IT was the horrifying start to a long journey, an ambulance ride to the St. Mary Medical Center in Crown Point for a 17-year-old athlete whose body was numb after a spinal injury.
Mitchell Robinson, a prized basketball player at Crown Point High School who was ready to conquer the world, instead was unable to move from the neck down, his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame frozen after he broke his C5 through C7 vertebrae in a trampoline accident July 5, 2007.
Eyes wide open, his mind racing during the ride, Robinson was looking at the nurse, who lost the grip on her cup as the ambulance swayed. A gush of water splashed directly into his face. He could do nothing about it.
“At least it wasn’t coffee,” he told the nurse.
On Thursday at Otter Creek Golf Course, the now 24-year-old Robinson, a Columbus insurance salesman, was working with instructor Jeff Smith on his swing. Sure, the backswing and follow-through might have included an extra hitch or an additional zig or zag, but Robinson made solid contact and drove the ball 200 yards.
For a tall, young, athletic-looking man, certainly the shot was not perfect. But, considering the journey, it was perfectly wonderful.
“This guy is my hero,” said Smith, who marvels at Robinson’s inner strength and resiliency as he continues to fight back from being paralyzed. “He is a guy coming out of a dark hole, and his attitude is everything.”
It could be argued that medical miracles or divine intervention saved Robinson from life as a paraplegic. But those who know him claim that Robinson’s incredible positive spirit was the driving force behind his recovery.
Smith has seen a small part of that spirit as Robinson learns a sport that can return his ability to compete athletically.
“His heart is so big and he works so hard at this,” Smith said. “Here is a guy who still is programing his muscles to do certain things, like walk. He is not bothered at all if things feel a little different to him, because everything feels a little different to him.
“I wish this was something you could bottle and make everyone drink, especially little kids.”
The story might inspire those of any age.
In the summer of 2007, Robinson was busy playing AAU basketball as he headed toward a senior season that was sure to net team titles and a college scholarship.
“He had an important role on a very good team,” said Crown Point head basketball coach Clint Swan. “We had beaten Valparaiso the previous year when that was the No. 1 team in the state. We had virtually everyone coming back.
“Mitch was our Mr. Versatility. He could go inside and score. He could run the floor. He could go up and dunk. He could guard anyone from the 3 to the 5. He didn’t back down from anybody.”
Then there was Robinson’s spirit.
“In our first game against Valparaiso, which we lost, one of their kids would lower his shoulder on every screen. After the third time he did it, Mitch came through the next time and got his elbow higher than it should have been. He almost knocked the kid’s head off.”
Robinson was having a big summer of AAU basketball in 2007.
“He had played 16 basketball games in four days in Fort Wayne at the Spiece Fieldhouse and had come home after they had won the tournament,” said his mother, Hattie Robinson. “When you win that tournament, you get to pick out whatever kind of shoes you want. Mitch just wanted to wear his new Kobe Bryants so he called everyone he could to see if they wanted to play basketball. But everyone was tired of playing basketball, so he went to another friend’s house.”
Playing on his friend’s trampoline, Robinson came down awkwardly on his neck.
“We were just chillin’, jumping on the trampoline,” Robinson said. “But I landed wrong. I don’t remember how I landed, but I heard a loud crack. I was not able to move.
“I remember being out of breath, panicked that I couldn’t move. His dad called for the ambulance.”
He was taken to the hospital where doctors found that his neck was almost completely separated from the rest of his body.
“I remember being in the emergency room, seeing my mom crying,” Robinson said. “I remember looking into my dad’s eyes and it was like nothing I ever had seen before. I knew it was serious.”
The medical staff was sticking pins into him, and he felt nothing.
Dave and Hattie Robinson wanted to transport their son to a Chicago hospital for surgery. They were told that wasn’t possible.
“They told us, ‘If you move him, you will kill him,’” Hattie Robinson said.
Their son was sent into surgery as the waiting room became packed with concerned friends and family.
Swan was asked to recall that time.
“Do I have to?” he asked. “I’ve been lucky from the standpoint that I’ve never had to go to any of my varsity players’ funerals. That being said, as a coach, that was my darkest day.”
The waiting room became so crowded that the hospital staff had to ask people to wait in the parking lot. The surgery went into the night.
“I remember that night, the doctor came in and spoke to everyone,” Swan said. “He was very candid. I remember him saying that Mitch would have a very long road ahead of him. The doctor walked out and nobody talked for 10 to 15 seconds. There were a lot of tears.”
Somehow, a frightened Robinson managed to keep his sense of humor, like he did in the ambulance. He remembered seeing Swan after his surgery. “I said, ‘Coach, I won’t be able to pass a drug test.’”
Doctors told Robinson that the odds weren’t in his favor and that he likely would be a paraplegic the rest of his life.
“It was hard to comprehend,” Robinson said. “I definitely did a lot of ‘Why me?’ My mom and dad would let me have my pity party, but then would say, ‘We’re not giving up. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure you walk again.’”
A week later, Robinson was transferred to the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute. He was stuck with more pins. Nothing.
Months of rehabilitation followed. Robinson was able to move his arms and shoulders a bit, but had no control over his hands and no feeling at all in his lower body. He remained hopeful, though, as he had roommates come and go who had been victims of violence and had no one visit them. Robinson had lots of support as his parents took shifts spending every moment with him and his friends drove to Chicago to visit.
“He was just laying there in the bed, but he was Mitch,” Swan said. “Mitch is hilarious.”
Swan felt only pain, though, during his visits.
“His mom handed him a Styrofoam cup and he pressed it against one hand that appeared to be frozen. Then he pressed the fingertips of his other hand against the cup, pinning it there. It looked like he was calling a timeout,” Swan said. “I was thinking ‘They need to teach him how to hold a cup.’ I walked out wondering if he would ever write his name again ... forget about walking.”
Robinson’s friend and classmate Andrew Ramas was one of many who made the trip.
“To see him like that was tough,” Ramas said. “I had not known anyone who had gone through such an incident. I just didn’t know what to say.
“But he had so much courage. To see him fighting inspired me.”
He was fighting every day despite emotional setbacks.
“My darkest moment was when this salesman was trying to fit me for a motorized wheelchair,” Robinson said. “My mom said that I didn’t need it, and the salesman told her, ‘Lady, he is going to college in a wheelchair.’ I told him to leave.
“I was upset and I was hurt. I was having doubts.”
But he reflected on words from his grandfather, Coy Robinson, who broke his back during a head-on collision years earlier and had been paralyzed. He fought his way back and still walks at the age of 89.
“He told me, ‘These doctors have their respectful opinion, but they don’t know everything. I beat this, and so can you.’”
He kept working, and hoping.
“Every Thursday we would go into a meeting with a panel of doctors,” Hattie Robinson said. “They would say, ‘You need to get with reality. You need to face the fact that you are going to bring home a paraplegic.’
“Then every night I would touch his toes. We would play a game ... which toe am I touching?”
Three months following the accident, it happened.
“I was laying in bed, watching TV, thinking hard to wiggle my pinky toe. It wiggled. I waited 10 minutes. OK, move it again. It did.
“’Dad, I can wiggle my pinky toe. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.’”
Doctors told Robinson not to get his hopes up, but he would have none of it. He plunged forward.
“I will always remember Mitch as not being goofy, but just having a good sense of humor,” said Katelyn Ziegler, who then was a therapist at the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute and now works in Denver. “Laughing is good for the soul but everyone is different. People deal with things differently in life.
“Mitch was determined to get better and that set him apart. He had that drive to step up to the plate. He was used to training and working out and that was ingrained into him. It’s wonderful now to see how he is doing. It is one reason that I love my job.”
Making tiny progress each day, Robinson eventually started to get feeling back in his legs. It was time to make the trip home. “After we brought him home, it was a good year before he could go up steps,” Hattie Robinson said. “You never know. Every step, we didn’t know. There was a different set of complications.”
But on his Senior Night for the basketball team in the spring of 2008, Robinson slowly walked to center court at the Crown Point High School gymnasium, his parents supporting him on each side.
“It was a dream,” Swan said. “Like something you see in a movie. We did go on to win the sectional and it was really special.
“A year later, our baseball team was in the regional. Here comes Mitch, walking along. Another year later, his mom sent me a message. He had jumped up and grabbed the rim. It was great.
“It just shows that it is never over. It’s never over. No matter how bleak things seem, no matter how harsh life treats us. There is a fighting spirit that can lead us through.”
For those in Columbus, it would be hard to notice that there is a story behind Robinson’s slightly-altered walk. Those closer to him know better.
“I will never be through this,” Hattie Robinson said. “We can still hear his gait when he is walking on a floor above us, that he is not putting his foot up and putting it down like he should. And the rest of his life, he has to be active. That’s why we love the golf because he has to work on his muscle strength, his balance, his stamina, his core strength.”
Just the thought of her son hitting a golf ball can bring tears to Hattie Robinson’s eyes.
“We know what your faith does for you. We never gave up, no matter what.”
Robinson never did give up.
“There is not a day that goes by I don’t wish I could jump as high or run as fast,” he said. “But I am truly blessed.”