SPRINGDALE, NL — A lot has changed in Nathan Roberts’ life since a high school football injury left him in chronic pain and disabled – but not his penchant for giving back to others.
The Springdale native left home with his family at the age of one. He was raised in Waterloo, Ont., where he shone in the sporting community.
Despite his physical prowess, he was a gentle soul. When not imposing his will on the football field, he was a coach in the youth football program and a youth leader in his church. If there was a charity he could get involved in, Roberts was likely there to lend a hand.
He returned to high school for another year after graduation, looking to redeem a loss in the championship game of the football season.
Halfway through the year, the devastation of that loss paled in comparison to the fragile state he found himself in.
A hit from a teammate during a game left Roberts with two herniated disks. He underwent a discectomy in 2005, and things improved for about nine months, until he became paralyzed from the waist down, a state he would remain in for more than 28 hours before emergency surgery was performed.
The paralysis was mostly corrected, but he now suffers from cauda equine syndrome— a rare nerve disorder that leaves him in constant pain. His limited mobility and that chronic pain have left him practically bedridden for more than 12 years.
“When you get stuck in a bed, there is not much you can do,” said Roberts, sitting upright in the adjustable medical bed in the converted rec room that serves as his bedroom.
“It … it … sucks, but I know there are a lot of people a lot worse off than I am. I stay as positive as I can be.”
Depression is one of the biggest worries of people in similar circumstances, but Roberts says it has never been an issue for him.
“I know there’s only so much people can do, and I know everybody tries their best,” he said, referring to medical professionals. “If I can keep a smile on my face, I believe that makes it a little easier on them, especially if they have to tell you bad news.”
Roberts and his family moved back to Springdale over five years ago.
Sports remain a big part of his life. He is an avid sports fan, as the life-sized cutout of Darcy Tucker overlooking the comfortable reclining chair he often uses to play video games can attest to. That is just one piece of sports memorabilia completely enveloping the downstairs room that has become his life.
He is on seven or eight different narcotics to help with the pain. At one point, it was hoped an epidural would alleviate some of the pain. He went through physiotherapy and personal trainers, but his condition went unchanged.
Watching sports on television can be difficult at times, a reminder of the athlete he once was. Beautiful days often bring the yearning to go outside and toss a football. However, there is a reality Roberts has long accepted.
“I have come to realize it is something I am just not going to be able do,” he said. “If I had a good day, I would go try to do it, but then I would suffer because of it.”
The immense pain would not be worth the temporary pleasure, so he stopped pushing himself for those moments.
Finding a new passion
Roberts had video games growing up, but it was not something that he spent much time doing. His active lifestyle had a lot to do with that.
“After my injury, I found gaming,” he said. “It is something that takes you away from the pain. You forget that you are stuck there because you are sort of in a fantasy world. You could be playing sports, going to war, doing magic, you could be building, you can be doing anything.
“It is a nice escape from reality, especially days I am having a lot of pain.”
The Xbox One is his system of choice, and there’s not many types of game he would not at least try.
He started streaming his gaming last year, and has developed an online following.
After the injury, Roberts lost his ability to give back to others. After discovering the gaming community and learning more about that world, he found an avenue to do that again.
One day while playing Xbox he noticed an ad in the corner about a charity gaming event called Extra Life. He looked into it further, and saw it was linked to the Children’s Miracle Network. Knowing it was a reputable organization, he signed up immediately.
There was a promotion that for a membership of $15, if the person raised $200, they would receive a free T-shirt. Roberts accepted the challenge.
He has kept it going for the past six years. As of this summer, he had raised more than $6,000. His goal was to reach $10,000 by the end of the year.
He began by soliciting friends and family for sponsors, and he admits to be blown away by the support he received. With his online following starting last year, he has been able to expand the scope of his fundraising. He raised about $1,100 last year from his followers.
“That is another part of what it is about, to show the world the power of gamers,” he said. “People have this stigma that gamers are lazy and fat, kind of inactive or whatever. Part of Extra Life is to try to break that stigma, and show that gamers care.”
This year’s 25-hour marathon is Nov. 4. Thousands of players around the world participate to support Children’s Miracle Network hospitals. The money Roberts raises goes to the Janeway Children’s Hospital.
Contributing to children’s hospitals is something near and dear to him.
Lost a sister
His mother Maxine Roberts had a daughter, Natasha, three years before he was born. He would never have that big sister though. She died of pneumonia after just 14 hours of life. He said a Janeway team was about 20 minutes from picking her up when she died.
“Playing for the Janeway means a lot to me,” he said. “If they could have gotten to Natasha and saved her life, I would be playing as a way of thanking them for saving her life. Now, I am playing, hoping the money I raises can help save somebody else’s big brother or big sister.”
Last year, Air Canada had a contest in conjunction with the Janeway to award the top fundraiser a trip to Florida to compete in the Extra Life United tournament.
Roberts won that trip. Air Canada also funded the trip for his mother — who is also his caregiver — because he was unable to travel alone, he said.
“It was easily the best experience I have ever had in my life,” he said.
The most rewarding part of the experience for Roberts was meeting the Children’s Miracle Network champions.
“They are some of the most incredible kids, and the things that they know would just blow you away,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking, but it is also just inspiring to see what they have fought through.’
Roberts met and hung out with Steven Sullivan, the Janeway champion, and his family. He continues to keep in touch with him.
He has held several fundraisers throughout the year to help him reach his six-year goal of $10,000. He had an online auction, sold blocks on a quilt, and a yard sale.
People can visit his Facebook page — Noofynate’s Extra Life — to help contribute to the cause and read more about Robert’s story.
“It is absolutely mind blowing every year when I see the amounts I am able to raise,” he said. “I am shocked and so incredibly thankful.”