Senior College Football Columnist
April 20, 2013 11:37 pm ET
Two weeks ago, Nebraska provided one of the most touching scenes college sports has had in years when the Huskers staff inserted Jack Hoffman, a 7-year-old brain cancer patient, into the lineup for what proved to be an exhilarating 69-yard touchdown run. On Saturday, East Carolina produced another big, heart-warming moment. This one was centered around Noah Roberts, an 8-year-old who in 2010 was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that has resulted in the child needing to have two tumors removed from his brain and one from his spinal cord. But for Noah, more tumors have emerged. He had three more in his brain with doctors detecting the newest one, a fourth tumor, two months ago while they worked on removing the one from his spine.
There are two types of “Neuro” — Noah has the more severe type, NF2, which attacks the brain and the spinal cord. One in 40,000 children are affected by it. Doctors haven’t given Noah’s parents — Lisa and Ronnie — any timeline or prognosis, she said. But the Roberts have been informed that Noah has an aggressive form of NF2.
“We are just taking this on,” Lisa said. “There is no cure. The only treatment is surgery and that is only if those tumors are accessible, and one of his tumors is not.
“We really don’t know. We just try and stay very optimistic. Until then, we try to put as many happy memories in there as we can.”
NF2 hasn’t robbed Noah of his love of sports, though. It also hasn’t stopped him from playing third base for his baseball team either. But sometimes it does trigger some brutal headaches. Asked if Noah’s in a great deal of pain often from NF2, his mom said, “Even if he is, he never tells. He goes through life with such a strong determination.”
Last week was a tough one for Noah. He knew he and his family would have to head up to Washington, DC, on Sunday for a week of treatment and more testing. His mom said he became really upset, which was so uncharacteristic of him.
“I just don’t wanna go back. Why do we have to go back there?” he pleaded with his parents.
On Wednesday, they were able to boost his spirits when they told him they were going to drive over to ECU Saturday morning for the Pirates’ spring game.
Over the past two years, Noah and his family have become close to the ECU football program. He has been out to ECU to watch football practice several times, been in their locker room, broken the team down and been on the sidelines for some Pirates games. His family lives in Wilmington, which is about 2 1/2 hours away and his big sister Whitney is an ECU student.
That news that Noah was going to get to attend the Pirates spring game shifted his focus, Lisa said. Suddenly, his new questions were, “When are we leaving? What time are we going to get there?”
What no one told Noah about was that at 9:15 a.m. Saturday morning, he was going to be invited into a meeting with head coach Ruffin McNeill and some other Pirates staffers.
“Look, Noah, I have something to ask you,” McNeill said, before telling Roberts he wanted to put him into the game as a ball carrier.
“I think Noah was nervous about it at first because he thought our guys were gonna tackle him,” said ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
McNeill called several of his offensive players into the meeting, assuring the third-grader that his big blockers would have his back and that no one on the defense would touch him. That convinced Roberts, who was summoned into the huddle late in the fourth quarter.
Riley called “Blue Right 34 Lead” and motioned for Roberts to follow No. 87 Zico Pasut through the hole. Roberts, wearing No. 32, did just that and raced past the defense 40 yards for a touchdown as the crowd cheered.
After Roberts reached the end zone, the team hoisted him up on their shoulders and chanted “NOAH! NOAH!” His parents and sister cried the whole time.
“We knew the magnitude of this experience,” Lisa said. “Even though Noah doesn’t quite understand how incredibly special this is. We were just so touched so much by it. This was the highlight of his life I’m sure, and it came in a time when he hasn’t had a whole lot.”
ECU strength coach Jeff Connors, who had initially connected the Roberts family with the Pirates football program two years ago, said when he saw the highlights of what Nebraska did in its spring game two weeks ago, a light went on in his head.
“You think, ‘Whatever we can do to help kids, especially kids that have been sick,’” said Connors. “You just want them to have some great experiences.”
Connors called Lisa, and said, “You think Noah would enjoy something like that?” She said he would. Lisa knew just being around the Pirates brought a big smile to her son’s face because of the way the team has embraced him the past two years. Just being around them during the game would overshadow the anxiety of making that trip up to DC.
“Noah is the coolest, calmest, bravest kid I’ve ever met,” said McNeill Saturday night, as his voice cracked while talking about the young man and the moment. “His mom told me, ‘Coach, you don’t know how much this means to us.’ I said, ‘You don’t know how much this means to us.’
“She was doing us a favor by showing us what life is all about. We’ve learned what toughness and courage are all about by seeing how Noah is. He is an inspiration to us.”
On Sunday afternoon, the family was making the 5 1/2-hour drive to the hospital in the DC area and still amazed by what had transpired the day before in that football stadium.
“My husband and I can’t even watch the video ourselves without getting emotional,” Lisa said. “Noah is doing really good right now. They just made such an impact on us. It was priceless. It was such a great distraction.”