D-I Opening Round: Bursting With Life
Nov. 19, 2009
By Kevin Scheitrum
The news was buried that day in late October, 2005, tucked away as a bullet in an otherwise commonplace St. Louis Dispatch story about area wrestlers garnering national attention.
Michael Roach, a Chaminade junior and one of the top soccer players in the region, will miss the rest of the season because of a neck injury he suffered in a one-car accident late Saturday night in St. Charles, the story read.
Meanwhile, Roach lay in a hospital bed, given the choice between a screw in his spine or 20 pounds of metal and a fading scrap of hope.
“I was two millimeters away from being paralyzed or dead,” Roach said on Wednesday. “It was the same break as Superman.”
Now, four years later, consider this time the denouement, the resolution of a story that was a single toothpick’s width away from ending in tragedy. From ending altogether. After a full recovery that earned him NSCAA Missouri Player of the Year honors as a prep senior in 2006, a spot on the Indiana men’s soccer team and then a transfer to his hometown team at Saint Louis U, Roach and his Billiken team open up NCAA Tournament play on Thursday night against Missouri State (7 p.m.).
Human life tends to be measured by single events, reduced in complexity to a metaphor. Some end up positive: Reagan and the Wall, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger and the Hudson landing. Some end up negative: Bill Buckner and the ’86 World Series, Custer and his Last Stand.
But this is a story about what happened after the accident, about a career and a life left salvageable by pure chance and a hell of a lot of work. It’s about Roach, now a sophomore, turning his recovery into an embellishment to – not the definition of – a career that’s seen him become one of the most dangerous forwards in the country, racking up a team-leading 10 goals on the year. About how, four years later, he can concentrate on the thing he loves undeniably most. The thing that seems to, above all, make him alive: playing soccer.
“I survived an accident that many people thought I shouldn’t have,” Roach said. “Even the doctors said I shouldn’t have walked away from it. It’s a miracle. But it’s something I’ve put behind me. I’m healthy now. I’ve made a full recovery.”
The story of what happened on Oct. 22, 2005 – the fall of one of the best young soccer players in perhaps the best soccer community in the country – swept through town quickly. Just as quick, it seemed, it blew through the Midwest.
“I’m from Kansas City, but my high school played in Missouri,” said Saint Louis freshman midfielder Alex Sweetin. “It was pretty big news about the car accident, widespread around Missouri.”
Driving home late in the rain, close to missing curfew, Roach’s car caught a rut in the road and flipped into a ditch, coming to rest on the side of the road.
He was able to walk out and survey the damage. Soon, a neighbor came down and saw that Roach was bleeding from above his eye and told him to sit back down. A minute later, the neighbor asked to see Roach’s driver’s license for information during the 911 call.
Roach couldn’t move.
“My wallet was in my center console,” he said. “I sat down and my upper body froze. I couldn’t move my body to get to the center console. There was definitely a time when everything was kind of just frozen. The next thing I knew I was laying on the stretcher.”
He’d broken the second vertebrae in his neck – the same injury sustained by Christopher Reeves, Superman. That night at St. Louis’ Children’s Hospital, doctors and nurses kept telling him how lucky he was, coming into his room every 15 minutes to make him squeeze their hands and push against them with his feet to ensure that the spinal cord was still sending signals. They kept telling him how he escaped death or paralysis by two millimeters.
And then they asked Roach and his family how they would like to proceed: a screw in his neck would pin the bones together. But it would end his soccer career. The other option was riskier, but held the potential for a full recovery. He’d have to wear a 20-pound halo, bolted to his body and screwed into his skull, until his bones fused back together.
For three months, he wore it, transferring into a neck brace after that, until the bones knit back together.
“When I was going though it, my only thoughts were I hope I get to play again,” he said. “Those thoughts would linger on. I was struggling, I was nervous that I was gonna be paralyzed.”
But over time, he healed. It took longer than expected, he said, but finally, everything came off. And when everything came off, he started anew.
“I lost every piece of muscle I had,” he said. “I lost 25 pounds during the accident. I was a stick.”
So here’s where things pick up.
He eloped with the weight room, spending hours training daily. Whittled down, he re-trained his body to do the things that once, before its electricity flickered, it knew intuitively. But now, he knew exactly what he needed to do to get back, which muscles he’d call on to do what.
So this time around, Mike Roach focused with the fervor of a born-again anything because, well, the accident was a sort of rebirth. He didn’t worry about ‘the small stuff’ anymore, he said, because there just wasn’t time.
He came back to play for Chaminade Prep for his senior 2006, and looked in a lot of ways like nothing happened. That he was somehow better than before. At first, he wasn’t allowed to head the ball. But after taking a hard hit and bouncing back up, the restrictions fell away in time.
Roach went to Indiana – just had to get out of town, he said. But it didn’t fit. So, after the 2007 season, he transferred to Saint Louis.
“I didn’t know how people were gonna take to me right away,” Roach said. “It’s tough to transfer – you don’t know what people are saying about you, thinking about you. But coach Donigan said as soon as the players found out [he was transferring], they were excited to have me on their team.”
Roach isn’t the most outgoing of people. He prefers to sit, quietly and “observe,” he said. And it was just perfect luck that he landed in the same room as fellow transfer Steve Bortolon – a guy who will, as Bortolon said, “talk your ear off.”
The two of them hit it off almost immediately. Bortolon did a lot of the talking, while Roach helped his roommate, a midfielder from Canada, get adjusted to life in St. Louis.
“I get a total different atmosphere than anyone else because I’m living with him all the time,” Bortolon said. “He’s always thinking soccer 100 percent of the time. He focuses the team.
“He’s more serious, I’m ore of the joking type,” he said. “It’s a good mix between the two. … But last road trip, him and me were laughing for 20 minutes last road trip, just laughing and having a good time. You don’t see as much of the person, the real side of the person unless you live with them.”
What the rest of the team sees are the twin personalities of Mike Roach, the ones that both magnified after the accident. There’s the detached, contemplative and almost isolated person that prefers to be alone. And then there’s the wild man on the soccer field, the unrepressed yet immensely targeted maniac that attacks, attacks, attacks.
“He’s a quieter kid,” Sweetin said. “On road trips when people are just hanging out he likes to be in his room more by himself. He’s not an outcast – everyone likes him, but he’s definitely one of the quieter kids. I think it just shows he’s concentrating on soccer.”
There’s a recognition of life’s fragility in him, one that’s notoriously rare among his peers. Faced with the possibility of losing the game he’d played since he was five years old, Roach lives and plays with an intensity that’s just as rare.
“[Not playing] would have been devastating to me as a person,” Roach said. “If I would’ve lost soccer I don’t know what I would’ve done. I don’t know if anyone could know, until you lose something you love, what you’d have done.
“I am totally different on and off the field,” he said. “It’s the competitive nature. I’ll do anything to win. I don’t want to lose in anything. On the field, all my juices get flowing.”
And in that intensity, that saturating relationship with his purpose, he has defined himself as something other than a man who escaped death by the width of a toothpick: he is someone who is very, very much alive.