On Ryan Roberts, and the other side of tragedy

December 12, 2016 13:16
Ryan Roberts didn’t realize how close he flirted with death until the phone call. It came in the night last autumn, a frantic representative of the Douglas County Department of Health wondering how exactly this veteran MMA fighter contracted a bacterial infection that had only been seen four times over the past 15 years in this cozy patch of Nebraska, the same sickening rarity that shrunk Roberts from a robust 170 pounds to a withered 137 over mere weeks. Roberts thought it was the flu. He also thought he was going to die. Either way, it was one hell of an experience, he says, his chuckle awfully dismissive. He’s already moved onto the next.

See, that’s one thing you learn quick about the Roberts family. They’re tough bastards. Ryan likes to tell a story about his grandfather who had polio, but still found a way to be elected mayor of his town and mow his own lawn. He survived an iron lung for six months at a time when most people didn’t make it six days. “Polio slowed me down so everybody else could catch back up,” gramps used to say. There are other stories as well, like the time Ryan gorged himself on Arby’s back in high school and nearly missed weight for a sophomore wrestling tournament. His mom, Teri, drove down to the campus herself and charged at him like a bull in the wrestling room. They ended up tussling for 20 minutes, a cheap space heater blazing nearby, Ryan pouring sweat out of his warm-up clothes. But he made weight, by god. Teri made sure of it. She wasn’t going to let him quit.

They were all like that, the Robertses, too headstrong for their own good. That’s where Ryan got it from, even if some times it served him better than others.

They were all like that, the Robertses, too headstrong for their own good. That’s where Ryan got it from, even if some times it served him better than others. When his opponent missed weight by a good 15 pounds at RFA 33 last September, Ryan didn’t bat an eye when matchmakers asked if he’d still accept a fight against the man who weighed-in two divisions above the featherweight limit. Of course he would. He signed up for a fight and a fight is what he was going to get, win streak be damned. He didn’t bat an eye either in days afterward, when, bloodied and swollen, a teammate asked for cornering help halfway across the world in Grozny, Russia. Who cares if this 38-year-old vet just saw his best and likely last good run snapped by a cheater? He promised he would help and so he did.

Ryan only realized much later, after the phone call from Douglas County, how lucky he had really gotten. He had picked up an ultra-rare bacterial infection, one bred from poultry and fecal matter, somewhere out in the cold of Grozny. It took him nearly four months to feel like himself again, the weight slowly restoring to his scraggy frame. Even then, though, after his natural farm strength returned, Ryan still figured he was done. With the fight game. With all of it. A 38-year-old regional dog riding a rough loss rarely gets a look from the big boys. What would be the point of going on?

But yet, here Ryan is, ready to jump back into the fray for a Fight Pass featherweight title bout against old UFC warhorse Rob Emerson on Friday night at Victory FC 54.

Why?

From the outside, it seems like a song that’s been sung before. Aging journeyman refuses to move on from some long-past dream. A romantic stuck in an earlier chapter hastily wards back the turning of the page. The truth is, though, that this isn’t what’d you think. Far from it. Ryan Roberts isn’t holding out hope that his big break is yet to come. He isn’t clutching onto a moment that’s lost and never going to return. No, Ryan Roberts is fighting on Friday because he gets to fight. Because the infection wasn’t the beginning, and it certainly can’t be the end.

Andrea Kruger was always Ryan’s biggest fan.

Even when she went by her maiden name, Roberts, and even when the throes of addiction cast her older brother down a web of defeats and self-ruin after his lone UFC loss, Andrea was always Ryan’s loudest cheerleader at the local fights. She was the toughest sibling of the family, Ryan liked to say, even if she may not have looked the part with her brilliant blonde hair and girl-next-door charms. And so it went, on the night of Aug. 20, 2013, after picking up medicine for one her sick daughters, that Andrea stopped by a fast-food joint on her commute home from a late-night shift at her friend’s Omaha bar. She was mid-bite when her gold Chevrolet Traverse rolled across the four-way stop at 168th and Fort Street, mid-bite when Nikko Jenkins leapt out of his Ford Taurus, dragged her from her SUV and unloaded four slugs into her point-blank on the street — one in the neck, one in the shoulder, two in the head — killing Andrea on the spot.

Jenkins had just been released from prison and saw a local Lil’ Wayne concert as an opportunity to carjack rich out-of-towners. He and his uncle barreled into the stolen SUV and left Andrea dead on the pavement. Later, panicked, they sloppily and unsuccessfully tried to set fire to the Chevy Traverse, hoping to cover their tracks before authorities caught wind of their actions. It failed. Andrea ended up being the final casualty of a week-long, four-person killing spree by Jenkins. One final pointless death atop a string of pointless deaths.

Andrea ended up being the final casualty of a week-long, four-person killing spree by Jenkins. One final pointless death atop a string of pointless deaths.

“She had probably a few hundred bucks in her purse,” Ryan says, “but they really didn’t get anything out of it, other than just wanting to kill a person.”

With his face tattoos and bizarre ramblings, Jenkins became somewhat of a local intrigue. He and his three accomplices hijacked the nightly news for months, at times claiming that the killings were sacrifices to the Egyptian serpent god Apophis.

Through it all, the Roberts family mourned as best they could, pushing onward through a constant replaying of unspeakable tragedy, while the public theater ogled over Jenkins’ many antics — stories about the prison monster who mutilated his own penis to look like a serpent dominating the local headlines. Ryan ended up dedicating his first fight after the funeral to Andrea’s memory. To this day, he swears he heard her voice during a harrowing moment in round three, Andrea urging her older brother to stand up and fight, just like she used to. Ryan stood up and fought, and he won.

In time, their mother, Teri, quit her full-time job and took it upon herself to look after Andrea’s 3- and 4-year-old daughters. It was hard. Andrea had always been the life of the party, and without her the party never quite felt the same. Then, in mid-December 2014, Teri caught a bit of a chill and she too began to feel under the weather. For days, she refused to go the hospital — she was a Roberts, after all — but then the night came when she lost even the strength to peel herself up off the bathroom floor.

Ryan’s father flung her into the car and rushed her to the local hospital. Seven hours later, Teri slipped into a coma.

Doctors were baffled and the family was devastated. Over the course of two weeks, they learned that Teri’s body had plunged itself into a state of toxic shock due to a rare form of Streptococcus, a bacterial infection they surmised had been caused by, of all things, a hangnail. Her condition worsened as Christmas Eve approached. Her hands and feet turned a rotting shade of black. Her organs began shutting down. The doctors installed a tracheotomy in her throat and wanted to start dialysis. Everything happened so fast; a nightmarish roller coaster that stretched onward and onward through the holidays, worsening and worsening, until finally Ryan and the Roberts clan were forced to confront the hardest decision of their lives.

“They wanted to go in and do all these surgeries,” Ryan says. “They wanted to chop off her hands and her feet, and put the tracheotomy in and start the dialysis. And it’s like, Mom wouldn’t want this. She is the one in our family who does everything. She is the busiest person I know, and the hardest worker I know. If Mom wakes up and sees that we made the decision to do all of this to her, she’s going to kill us.”

Everything happened so fast; a nightmarish roller coaster that stretched onward through the holidays, worsening and worsening, until finally the Roberts were forced to confront the hardest decision of their lives.

That Sunday was one of the coldest days of Ryan’s life. After speaking with the family pastor and convening with the rest of the household, the Robertses reached a decision that on Monday morning, at 9 a.m., they were going to inform doctors that it was time; that they were going to transfer Teri into hospice and allow a higher power to take over from there.

Ryan stayed by his mom’s bedside that entire evening, and it was probably the worst night Teri had. Her temperature skyrocketed to 104.7 and she had to be placed back on the same blood-pressure medication she had been taken off of only a few days prior. Though she was comatose, she looked like she was in so much pain, so Ryan was at least comforted by the knowledge that the family was making the right decision.

Ryan’s father showed up around 4:30 a.m. the next morning, ever the early riser, to relieve his son and send him home to get some rest before the final meeting. Ryan drove back and drifted off into a listless sleep, only to be awoken hours later by the ringing of a phone cutting through the dawn. The voice on the other end, his father’s. Somehow, Teri had awoken.

“I walked into that room and my mom turned her head, and looked at me and smiled,” Ryan says.

“At the time, she still had the tube going down her throat. But I was able to see her look at me and smile. And I cannot express to you the feeling that just went through my body. I mean, it was literally a miracle. No other explanation for it.”

Doctors ended up amputating all four of Teri’s limbs at her behest, removing her arms three inches below the wrists and her feet six inches below the knees. It was another heartbreaking setback, but in true Roberts fashion, “within six months, my mom walked into my fight with me against [Ramiro Hernandez],” Ryan marvels.

“My mom walked into that fight. She didn’t have to go in a wheelchair. Her whole mission was, she’s not going to let this handicap her. She’s not going to just go out like that. So she figured it out. She toughed it out.”

Ryan says it was an inspiration. With next to no options and no hope, and the entire family still reeling from unimaginable loss, Teri Roberts found a way to persevere for all of them. “It was very painful, but she figured it out,” Ryan says. ”Figured out how to walk. And now she does the laundry. She mows the lawn. She does all the cooking. Still drives my nieces around, picks them up. She didn’t let it hinder her. I always call her a big show-off, but she’s just a great example of don’t ever give up. There’s nothing in life that’s too hard that you need to give up and quit.

“Things don’t just go away. But if you stay persistent, if you keep trying, even after you’re told no, you keep trying, keep trying to do the next right thing, eventually it will start working out. It probably won’t be near as fast as you want it to, but eventually it will all work out. And for me, I just keep living my life that way, man. Just keep trying to do the next right thing.”

The holidays these days are different than they used to be. Sadder. More somber. Ryan says Thanksgiving was tough this past year. Andrea and Teri were always the organizers, the planners. The ones who made everything fun for everyone else. Andrea could stretch a dollar farther than anybody in the world, Ryan says with a smile, whether it was gifts or decorations, or even little flourishes around the house that made the day feel special. Teri still tries to do as much as she can with her prosthetics, and Dad took it upon himself to learn how to style her hair they way she always liked. Everyone tries to help out more, and though it is frustrating at times, the whole family knows things could have been so, so much worse.

Nikko Jenkins recently received a death sentence for his crimes. The Roberts clan campaigned against it — they wanted a life sentence — but the relatives of the other three victims craved a harsher brand of justice, and so the Robertses acquiesced.

Altogether it was a far too drawn-out process for Ryan’s taste. The wheels of justice move slow, and with Nebraska currently lacking a legal form of execution, it may be years before things finally work themselves out. Ryan simply feels sorry for his nieces, who with every court date have to keep reliving the night their lives forever changed. But that’s part of the process, he says, “and we’re learning to deal with it.”

Considering how difficult the past few years have been, Ryan is keenly aware how close he was to piling a third tragedy atop the family’s plate with his recent infection. He admits that there have been nights when the amassing levels of hurt nearly became too much, when the only thing stopping him from turning back to the bottle were the stark memories of what always came next. But the family wouldn’t have let it happen, anyway. He isn’t a quitter and neither are they.

“That’s a mentality that a lot of people don’t have, and I think that’s kinda why so many people rallied around my family, because they didn’t have that example maybe growing up,” Ryan says.

“You don’t have to get down. You don’t have to be pissed off at the world. The world doesn’t owe you anything. You make it what you want.”

“They didn’t know that or see that. They weren’t taught that. Just the attitude, you don’t have to get down. You don’t have to be pissed off at the world. The world doesn’t owe you anything. You make it what you want. Want to be miserable? Be miserable. If you’re sick of being miserable, go do something about it. So that’s just the mentality (we’ve taken) dealing with this, all of these really tragic things, realizing that a lot of this shit is out of our hands. We can’t control so much. But we can control a lot, so do the most with what you can. Control what you can and let go of what you can’t, and just keep moving forward.”

Around April, Ryan says he began to feel healthy enough — and more importantly, enough like himself — to start creeping back into the gym.

By then his weight had normalized, though he had convinced himself that he was done fighting, because it’s hard to find a reason to press onward with no endgame in sight. The daily aches in his body had multiplied tenfold since his illness, and the demands of life and a family who needed him were taxing enough. But then a funny thing happened: within a few months, Ryan realized that he still had a passion for the game. Not to do it for anybody else, but to do it for himself. Because time is a precious gift and tomorrow is never promised, so why not do what you love while you still have the chance?

It’s a lesson Ryan understands far too well.

“I fight now because I get to fight,” he says. “I’m lucky enough that I have the opportunity to fight. Not that I have to fight, or that I have to go to practice, or that, ‘oh, this fucking sucks.’ No, I get to do this. Even when it does suck, I keep telling myself, ‘you chose to do this. You get to do this. Keep going.’ It’s just that mentality now.

“I get to go out there and display my art, my heart. I get to go out there and just put it all out there for the fans. Luckily for me, a lot of the fans in Omaha, they really like it, and they pay me a lot of compliments. Not because I’m technical or talented. I just always feel like I have an opportunity. It’s just that will and that heart, especially when things get really ugly and really dirty and real tough. I don’t know if it’s just something in my mother or my father or my sister, but that’s when I start shining. That’s when I start doing my best. And on Friday, I get to go out there and do that again. I get the opportunity, at 38 years old, to go on a pretty big platform and explain my art. I’m lucky.”

And that’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. At the age most men start to wind down their time in the gym, Ryan Roberts is gearing up to do what he loves most, pursuing his joy in a world that so often goes without. He’ll meet Rob Emerson on Friday on UFC Fight Pass not to prove a point, but simply because he still can. Because he knows better than anyone that tragedy is neither an end nor a beginning. Because even with all that was taken away from him, he still gets the chance to honor the ghosts of his past, to clamp down on that mouthpiece and swing away in the face of heartache, just like he once did for Andrea, just like he continues to do for Teri. Headstrong, as is the Roberts way.

Because frankly, sometimes things are bigger than a silly little cagefight.

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