Sebastián Abdón Ibarra
One year, five months, and 20 days.
That is how long it took University of La Verne football player Cole Roberts to achieve his goal of stepping onto the field of Ortmayer Stadium after a severe two car accident that doctors once thought would leave him unable to walk.
“If I didn’t have football to strive to be better, to strive to be back and get healthy again, I would not be as healthy or in shape as I am now,” said Roberts, senior business administration major and free safety for the Leopards. “It is hard to describe just how much football means to me.”
The night of the injury
On March 15, 2020, Roberts finished his shift at the Regal Edwards movie theater in La Verne; it was the last day he was working there because it was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Roberts planned to travel back home to Paso Robles, a 229.2 mile, three-hour and 32-minute drive, in order to find work and earn some money for rent.
Driving on state Route 33, a three mile stretch of road, was the last thing Roberts remembers. Everything he knows from that point to waking up in the hospital has been told to him.
“I’ve been told from the police report, all I saw was a flash and then a bang,” Roberts said.
It took two hours and 10 minutes for Roberts to get from the scene of the accident to Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield.
Roberts was finally able to reflect and process what he had been through once the harder medications for the pain had worn off.
“I remember thinking I might not be able to play football.” Roberts said. “ I do not know if I am going to be able to walk. It was just a lot of uncertainty.”
His injuries were numerous – the metatarsals in his left foot were broken in two separate places, the metatarsals in his right foot from his pinky to his second toe were broken diagonally and his big toe was dislocated, the tibula and fibula in both his legs had compound fractures, his pelvis was broken in six places, the C2 and C7 vertebrae in his neck were fractured, and his spleen was ruptured. It was discovered three or four months later that his glenohumeral joint, the ball part of the shoulder joint, was cracked.
“I had been doing everything, moving in a wheelchair, getting in and out of cars, with a broken shoulder,” Roberts said.
The road to recovery
Less than two weeks after his accident, Roberts committed himself to becoming healthy enough to play football again. Once he was out of the intensive care unit his doctors told him that a full recovery would take a year and a half.
“I did the math in my head. August, which is our fall camp, was a year and five months away,” Roberts said. “I said to myself that I am going to go back and do it.”
He moved back to the La Verne area in August 2020. Roberts’ long and arduous journey began with physical therapy while he was still using a wheelchair. Two of his teammates on the football team, senior kinesiology majors Spencer Pool and Trevor Goulet, were already working out on their own at Goulet’s house.
Pool, who was Roberts’ roommate when he moved back to the La Verne area, said Roberts’ drive and passion made Pool and Goulet want to help him get back on the field by supporting him through these workouts.
At first Roberts only did what exercises he was able to do, and around November he visited Goulet’s house more often.
“I was not super strong, I had toothpick legs. It was a day by day thing. I would see what they were doing and make variations,” Roberts said.
Pool remembers telling Roberts that he is going to have bad days, and that this process is not something that is going to happen overnight.
“When I came on the visit to La Verne it felt like family and that is exactly how it was throughout the entire process with all of my teammates,” Roberts said.
Pool said that the road to recovery was night and day from the beginning to the end.
“At first he could barely lift the bar, but toward the end he was close to lifting the same weight he had before the accident,” Pool said.
All of Roberts’ hard work had caught the attention of his coaches and teammates, who voted him a team captain.
“One of the big things we preach as a team is mental toughness, so basically Cole embodies mental toughness,” Goulet said.
Pool said that Roberts is a leader on the team that people look up to.
“I think our team partly plays for Cole because he has worked so hard to get back out there,” Pool said. “I think we owe it to him to play a little bit for him because he has worked so hard to get back.”
Return to the field
Roberts described Sept. 4, his first game back when the Leopards opened the season against the Whittier Poets, as an emotional day even before stepping on the field.
“It is kind of hard for a football player to say, but I teared up a little bit,” he said.
Roberts said in the early part of his day leading up to the game he was reflecting on how difficult a journey it was to get to that point. His mind went back to those difficult days immediately after the accident and he marveled at how far he came.
“It is kind of shitty to think about it, needing to have other people wipe my ass,” Roberts said. “Stuff like that, I remember being at the lowest of the lows and then thinking that this is going to be one of the highlights of my life. Kind of like a Senior Night or a championship game, you know that you are going to remember it.”
Roberts said he was dealing with many emotions when it came time to step on the field. He said he remembers not wanting to have people see him with teary eyes after all of the hard work it took to get back to that point.
“I just got goosebumps thinking about it, it was a full circle of him being back,” Pool said. “Seeing him on the field was amazing.”
It was when Goulet stood next to Roberts at the Ortmayer Stadium to flip the coin as the announcer asked the crowd to welcome Roberts that he got the chills.
“It made me step back from the fact that we were about to play a football game, to thinking, ‘Dang, Cole really did that, like the doctor told him he wouldn’t be able to walk and now he is on a football field,’” Goulet said.
Head coach Chris Krich said it meant the world for him to see Roberts back on the field, and to the entire coaching staff and athletic training staff.
“Knowing what he has been through emotionally and physically, to see him out there brought smiles to all our faces,” Krich said.
Roberts said that when it came time for him to be in the game and actually hit people, it felt natural. On the stat sheet he was only given credit for one tackle in La Verne’s 42-0 over Whittier, but he had a couple of tackles during his time at free safety in the fourth quarter.
“It did not feel like I was slow, none of the hitting hurt. It just felt normal, natural,” Roberts said.
Sebastián Abdón Ibarra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.