panthers at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Chase Stevens Las Vegas Review-Journal @csstevensphoto

Show no panic

The fracture was in the area of the C4 and C5 vertebrae and surgery occurred just hours after that decisive play. Doctors didn’t mince words: The procedure could work and Roberts might recover or he could awake a paraplegic. Not much middle ground.

A few truths came from those critical minutes at Sam Boyd Stadium while EMTs and a gurney were rushed onto the field: UNLV trainers were beyond exceptional in their care of Roberts, because one wrong movement in either direction, one inch here or there, could have determined a fate of life in a wheelchair.

That, and he who possesses the last line of a program’s authority was again deemed helpless in such a situation.

“The thing is, you get to him and don’t want to show any panic on your face,” said former Rebels coach Tony Sanchez. “You stay calm and positive when things like that occur. Until you really know, you’re hoping for the best. But then you get to the hospital and talk to the doctors and realize how serious and grave things are. And your heart just drops to your stomach.

“Ty’Jason isn’t a loud kid. He’s very humble. He was a really, really good player. I remember telling him that in the grand scheme of life, playing football again or one day being able to throw the ball with your kids in the back yard and run around with them, one was far more important than the other.”

UNLV Rebels defensive back Ty'Jason Roberts (38) walks to the field before a football game agai ...
UNLV Rebels defensive back Ty'Jason Roberts (38) walks to the field before a football game against Air Force Falcons at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. Erik Verduzco Las Vegas Review-Journal @Erik_Verduzco

Yes. Roberts awoke from surgery and moved his legs.

His long road to recovery began by simply standing up, and you can imagine in that instant the level of emotion that came pouring from Roberts and his family. His mother has been with him throughout the journey, from the moment she stood by her son on the Sam Boyd turf.

He always thought about playing again, through all the rehabilitation in his hometown of West Los Angeles, through a return to UNLV for spring semester in 2019, through helping out with the football program and athletics department as he continued healing.

Players want to play. Roberts walked on at UNLV as an Arizona State transfer, was a reserve in 2017, earned a scholarship in the offseason and made his first start in what would be his final game. Ever.

He always thought about playing again until doctors showed him a particular set of X-Rays. He was never playing again.

‘I’m blessed’

He is one of 21 graduating this spring to have played under Sanchez — a school record for UNLV football in one class — and scheduled to walk in commencement. One was especially coveting the thought.

UNLV's Ty'Jason Roberts stands on the field with his aunt Kishawanda Bellos, left, and his moth ...
UNLV's Ty'Jason Roberts stands on the field with his aunt Kishawanda Bellos, left, and his mother Ramona Finley during a pre-game homecoming festivities at Sam Boyd Stadium on Nov. 29, 2019. Roberts was injured in a Sept. 2018 game. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

“At the end of the day, I knew sports were always second to school,” said the 22-year old Roberts. “Being able to walk across that stage would have showed everything I worked for. But with everything going on in the world, I’m just happy to have earned my degree.

“I’m blessed. I’ve learned not to let one obstacle stand in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish. There is always a way to see things from a different perspective. No matter what was in my way, I was getting through it.”

He wants to become a personal trainer and perhaps attend Graduate School.

His degree is in kinesiology.

The study of body movement.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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