David Hirsch talks with Air Force Vet Bob Roybal. Bob and his wife Michelle are parents of Brody Roybal, a forward for the U.S. Paralympic Hockey Team. Brody, 19, just won his second gold medal at the Paralympic Games in South Korea.
Tom Couch: This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch. This is the Special Fathers Network Podcast, stories of fathers helping fathers.
Tom Couch: And I’m Tom Couch. David’s guest today is Air Force veteran Bob Roybal. Bob and his wife Michelle are parents of young superstar Brody, a member of the US sled hockey Paralympics team who was born with no legs.
Bob Roybal: I think it was the doctor actually. He said, “He doesn’t have any legs,” and we’re like, “What?”
Tom Couch: But that didn’t stop Brody. He’s now a two time gold medal winner, as the US sled hockey team just triumphed over rival Canada in a last minute heart-stopping victory in the winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Announcer: Team USA gets it done! They get Paralympic gold again.
Brody: My name is Brody Roybal. I am a forward on the US national sled hockey team. The first time you se sled hockey, it’s different than any disabled sport you’ve ever seen before. Most of your day you spend in a wheelchair and you have limitations, stuff like that, but once you’re out on the ice, you get to just skate as fast as you want, get to be aggressive. I mean, just everything about the game. I absolutely love it.
Bob Roybal: We treated him pretty normal. I mean, we didn’t treat him special at all. Just like all his friends and his cousins and everything. He played T-ball with the regular able-bodied kids in the neighborhood.
Tom Couch: As you can tell, Brody’s father Bob is a special father, and he’s David’s guest today on the Special Fathers Network Podcast.
David Hirsch: Being a father is very important to me. Being a good father means being a successful role model for your child, helping them be happier, more fulfilled, and productive members of society. I’ve started a number of charitable organizations designed to increase the role of fathers. One of them, the Special Fathers Network, is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs.
Tom Couch: So let’s get to it. Here’s David’s conversation with special father Bob Roybal.
David Hirsch: We’re in Northlake, Illinois, and I’m thrilled to be talking with Bob Roybal, who was a former US Air Force veteran. Bob, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Bob Roybal: Thank you, David.
David Hirsch: You and your wife Michelle are parents to two boys, Spencer, who is 16, and Brody, who is 19, who was born without legs. So let’s start with some background. You were born in Germany and you grew up in California. Tell me something about your family, including your siblings.
Bob Roybal: My father was in the Air Force. That’s how I ended up being born in Germany. I lived there till I was about three years old, and then we came back to California. And my dad stayed in the Air Force for I believe about another two or three years. And then he got out, and he was a firefighter. And I have a brother who’s two years older than me.
We lived in southern California for a little bit, and then we relocated up to central California, Merced, and that’s where I spent from the time I was about five years old all the way until I was 17, when I joined the Air Force.
David Hirsch: Okay. So to a certain extent, it sounds like you followed in your dad’s footsteps. He was in the Air Force. You went from…was it high school right into the Air Force?
Bob Roybal: Yeah. That’s pretty much it. I joined because I wanted to travel and see the world, and he joined because he didn’t want to go to Vietnam.
David Hirsch: So you got to the same place, but for different reasons. So how would you characterize or describe the relationship with your dad?
Bob Roybal: It’s very good. I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like to, because he still lives in California. But when we do see each other, it’s like no time has passed. It was a good relationship growing up. He was always there for anything and everything we needed. He taught us how to play baseball, basketball, everything like that, you know? A good dad.
David Hirsch: Did you ever think you wanted to be a firefighter?
Bob Roybal: I actually did. That was actually my goal when I joined the Air Force, to be a firefighter. But I’m colorblind.
David Hirsch: So you can’t be a firefighter if you’re colorblind?
Bob Roybal: Not in the Air Force, you can’t. And I didn’t even know I was colorblind until when I went and enlisted and everything, and then they said, “You can’t work on the flight line with planes and everything.” And then the job I did, I did the same thing anyhow. I worked out on the ramp and the tower and everything, because you have to be able to look at the tower lights and everything and…
David Hirsch: Color makes a difference.
Bob Roybal: Yeah. I’m colorblind, but it’s not like you think. I don’t see gray. I have trouble seeing certain colors, you know?
David Hirsch: Okay. So not all colors,
Bob Roybal: It’s just the dots. When you look at those dots, I can’t see something.
David Hirsch: So going back to your dad, when you were growing up—maybe this would be through high school before you went into the military—are there any thoughts or stories or things that your dad said or did that really stick in your mind, as far as what his values were or the reputation he had?
Bob Roybal: He always told us to be honest, to be hard workers. Both my parents worked for a living. They were a middle class family, and they just instilled those values in us. My brother and I both got jobs when we were 15, 16 years old. We both started working and had to pay our own way for certain things, just to teach us a little responsibility.
David Hirsch: Okay. So work ethic was really important. He probably demonstrated that by example, as opposed to telling you, you need to work more.
Bob Roybal: Right.
David Hirsch: Excellent. So after high school, you went into the Air Force. Give me a brief sense of what your career was in the Air Force, and then beyond.
Bob Roybal: When I joined the Air Force, I was an air transportation specialist. Basically it was anything that you put on an airplane, from people to tanks to helicopters, to anything that goes on in a military airplane. That’s what we did. I spent three years in Germany, two years in Portugal, a year and a half in Turkey, and a year and a half in Guam.
David Hirsch: And which would you say was your most significant of the four locations that you served in?
Bob Roybal: Probably Germany was the most memorable. And I did a lot while I was there. There was so much to do in Europe, as far as traveling. I couldn’t even tell you how many countries I saw while I was there. And they all were awesome places to be stationed at. One of the reasons I joined the Air Force was I wanted to travel. That’s why I never wanted to come back to the United States. Every time my assignment would come up, I always put in for an overseas one again.
David Hirsch: If I remember, you mentioned that you met Michelle, who was also in the Air Force?
Bob Roybal: Correct.
David Hirsch: Where was that?
Bob Roybal: I met her in Guam.
David Hirsch: So that might be the most significant.
Bob Roybal: Yes. I stand corrected.
David Hirsch: That was the biggest takeaway from being in the military.
Bob Roybal: Right, yeah. We met in Guam, and got married there. And then she got pregnant, and she got out and came back to Illinois to live with her parents until we were ready to go. I still had a couple of months left in Guam, and she was due to have the baby at any time, so she wanted to be back here. So she came back to be with her parents. She was an administrative assistant when she was in the Air Force.
David Hirsch: How many years did she serve?
Bob Roybal: She served for six years.
David Hirsch: So a little bit less than you. So did you make it back for your first son’s delivery?
Bob Roybal: I did. I came back for a 30 day leave, and I kinda planned it around the due date. I was here for about three weeks and she still hadn’t had the baby yet. And so they ended up scheduling and inducing so she would have it, because I had to go back.
David Hirsch: Well, I’ll just say that it was a very significant experience for you when Brody was born, what, 19 years ago?
Bob Roybal: Yeah.
David Hirsch: So why don’t you sort of share with me what that was all about.
Bob Roybal: Well, as far as the whole pregnancy had gone, everything was a typical pregnancy. She had gone for ultrasounds, and they had given us measurements for all his limbs and everything, and said that everything was going just as planned. Everything’s normal.
David Hirsch: You knew you were going to have a boy or a girl.
Bob Roybal: I believe we did know we were having a boy. I believe we did find out. I don’t know—the measurements they were giving us for legs and everything, so I don’t know how much we can trust what they were saying, as far as whether we’re having a boy or not.
But when it came time to have the baby, our family doctor was out on vacation that weekend, so we went in with basically a sub doctor that came in to fill in. Everything was going fine, and when he came out, you just knew that something wasn’t right. You know that immediately, you’re expecting the doctor to say, “It’s a boy. Here you go,” and you hold them and everything.
And right when he was born, the room just went quiet, and you could just tell that something wasn’t right. And then my wife started screaming, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And they just said it was a boy, and then they took him away. They wrapped him up and took him away.
And we were like, “”What’s going on?” And then, I don’t know if it was one of the nurses or one of the doctors, I think it was the doctor actually. He said, “Did you guys know?” And we said, “Know what?” And he said, “He doesn’t have any legs.” And we’re like, “What??” And I mean, that was just like the furthest thing that you’d expect your doctor to say to you, after you just had a child.
David Hirsch: You usually are counting fingers and toes, and you’re not thinking anything along these lines.
Bob Roybal: Right. And so that was quite a shock that first night. Because then the doctors called in every specialist in Chicago, and they came down that night. There were geneticists and all these special doctors, orthopedic doctors, and everyone came down just to check him out, because it’s unique. It’s not often that they have this happen, you know.
And they checked them all out, and they said that as far as they can tell, everything’s good. He’s just missing two legs. His organs and everything are fine. Everything functioned fine. So they just said this is what it is.
David Hirsch: What was going on in your mind or Michelle’s mind, that first night or the first couple of nights, as you’re overcoming the shock of it all?
Bob Roybal: That’s all it was—a lot of shock. We called our family. My parents were living in England at the time when we told them. And it was Memorial day weekend, so all of her family was all camping together. We called them, and everybody rushed to the hospital. My parents flew in from England. We didn’t know what to expect. This was just like the furthest thing.
Like I said, we weren’t expecting this at all, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was just a lot of crying and a lot of shock. What’s going to happen to him? What’s his quality of life going to be? All these things are running through your head, and you just don’t have answers, you know?
David Hirsch: Was there any advice you got from any of the docs early on that influenced your thinking or helped you sort of get through this difficult period of time?
Bob Roybal: I think once we went to the Shriners Hospital and we saw other kids that had different disabilities or whatever, then you kind of start to see that you’re not the only one. There are other people who are going through things just like this, or worse than you are. Once you see that, then you kinda think, “Aw, it’s not that bad. We’re going to get through this. It’s not going to be too bad.”
David Hirsch: So what were any of the immediate issues you faced that first six months, the first year, if you can remember back? What seemed like the biggest challenge at that time?
Because he was developing just as he would normally. He just didn’t have his legs. He’s growing and he’s eating and he’s sleeping or not sleeping, and doing things that every baby does.
Bob Roybal: He did everything pretty much…you know, this was our first child, so we didn’t know. Just from what we read in books and what people told you us, this is what the baby should be doing at this time.
David Hirsch: And so the first nine to twelve months are just typical, because babies aren’t walking.
Bob Roybal: I would say probably it was right around nine to twelve months, I don’t know exactly when, but he started doing like an army crawl. That’s how he would get around, like when babies are crawling, he just kind of dragged himself around like that and crawled just like a regular a baby. And he could crawl pretty fast.
But then once he hit I guess twelve months, I’m not exactly sure, he kind of stood up, and then he walked on his hands in like a swinging motion. He would put his hands down and swing his butt. Like his hands were crutches and he would swing his body. And that’s how he got around. And from then on, that’s how he got around probably until he was four.
And then we got him his first wheelchair when he was about four years old. The Shriners helped us out with that. Because at the time, when I got out of the service, I was still looking for a job, and we needed insurance and this and that. And then somebody told us that it’s free for people.
And that was good to know. One of Michelle’s family members is a Shriner in Kansas City. So in order to get care for your child at Shriners, you have to have somebody sponsor you. And her uncle sponsored us, and that’s how we were able to get the care.
David Hirsch: Well, I do have a little connection to the Shriners. I remember growing up here in the Chicago area and my grandfather was…I didn’t really know or understand it back then when I was young, but he would go to the Shriners meetings and he would have this red Fez hat. I don’t know if you know what I’m talking about. And we would always go to the Shriners circus, and that was a big deal to go to the circus every year. Now they don’t do that anymore.
Bob Roybal: They still do it, actually, at the hospital. They do it for the kids. They drive around with the little magic carpets on their go-carts and all that. Yeah, they do that.
David Hirsch: Well, this is like in a tent with elephants….
Bob Roybal: Oh, no, not that big.
David Hirsch: It’s a big production. And I didn’t really appreciate when I was a young person what the Shriners did or what the Masons did, and some of these other service organizations that my grandfather was involved in.
But as you get to be older and maybe with the experience you’ve had, you realize how invaluable some of these resources are for these families who are thrust into a situation that they’re totally unprepared for. And it really is almost like a lifeline, right? If it wasn’t for them, what would you be doing, or what would you have done in the situation?
So do you feel like you had some important decisions that you and Michelle made when the boys were growing up just to compensate for what Brody’s situation was?
Bob Roybal: We treated him pretty normal. I mean, we didn’t treat him special at all, just like all his friends and his cousins and everything. He did as much as he could. He played T-ball with the regular able-bodied kids in the neighborhood.
David Hirsch: How did he run to first base?
Bob Roybal: On his hands, he would get up there. He’d hit the ball, and he’d take off running in his hands.
David Hirsch: Was he pretty fast?
Bob Roybal: Yeah, and that’s the thing. At playing T-ball, he could keep up with the kids. But then the next year the kids all started getting a little more coordination. They can all run a little faster. And then it was too hard for him to do it. So he did it just two years, and then after that he couldn’t do it anymore. It was just too hard to keep up.
So around that time, about six years old or so, he started looking into adaptive sports. At the time it was the RIC and the Shriners. They told us about all the different sports that are out there, and he tried a lot of them.
David Hirsch: At a very young age. So what impact has Brody’s situation had on Spencer, his younger brother?
Bob Roybal: I would say it’s probably made Spencer a very compassionate person. He’s seen what Brody goes through. He knows a lot of families that are in our situation, that have kids that are disabled or have different things.
And all the families that we’re always involved with, all their siblings don’t look at disabled people as any different. They all are just willing to help out. It makes them better people, I think, that they’re around all these people that are disabled. And they just don’t think any different of it. They’re just people to them, you know?
David Hirsch: Yeah well, I’m trying to put myself in Spencer’s shoes. He’s the younger brother. You got an older brother who doesn’t have legs, and that’s all you’ve known. You’ve never known anything different. But that’s just my brother.
It’s not like it’s a foreign concept, or what about that kid in the wheelchair in my class? You just don’t know any different. So I think it does open up your eyes at a very young age, and there’s no adjusting. You didn’t have to adjust.
Bob Roybal: Hey, that was it. That was his job. Like if Brody needed help getting up onto the cabinet or something, Spencer was there to help them out. Or if he needed to get something out of the cupboard, it was, “Hey Spencer, can you get it?” Brody kind of takes advantage of him a little bit. Spencer’s a good kid. He always helps out though. They’ve always been really, really close. In fact, over this last summer before school started, they wanted to take a road trip, and they were heading to Alaska.
David Hirsch: The two of them?
Bob Roybal: Yeah.
David Hirsch: Oh my gosh.
Bob Roybal: Yeah. And they made it four days into the trip, and they were in the Yukon and they hit a moose and totaled his car.
David Hirsch: Oh my gosh. Did the moose live to tell the story?
Bob Roybal: No, it did not.
David Hirsch: Oh, no.
Bob Roybal: It was pretty scary. It was in the middle of the night. They’re out in the middle of the Yukon, just the two of them. And it was about 11 o’clock, I guess, at night, and they hit this moose, and I mean totaled the car. Then they were out there for about 20 minutes or so. No cars passing by. Nothing.
David Hirsch: Neither of them were hurt.
Bob Roybal: No.
David Hirsch: And that’s very fortunate. You hear about these moose coming through the windshield, and not a good day, for not just the moose, but for the drivers.
Bob Roybal: I’ll show you a picture of his car later. If you saw that car, you’d think, “How did anybody live in that?” I mean, it just demolished his car. But a girl came and picked them up, and she stayed with them for the next day and helped them get the police report all done and everything. And then she drove him another 1500 miles all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska, because they wanted to finish the trip.
David Hirsch: 1500 miles?
Bob Roybal: Yeah, 1500 miles more. They wanted to finish the trip. So she drove him there and then from there they took a train down to Anchorage. That’s where their ultimate goal was, to go to Anchorage. And so they finished their trip. And they stayed there for a couple of days, did some sightseeing and stuff.
David Hirsch: They didn’t drive back then
Bob Roybal: No, they flew back. And they’re actually planning a trip right now. In a couple months they’re going to backpack around Europe for about 30 days.
David Hirsch: The two of them?
Bob Roybal: Yeah.
David Hirsch: Excuse my ignorance, Bob. I could see how Spencer’s is going to be backpacking around. I just can’t envision Brody doing that.
Bob Roybal: He’s already done it once.
David Hirsch: Backpack?
Bob Roybal: Yeah. Just using his wheelchair. He’s in his wheelchair, but he just goes and hits the road. He did it when he graduated high school, he and two buddies. They went for three weeks and backpacked all over Europe. They went to Spain, France, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy. I mean, they hit it all.
David Hirsch: You’re breaking down a lot of paradigms I have in my mind about what people who have injuries like that can and can’t do. It’s amazing. Just amazing.
So going back a little bit to your career, was it difficult to balance things with the needs that Brody had from a career standpoint, or not so much?
Bob Roybal: So for my career, I’ve always been pretty involved, because the job that I have, I’m a garbage man. I get up at three o’clock in the morning. Like I start at four. Sometimes I’ve started at three in the morning, but I’m usually home by two.
I was always home for my kids, both of them. I was always home to pick them up from school. Because there always had to be a parent there to pick them up. And Michelle stayed home most of their childhoods, but she did go to work once they were both in school full time.
But I was always able to be home for them after school. And then I coached basketball. Still to this day, I volunteer for the hockey team Brody plays on. I do the equipment for them. One good thing about being a garbage man is the hours that I kept, because in the afternoons I was always home with them.
David Hirsch: Well, not everybody can get up at three or four o’clock in the morning and go to work.
Bob Roybal: It’s rough.
David Hirsch: You probably don’t stay up really late then.
Bob Roybal: I do. I stay up till 10, about the time that everybody’s going to bed.
David Hirsch: Just getting up early a lot earlier than everybody else.
Bob Roybal: Get up a little bit earlier.
David Hirsch: Well, I’m not a big sleep person myself. Four or five hours, I’m good to go. That’s about it. But you can tend to occasionally burn the candle at both ends. If you’re getting up early and staying up late, that’s not a good combination long term.
Bob Roybal: I am the person that can fall asleep. I sit down on the couch for five minutes, I’m napping.
David Hirsch: So you don’t have any problems with insomnia. So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered, some of the situations that you’ve observed with Brody, because he’s not able to do everything.
Bob Roybal: Yeah. One thing that was tough one when he was young was going to amusement parks where they wouldn’t allow him to ride the roller coasters, if they just had like a lap band or a lap belt that went across your lap. Then the ones that the harness would go over your shoulders, they wouldn’t let him ride either. Because there was a height requirement where you had to be over 40 inches or something like that.
And he’s only about 38-40 inches right now. And most of your growing is done in your legs from the time you’re, I don’t know, 10 years old, and that’s about as tall as you are. And so he’s been about the same. He’s grown maybe a half an inch every couple of years here and there, but not much.
David Hirsch: So the amusement parks were a challenge, because his buddies could go on pretty much all the rides, but he wasn’t able to.
Bob Roybal: We actually went to Disney when he was really young. We took the kids down to Florida, and then we got there and it was just kind of disappointing. It kind of broke his heart that they wouldn’t let him ride half the rides.
So we learned then that amusement parks just aren’t going to be something that he’s gonna be able to go to. And that’s tough, because at that age, that’s what they want to do more than anything, you know?
David Hirsch: Was there anything else like that, amusement parks or something else, that seemed to be a bigger challenge than you might’ve expected?
Bob Roybal: People staring at him was hard. That’s tough. My wife, early on, she would not stand for it. There was a time when she was down in the city, in Chicago, at Grant Park. They have the big water thing that sprays out and everything.
David Hirsch: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Bob Roybal: And she took them down there in the summertime when he was probably, I don’t know, five years old, four or five years old. And they were playing in the water and having a good time.
And then like a field trip came through there, and a bunch of kids just all stopped and were just pointing and staring. And my wife got a little upset. She went and found the teacher that was in charge of the field trip, and had words with her, and told her that she needs to teach these kids that it’s not polite to stare, and it’s not polite to point.
She was not happy, but she’s mellowed out now. Now we understand that kids are kids, and they’re curious. And you know, it is what it is. When I see somebody with one leg or something, I’m going to take a look, you know? But it’s one thing to take a look, and then another thing to take a picture or try to hold your cell phone like you’re…..
David Hirsch: ….or stare.
Bob Roybal: Yeah, and stare. And I’ve seen people, they come by and they act like they’re talking on their phone, and they’re filming or they’re taking a picture of him, and things like that. It’s a little upsetting, but we’ve gotten past that.
David Hirsch: You have to worry about what you have control over, versus what you don’t have control over. And you hopefully develop a little thicker skin, or just know what battles to pick, I guess.
Bob Roybal: And I think we learned from Brody, watching him the way he handles it. A lot of times young kids, two or three years old, come up to him and ask, “What happened? Where’s your legs?” And he’ll just be like, “I was born like this.” And they’re like, “Why?” “And he’s like, “That’s just how I was born.” And then that’s it. It doesn’t bother him. He just goes with the flow.
David Hirsch: You know, I imagine at the beginning of every school year, if there’s new kids that he wasn’t in school with year to year, there just has to be a simple explanation for what my situation was. And then you don’t have to talk about it. It’s not a big mystery.
Bob Roybal: Yeah. That was one good thing about the neighborhood that the kids grew up in. It was tight knit. All these kids we’ve known since they were in preschool, and everybody knows him. So it’s no big deal here. It’s when you get away from here, that’s when you get the looks and everything.
David Hirsch: Yeah. When I guess it’s good you didn’t move around, because that would have made it more difficult, moving from school to school. If you were still in the Air Force or something and you’re moving constantly, that would have been probably more challenging.
Bob Roybal: No, Brody’s got the same best friend he’s had since they were four or five years old.
David Hirsch: Okay. That’s fabulous. So one of your passions growing up, you told me in a previous conversation, was skateboarding. And what role has skateboarding played in the Roybal family?
Bob Roybal: It was a big part of my life when I was young. All I wanted to do when I was 14, 15 years old wa, ride a skateboard and ramps and everything like that. And then once Brody started showing a little interest, he actually started skateboarding kind of just as a mode of transportation. Instead of using his wheelchair, he would ride the skateboard around just to get around. It was easier for him to get around on.
Then he got more serious and more into it. It was just something that we could do together. He would need a ride to the skate park, so I’d go, and rather than just sit there and watch him all day….I had taken a hiatus from skateboarding for about probably 15 years. But then once he got back into it, I started doing it again. It was just something we could do together.
David Hirsch: So is he better than you, or were you better than him?
Bob Roybal: He is better than me now. Yeah, he got pretty good.
David Hirsch: So it wasn’t dangerous?
Bob Roybal: It can be. Yeah.
David Hirsch: Have you broken any bones? Has he broken any?
Bob Roybal: I’ve never broken any bones. Skateboarding was a lot of scrapes and bruises, but I’ve never broken a bone. But Brody, on the other hand, it’s not the best thing for him to ride a skateboard. We learned that the hard way after he had been doing it for a few years and he broke his elbow.
David Hirsch: And he wears a helmet when he’s on the skateboard.
Bob Roybal: Yeah, he did.
David Hirsch: Yeah. He broke one of his elbows or both of his elbows?
Bob Roybal: He actually broke one, and he had to have a surgery on it. His elbow was in pretty bad shape, where the cartilage was fallen off the elbow. They had to drill holes in the bone to help stimulate the growth of the cartilage and everything.
And then, I don’t know how many months later, they noticed his other elbow was also fractured, but they didn’t have to do surgery on it. They said it had already kind of healed itself back up. But he’s got the same thing going on with both of his elbows, where he’s kind of ruined in both of them from all the jumping on his arms and everything, just walking on his hands his whole life.
David Hirsch: So it’s not just the skateboarding that’s put the pressure on his arms. It’s just the overuse.
Bob Roybal: That’s exactly what it is.
David Hirsch: And the way he’s using his arms are not what might be the traditional use of your arms.
Bob Roybal: Elbows are not a knee, they’re not designed to absorb the shock like a knee joint. And they’re just not meant to handle that much weight. Right now he probably weighs about 140 pounds, but when he was skateboarding, he was probably over a hundred pounds.
David Hirsch: So he weighs 140 pounds without legs. That means he would be like a 200 pound person or close to it.
Bob Roybal: Oh yeah.
David Hirsch: So yeah, that’s a lot of weight to be supporting on your arms. Like you said, arms or elbows are not designed for that use. So that might be a liability down the road.
Bob Roybal: Oh, believe me, that’s a big concern of ours. And he knows it too, that his quality of life is not going to be the best. But you try to tell him to slow down and take it easy, and he says, “Hey, it doesn’t hurt right now that bad.”
David Hirsch: He’s 19. But what are you going to tell 19-year-old? What do you do know anyway? You’re the dad.
Bob Roybal: Right, exactly.
David Hirsch: So, you’d mentioned that Shriners played a really important role early on in your family’s life. I think you’d also mentioned that there were some other organizations that at different points in time played important roles. I think one of them was the Athletes Helping Athletes organization. What do they do, and what was the role that they played in your lives?
Bob Roybal: Athletes Helping Athletes is an organization that helps disabled kids get hand cycles. I’m not sure what other adaptive equipment they do help with, but I know hand cycles. That’s what we’ve used them for. And they’re an organization that if you’re under 18 years of age and you have a disability and a need for a hand cycle, you write them a letter and you tell them what your situation is, and then they basically buy you a bike.
And these bikes are not cheap. These bikes run on average to about $3,000. So the first bike Brody ever had was when he was about four years old. We bought it, and it was about $1,500. When you’re buying your child a bike, you don’t expect to spend $1,500 on a bike, you know?
David Hirsch: Did he outgrow that bike pretty fast? Like a typical kid would get a small bike, and when they grow, they need a bigger bike.
Bob Roybal: He had that bike for maybe four years or so. Then he got a bigger bike and he needed a better bike. And so through the Athletes Helping Athletes, we were able to get a bike when he was 14. When he was training for the Paralympics, he wanted to start training on a hand cycle. And so he got the bike then.
And then when he was 18 years old, when he was going off to college, he wanted another bike for racing. And he wrote them another letter and explained to them what the situation was, and they bought him another bike. So they’re an amazing organization. They do wonderful things for kids and people that can’t afford these things. The second bike he got was I think $5,000.
David Hirsch: So these are all customized.
Bob Roybal: Oh, yeah. That’s the thing. When you have somebody that’s disabled in your life, you realize really quick that anything that is medical is expensive. Wheelchairs are $5,000. Everything is very expensive when it goes through your insurance. And these hand cycles are not insurance eligible. Those come out of pocket. So that’s why you need organizations like this to help you out, so you can still participate in sports and stuff.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. And then you mentioned, I think Unity In Community also played a role in something.
Bob Roybal: That’s a local organization. They try to help families that are in the area here. They’re not national or statewide or anything. They just try to help the community here in the area. And they do fundraisers and things like that. When he was heading off to college, he was going to also do wheelchair racing, and they raised enough money through a charity event and everything where they were able to buy him a racing push chair.
David Hirsch: Okay. So it sounds like you have a garage full of things some place, right?
Bob Roybal: I have his racing bike here. He has his hand cycle and stationary bike at his apartment. So I think that’s what he rides when he’s inside the apartment.
David Hirsch: And, I think you mentioned RIC, now known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, played a really important role, right?
Bob Roybal: Giving him a sport, somewhere to go and play hockey.
David Hirsch: Is that where he learned about hockey?
Bob Roybal: Well, actually the organization that he started playing with was the Hornets, the Chicago Hornets. He started there. That’s a youth program that I believe is for seven years old. They take kids even younger than that. They take kids five years old all the way up until I believe 21 years old.
David Hirsch: What are the criteria to be a member of the Chicago Hornets?
Bob Roybal: A physical disability. And that’s pretty much it.
David Hirsch: And we’re talking about a lower body physical disability?
Bob Roybal: It can be anything. I mean, for most of the kids, it is lower body, but some kids have CP, where they might have something wrong with one of their arms or their hands. But they try not to turn anybody away. I mean, if they can’t push themselves on the sled, they have people that’ll stand behind them and push them on the ice, so they can be involved in the game also. But that was where he really got his start playing hockey. He played with them from the time he was seven years old till he was 12 years old.
And then, by the time he was 12 years old, he was kind of a little above everybody else in the league that they were playing. So he had to move up to the next level. So it was getting a little unfair for the same age kids that he was playing with. So he went to the RIC, which was the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where they help people with spinal cord injuries and all kinds of things.
But they also have an adaptive sports program where they do all sorts of sports. They do everything. Any adaptive sport they do there. And they have a hockey team. So he started playing for the men’s team there. And like the Hornets organization, because of donations, it’s all at no cost to the individuals that play.
David Hirsch: So how old was he when he transitioned?
Bob Roybal: He was 12 years old when he started playing in a men’s league.
David Hirsch: Everybody else’s 18 and above, for the most part?
Bob Roybal: Yeah.
David Hirsch: Up to how old now?
Bob Roybal: There’s guys that are in their fifties
David Hirsch: Oh my gosh.
Bob Roybal: Yeah.
David Hirsch: So he transitioned from the men’s league, and then where did it go from there? Because this has progressed beyond most people’s expectations.
Bob Roybal: So then he started playing with the men’s team. USA hockey has different levels of hockey. They have a national team, they have a developmental team, and at the time they had a team called the Patriots, which was like the third level down from the national team.
So he made that team when he was I think 12 years old. And then he played on that team for a year, and then he went and played, I believe on the developmental team for year or two years. And then when he was 15 he made it to the national team.
David Hirsch: And that’s the team that went to Sochi, Russia
Bob Roybal: For playing the Paralympics.
David Hirsch: But that was four years ago.
Bob Roybal: Four years ago. Yeah.
Announcer: Pretty nice show and tell for your sophomore high school class, to bring in a gold medal. Brody Roybal from Melrose Park, Illinois. One of his youth coaches said he could become the best sled hockey player ever.
David Hirsch: That’s amazing. And your whole family had a chance to travel to Sochi?
Bob Roybal: Yes, we did.
David Hirsch: Spencer probably wasn’t sad that he got pulled out of school to do all this.
Bob Roybal: No, no, no. That’s one thing. Spencer kinda got dragged around to the hockey rink a lot when he was young, from the time he was probably three years old till he was about 10 or 12 years old.
And then finally he had enough. He said unless it’s going to out of the country or somewhere away from school, then he’ll go watch him play hockey. But he doesn’t really like to go sit and watch him at the rink anymore. He’s been there and done that enough.
David Hirsch: So does Spencer also play sports?
Bob Roybal: Yeah, his sport is basketball. He likes playing basketball.
David Hirsch: And with his grandpa, from what I remember you saying.
Bob Roybal: Yeah.
David Hirsch: That’s awesome. So, four years ago Brody was on the gold medal Paralympic hockey team. Now four years have elapsed in the interim, and he’s got another opportunity to go to Korea.
Bob Roybal: He leaving shortly, in a couple of days
Announcer: And it was a successful trip as Brody and the US sled hockey team won another gold medal at the winter Paralympics and Pyeongchang.
Team USA gets it done! Paralympic gold again!
Brody Roybal: When I was seven, I was just trying to find any sport really to play at the time, because I’d always played able-bodied sports with my friends. But I’d gotten to the age where kids started growing and I couldn’t really play with them anymore. So I was looking for any disabled sport. I tried a couple of different ones out and then finally found sled hockey and immediately fell in love with it. And I’ve been playing ever since.
David Hirsch: What are some of the most important takeaways that come to mind when raising a child with differences? Or what advice would you give to dads who have a child with a physical or mental disability?
Bob Roybal: The advice I would give is to push them to do as much as they can. Don’t hold them back and try to baby them. I know some people think I’m a little hard on him at times, but I think you have to let them go and let them find their way. And they’ll figure it out. That’s one thing he always showed us, is he’ll find a way to do whatever it is he needs to do. If I’m not there to help him, he’s going to have to figure it out.
There’s something for everybody out there. One thing I’ve learned about the whole disability world is that, I don’t care what your disability is, there’s a sport for you out there. There’s blind hockey, there’s hard of hearing. Everything has a sport. Go out there and do that. A lot of people, they don’t get involved. And you see these kids, and they’re 10 years old, and you’re like, “Well, what have you been doing for the last five, six years?”
And they’re like, “We didn’t know about this.” It’s almost like, when you’re dealt this hand, the hospitals should tell you, “Find this organization and get out there and look at these things.” But a lot of people just don’t know about it. The biggest thing is get online. One thing that’s different now with the internet is you can look up anything and you can find it. Twenty years ago when Brody was born, my wife saw a TV show with a girl that was just like Brody, and she contacted the TV show and asked if we could get their number. The producers gave us the number, and she only lived like five hours away.
We drove down to their house, met her, and she was exactly like Brody, but five years older. And it helped us out so much to see this girl, how she got around. She was 12 years old at the time, and we saw what she was doing. She was playing with her brother, jumping on the trampoline. We went to the mall with them and had lunch, and she was just walking around like a 12 year old looking at clothes and having a good time.
And when we saw that, we said, “Oh, it’s going to be okay. He’s going to be just fine.” We were worried about what’s he going to be like in high school and this and that. Is he going to have a girlfriend? And he’s fine.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That was a turning point for you, reaching out to this other family, seeing it, experiencing it, and having a better understanding that things are going to be okay.
Bob Roybal: Right. And that was the thing. He was probably five years old at the time. And I mean, we kind of knew that it was gonna be okay, but that was the first time we’d ever seen somebody exactly like him who was living their life and having a good time, just a normal kid.
David Hirsch: This is a good segway into the question I wanted to ask, which is, why did you agree to be a mentor father as part of this Special Fathers Network?
Bob Roybal: Like I just said, if I can help somebody who has a son that’s missing a leg or missing two legs or missing a hand or anything. I’ve been around this whole thing for 20 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of different kids. I know you have questions, and I’d be happy to answer some questions if anybody has any, to tell them, “It’s going to be okay. You’ll get through it. I know at the beginning it’s tough, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what to expect, but you’ll get through it.”
David Hirsch: That’s great advice. So is there anything else that you’d like to share before we wrap up?
Bob Roybal: No, I’d just like to thank you for all the work you’re doing. It’s a worthy cause that you’re doing, and it’s very helpful.
David Hirsch: Well, thank you. So if somebody wanted to follow up, to learn more about the Paralympics, where would they go, or how would they go about doing that?
Bob Roybal: Go on the internet. You can find anything on the internet now. Just look up US Paralympics and all the different sports. It’ll explain what it is. And I believe on the website it’ll give you a whole overview of the history of it and everything.
David Hirsch: So Bob, thank you for taking the time and for sharing so many insights. As a reminder, Bob is just one of the dads who has agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
Thanks again, Bob.
Bob Roybal: Thank you, Dave.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to this Special Fathers Network podcast, stories of fathers helping fathers.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio. Music provided by Purple Planet. Find out more at purple-planet.com. And to find out more about 21st Century Dads, go to 21stcenturydads.org.