"My mother had a slender, small body, but a large heart - a heart so large that everybody's joys found welcome in it, and hospitable accommodation." ~Mark Twain
It appeared to be nothing. A slight loss of grip in Roxanne Roundtree's left hand in 2007. She's a trained nurse. At first, she ignored it. Until the pain moved into her left shoulder. Had she pinched a nerve tending to one of her elderly patients or playing with one of her three young sons? Physicians were baffled at first. A healthy, vibrant 28 year old in the prime of her life. The strong, powerful wife of a Madisonville, Texas farmer.
One by one, doctors ruled out the possible causes for her condition. A slipped disk. Lyme disease. Until one day, a neurologist broke the news. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. More commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." The disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.
Donald Roundtree Jr. could be the poster child for the typical Texas teenager. He enjoys riding horses on his farm, caring for the cattle and show pigs his family raises and hanging out with friends. He loves his father Donald Roundtree Sr. and his two little brothers Bradley, age 11, and Bryce, age 9. But like any boy, he simply adores his mother.
Roxanne Roundtree does all of her communication now through a specially-designed computer. Only her boys can understand her utterances. ALS has ravaged her body but her mind remains crystal clear.
Especially when it comes to her eldest son, "We are very proud of Don, not only because of sports but he is a super kid. My disease has left me unable to drink or eat like I should. I depend on a tube in my stomach for hydration and most nutrition. He feeds me and gives me medicine by tube. He also is able to transfer me to my wheelchair and to bed. Not many 13 year olds can do that. He has taken our circumstance on like a champ."
Donald Roundtree Jr. is 5'7", 135 pounds. Broad, thick shoulders. Powerful legs. Built more like a gymnast than a football player. A three-sport star at Madisonville Junior High School: baseball, track and the team's starting quarterback. A straight "A" student taking honors math and language arts. Trying to get him to talk about his accomplishments with me was like trying to pull a nail out a concrete block with tweezers. He's just not that type of kid. You can see why his teachers rave about him. Why his school voted him the best athlete each of the last two years. He didn't even tell his parents that news. He was too embarrassed by all the attention. That's not his nature. He is more about helping others than casting the spotlight on himself. He's the genuine "G-rated" version of "Friday Night Lights." Soft-spoken. Sweet. Sensitive. Until he gets on the football field.
In 2005, I was attending a football game at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA. Penn State is my alma mater. The University of Minnesota was the opponent. Both teams were undefeated. The Golden Gophers had a vaunted rushing attack featuring Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber, both of whom would go on to star in the NFL. The Nittany Lions were led by Michael Robinson, a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, who now plays fullback for the Seattle Seahawks.
In that game, Robinson broke outside the pocket, streaked down the sideline and literally ran over a Minnesota defensive back. 110,000 fans gasped. It was the play that set the tone for PSU's run to a Big Ten title. In Donald Roundtree Jr.'s highlight clip, he rolls from the pocket. Same direction. Gains momentum. And steamrolls an opposing defender. The crowd reacts the same way. The identical slightshot passing delivery as Robinson. His team loves the quarterback draw. I would too if I were the coach. And if I had a talent like Donald Roundtree Jr. under center.
"Don Don is a special boy. I'm the 24 hour a day care provider for my wife. Without asking, Donald steps right in. No one has to tell him what is expected of him. He does it on his own. He's had to grow up fast," his father Donald Sr. said.
JuniorRank gets hundreds of applications a month for the Diamond Flight Camps that will be kicking off shortly all across the country. The three-day events are run like NFL combines with former pro greats serving as coaches. Participants receive personalized workout gear and clothes. It's every kid's dream. Only the best student-athletes are accepted. Every player with aspirations of advancing to the next level wants to attend. It could be the break that gets them noticed. That gets their name out there. That leads to a scholarship someday. The Roundtrees are no different. That is what they want for Donald Jr. They saw the website and viewed all the camp clips. They just couldn't afford the price tag for a JuniorRank camp.
"We want Donald Roundtree Jr. in our system," CEO Shaon Berry told me yesterday. "He's just the kind of quality young man this organization stands for. He's the reason I started JuniorRank." So when I called the Roundtree house and told them that Jr. would be attending one of the Texas camps of their choice on scholarship, emotion filled the room. The happiest moment I've had in a long time. I cover all the superstars of JuniorRank. Some have ties to pro football. Others have Hollywood connections. Most are ordinary folk like you and me. None moved me like Donald Roundtree Jr.
"I love my mother with all my heart. I would give anything to have her healthy and strong again. While my Dad is my # one critic, she's my # one fan. I can't tell you how much she has inspired me. If you are going to talk about how tough I am in this article, I am nothing compared to her. She's the real fighter in this family."
Broad, thick shoulders. In football, you need them when an opposing defensive back is coming up to tackle you in the open field. In life, you need them when you are carrying the weight of the world. He may only be 13, but Donald Roundtree Jr. knows the score. He reads the medical journals. He is determined to make every moment count. To make his family proud. He is his mother's son.