Stealing the spotlight

Robin
Robin Short
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A basketball story brings down the house

Justin Roberts, sporting his Wolves jersey in King's Point. - Submitted photo

In the little town of King's Point, 20 minutes up the road from Springdale, is the Music and Friends Dinner Theatre, down on Bayside Drive next to the water where the only thing better than the entertainment is the food itself.

Ron Roberts drove a bus most of his life, ferrying tourists and others all over hell's half acre. Truth be told, he could probably find his way around the Trans-Canada blindfolded. His wife, Glenis, is a licensed practical nurse.

Like many a couple from rural Newfoundland, they headed west years ago, dropping anchor in Ontario. They enjoyed it there, but things changed when a son they named Justin arrived.

The boy was the youngest of the grandchildren, and Ron and Glenis yearned to be near family. And besides, when you've been born and raised in rural Newfoundland, rearing youngsters in Ontario is a whole different quintal of fish.

So the family packed up and headed home, back to King's Point, where Glenis grew up, back to where Ron hoped to fulfil a dream.

Ron Roberts, says his wife, comes from a musical crowd, and so he'd hoped one day to open his own dinner theatre.

Nineteen years after landing back home, with a full year redoing the old King's Point rec centre, Music and Friends flung open its doors early in the New Year.

They've already spun a few shows, had a few catering gigs. This summer, the couple figures they'll be plenty busy.

Try as they might, though, Music and Friends will be hard pressed to equal the drama and feel-good story that unfolded down the road last month at Valmont Academy, where 19-year-old Justin Roberts is now a Grade 12 student.

Justin actually graduated from school last year. Wore the cap and gown, had the grad ring, took part in the grand march ... the whole bit.

But Justin is back at Valmont this year, and he loves school. He is, to use the education vernacular, a "pervasive needs" student. Justin has Cohen syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Developmental and intellectual disabilities come with the affliction.

"I only heard of two other kids (with Cohen)," says his mother, "and they're as different from Justin as night and day. I don't think they talk. They're more on the autistic side. They're totally antisocial whereas Justin is totally social."

Which leads us to our story.

Last month, Valmont played host to the boys' A provincial high school basketball championship. Where the larger schools, like Holy Heart and Gonzaga from St. John's, take part in the 4A tournaments, the Valmonts of the world play A ball.

One of the teams vying for the A title came all the way from Mary's Harbour on the south coast of Labrador. Getting out of Mary's Harbour this time of year isn't the easiest thing in the world, with the ice making the ferry runs dicey at best.

Which kind of worked in St. Mary's All-Grade's favour. Rather than the two-hour drive down the middle of nowhere and turning left into Blanc-Sablon, Que., steaming 90 minutes across the Gulf to St. Barbe and then driving another six-plus hours to King's Point, the Wolves chartered out of Mary's Harbour, thanks in large part to School Sports Newfoundland and Labrador's travel subsidy.

King's Point may be small, but it's an urban labyrinth compared to Mary's Harbour with its population just over 400, give or take.

The school's cross-country runners - the team is picked from a student population of some 80-odd - have two routes to choose from when they train: leave the school, turn left and run for two kilometres, or turn right and go one km.

"But our basketball teams are very competitive," said the boys' team coach Todd Farrell. "Problem is, we don't to play a lot, maybe six games a year. But we sure do practise a lot."

For schools like Valmont and St. Mary's All-Grade, the provincials are a big deal, never mind if it's at the A level.

Back at Valmont, plans were underway to be gracious hosts for the School Sports A tournament. For Justin Roberts, who doesn't play basketball but is still a bit of a gym rat, he couldn't wait for the tournament to get started.

When the St. Mary's All-Grade team arrived in town, coach Farrell headed to the school to register his team.

"I'd been to these tournaments before and I knew the routine," Farrell recalls. "I had my coach's package and a few other things. I noticed this young man off to the side, and he kind of approached me and said, 'Hello.'

"He was looking at my coach's tag, and when he found out I was a coach, he got kind of excited. So I took off the badge, gave it to him, and said, 'Well, now you're a coach, too.' That was it."

Justin had become especially interested in basketball this year, according to his mother. Whereas in years past when he was purely a spectator, Valmont phys-ed teacher Adam Matthews had been getting the young man more involved with basketball and other sports.

Justin was in the gym that Thursday night in the tournament opener, when St. Mary's and the host school hooked up.

"And the next day," said Farrell, "we saw him again. We were playing E.A. Butler All-Grade out of McKays - they're a developmental team; they haven't played a lot of basketball - and that's when this entire thing took shape and form."

One of the St. Mary's players, a good-hearted soul named Owen Randell, noticed Justin Roberts close by the Wolves' bench. For whatever reason, young Randell invited Justin to join the team on the bench.

"Owen says to me, 'Sir, we have a new player,'" Farrell recalls. "I'm getting ready for the game, getting a lineup in. I'm like, 'What do you mean, new player?' That's when I saw Justin."

The young man from King's Point on the Mary's Harbour bench seemed quite excited with what was going on, said Farrell.

"So I said, 'Well, b'y, you can't be a player if you don't have a jersey,'" reaching into his gym bag and tossing a green Wolves' sweater to the new addition.

The game turned out to be a pounding by the Wolves, who would go on to win it all.

"I was sitting down and I was wondering," said Farrell, "'Geez, I don't suppose we could even get this kid a chance to play?'"

Farrell left the bench to talk to the tournament convenor. He talked to the Butler coach. He even talked to the game's officials, running up and down the court with the refs as the game went from right to left and back again.

"Everyone agreed it was a nice idea, and Owen said he'd sit to let Justin play."

At the next stoppage in play, Farrell made a substitution.

Roberts for Randell.

It was the Wolves' possession and team captain Kevin Farrell walked the ball up the court, instructing Justin as to what to do. As St. Mary's set up in the E.A. Butler zone, Farrell passed the ball to Roberts.

It squirted through the new player's hands.

Turnover.

By now, the Valmont gym was filling up. It was getting late in the game and the host team was scheduled to take to the gym's tile floor next, meaning the folks of King's Point were coming out to see the local kids play on this Friday night.

So E.A. Butler, with possession of the ball, led a fast break down the floor. Instead of capitalizing, St. Mary's stole the ball.

"So Kevin took Justin again and walked down the floor," said coach Farrell, "and we got everyone in position.

"This time, we brought Justin in close to the net and instead of passing him the ball, we actually gave him the ball. We were encouraging Justin to shoot. I think he was a little overwhelmed, because you're talking nine people on the floor saying, 'Shoot! Shoot!'

"It started on the floor, went to the fans. You could feel the momentum building. Everybody was getting into the act. It just wasn't me or Owen or Kevin or our team. Everybody was into it, even the officials, God bless them.

"You could see Justin was a little disoriented, but Kevin seemed to calm him down and he took a shot. The fans were chanting his name. He kept flicking the ball and sure enough, one of those suckers went in."

A single word can probably not paint an appropriate picture of the celebration which ensued.

Excitement? Frenzy? Elation?

"Let's just say," said Coach Farrell, "the place went up."

Justin Roberts wasn't saying much, other than, "I scored! I scored!" He was leaping up and down, thumping his chest.

Fearing Justin was getting too overwhelmed, his caretaker felt it best that the young man took a break.

"She was going to give me back the jersey," said Farrell, "and I said, 'No, that's his.'

"We finished the game, shook hands and then started looking for him to get a picture. But he'd disappeared, and we didn't see him no more the whole weekend."

Regrettably, neither Ron nor Glenis Roberts watched the story unfold in that little Valmont gym - the big basket scored, appropriately enough, right in front of the school's stage.

"He came home and he said, 'I got a basket! I got a basket!' He had a Wolves jersey and he was so excited.

"He said to me, 'Mommy, they were proud of me.'"

It wasn't until later in the evening when Ron Roberts stopped by the local store that the parents got the full story.

"He doesn't tell you everything in detail," his mother says. "I assume he had done something, but nothing to the extent of being included with the Wolves.

"Ron came home and said, 'Do you know the real story behind that jersey?' So he told me, and I'll tell you what, we were prouder of him than if he'd made it to the NHL."

Glenis Roberts hasn't spoken with Farrell or anyone from the Wolves. She didn't hear the CBC report of the story in the days following.

But she wants everyone to know what those couple of minutes - a mere blip in time - have done for the young man.

She wants them to know it's something he'll never forget, and that, yes, he finally peeled off the jersey after three days of his mother's persistence.

"I said, 'Justin, I got to wash that shirt.'"

Summer looms, and that means school's out pretty soon.

For Justin Roberts, there's a tinge of sadness. But he has his wide selection of music - he especially likes Alan Jackson and Johnny Reid - to keep him busy. And he can pick away at his electric guitar and bass guitar.

Of course, his parents will keep him busy at the dinner theatre, though he prefers to go and watch the shows rather than work, like any other 19-year-old.

There will be many fabulous memories from the school year to carry into July and August, but nothing will come close to that wonderful March moment.

"People say, 'Oh, I feel so sorry for you,'" Glenis Roberts says. "They don't have to feel sorry for me because he's been such a blessing in our lives.

"It's like ... you just can't imagine unless you have a child who has some disability. I think they capture your heart.

"It's ... it's just a blessing. Total blessing."

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Friends Dinner Theatre, Valmont Academy, NHL CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Mary's Harbour, Ontario Springdale St. John's Blanc-Sablon McKays

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Recent comments

  • Kim Rideout
    August 08, 2012 - 20:53

    This story has brought me to tears Justin is a wonder young man and has many talents. He is the cousin of my daughter Felicia and we are so proud of him. He is so respected in Kings point and everyone loves him. Way to go Justin you are awesome, Kim and Felicia loves you very much!!

  • Ron Tizzard
    April 24, 2012 - 14:58

    A wonderful story, a wonderful kid, a wonderful family.a wonderful community. Imagine what a wonderful world this would be, every day, if these kinds of stories were told, and retold every day; and the tolerance of all peoples were this inclusive. I personally believe, that one day the peoples of the world will be more at peace on a personal level...shouting and demanding that the political shakers and movers of our uncertainties be outed for their poisoned swords; thier poisoned words....education and tolerance will do all of that. Leadership is all that's lacking...and that willl come one day,..if we are positive and tolerant, so will our future generations. Thank you for sharing.

  • Helen Lavoie
    April 24, 2012 - 11:14

    just finished reading the story. I cried all the way to the end-I mean really cried. Justin you are a hero! God is Very proud of you. God is also very proud of all the team players and coach. Wow! what an example to all of us . ... as you have done to the least of these My brethren ...you have done to ME. Matthew 25:40

  • so happy
    April 21, 2012 - 08:21

    What a beautiful story, I have worked with kids like Justin for many years and there are so many storys like this that never get told, every little bit of encourgement that we can give those kids is worth a millon bucks, not only to the kids but to their families too. Keep up the good work Justin and work hard this summer with your mom and dad.

    • Kathy Farrell
      April 22, 2012 - 19:40

      I think it was wonderful for Justin to get another opportunity, but I also think it was pretty great for a bunch of teenage boys and their coach to include a stranger like that. Congratulations Mr. Farrell and your whole Wolf team! There is hope for this world's future if all our teens are as tolerant and inclusive as your boys. Thank you.