You could say the world has shifted and nothing is normal since the pandemic. Our Ambassador of the Month, Robert Ferguson, talks to me from Texas, as the pandemic hits his area hard. Robert understands big and little losses are hard to handle, but they can shape your character and transform you into a healthier version of yourself, if you allow others to help.
Ducking out of the rain under the concourse at a Houston Dash game forced Robert and (his now wife) Jennifer to meet eye to eye and talk. They instantly hit it off. Jennifer could see something that Robert could not see in himself: His passion for soccer that burned bright in his eyes. They share this passion, and Jennifer was determined to get Robert to play the sport again. Soccer would be the impetus to change, by giving Robert the drive and force to heal his wounds. “Jennifer got me back on the soccer field,” says Robert, “and I have not looked back”. Robert now plays soccer for the U.S. Amputee Soccer Team, and, more importantly to Robert, he teaches soccer to small children with various disabilities. Robert’s new life purpose has freed him to do the work he feels he needs to do to feel alive.
Robert is seeding soccer programs throughout Texas for kids with mobility challenges. His goal is to empower them, to build skills and confidence as they learn to persevere, be accountable for their actions (or inactions), and learn to work as a team. Robert feels these are all things a person can apply to ‘real-life’ situations both on and off the field. “The loss of my leg became one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. “It took a long time, and some real painful soul-searching to come to that point. Being ‘normal’ is boring.” With Jennifer’s help, Robert continues to learn. “I am stronger than ‘normal,’ and that strength can be poured into others; to inspire others.” Robert shares his wisdom about seeing problems from different angles, and how he celebrates life. A Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote comes to mind: “Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks. That means don’t do just for yourself…I think you’ll want to leave the world a little better for you having lived”. There is no doubt in my mind that the life Robert is living is better than ‘boring’ or ‘normal’, and will certainly impact the world in a positive way.
Tell us about how you became an amputee
I picked a fight with a tank and lost! I had already been to Afghanistan and Korea, and I was in North Fort Hood. It was June 6th, 2009, 7:45 in the morning. I have that memorized, because that’s my live date; I got a second chance at life. We were doing training with an m270, which is a mobile missile launcher. That’s 20 tonnes on a large track. Well, one of my soldiers had left the parking brake off the vehicle, and it started rolling backwards. I went to get in the vehicle to hit the brake and stop it, when my shoelace came out of my boot and the front drive sprocket grabbed me and took me between the track.
Honestly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It took a while for me to see that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I fell into a depression, I was abusing my painkillers, and fell into relying on alcohol to sleep… so it wasn’t the best thing right away. I thought it had taken away my ability to play soccer. I’ve played soccer my entire life – I even played two years for SV Speicher, which is a very low level Bundesliga (soccer league) in Germany while I was stationed there. I thought that was all gone forever, and I tried to put it out of my head. I was walking within three months and nine days of the accident. I was on crutches eight days after the accident, six days after they took my leg. I thought I was strong, but I was obviously too close to the situation to see just how bad I was.
Thankfully, I met Jennifer, my wife, who was a huge soccer fan. I couldn’t even watch soccer – it just hurt that bad – but the way we met was just meant to be. I had a fraternity brother that had been trying to get us to meet for quite a while, and every time he wanted us to meet, it was at a Houston Dash or Houston Dynamo game, which are the men’s and women’s professional soccer teams here. I told him that I didn’t want to go, and he said, “Look, if you go, I’ve got your drinks for the night”. And I said, “Okay, I’m sold”. For the first hour and a half, we just completely ignored each other, and then at half time it started pouring down rain, so we all were hiding in the concourse. We got to talking and hit it off, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.
How did Jennifer help you get back into soccer?
I used to be very dark and gloomy. I just wanted to blend in. Thankfully, Jennifer helped me see how strong I was, and how that strength can be poured into others. She has been the linchpin in me realizing how to be a model of strength. One day, we were out walking, and this guy came up and said, “I just want to let you know you’re an inspiration”. I was like, “No I’m not, I’m just living my life. Leave me alone”. And Jennifer looked at me after the gentleman walked away and was like, “You’re an ass. That had nothing to do with you”. I was like, “Uh, yeah it did, he came up to me”, and she said, “No you idiot – he’s saying that because you walk around so well living your life that you’ve given him a little hope to continue on with his day!” And I was like, “……oh okay”. I’ve come to accept it as a compliment now. She’s so wise, beyond my years. I’m very lucky. It took a lot of amputations to find her, and many other pieces of my heart pulled out by others that didn’t deserve it.
One day, when we were still dating, she asked if I wanted to go kick the soccer ball around with one of our best friends. I was like, “No, not really,” but as any man will tell you, if your girlfriend says “Hey, do you want to…”, it means “Hey, guess what we’re doing?” (Laughs) So, I said, ‘I’ll go with y’all, but I’m not going to to touch the field. I’m not ready for that”. But she knew what she was doing. She had gotten me back into watching soccer and had seen that flicker of light just reignite in my eyes. As soon as we got out there, I couldn’t stay off the pitch. But I was using a running blade, and when I went to kick the ball, it got stuck inside – it’s the perfect circumference! I asked Jennifer to go grab my everyday leg out of the truck. It just so happened that Keith Johnson, who’s had over 100 caps with the U.S. Paralympic Soccer Team, saw this woman walking out the parking lot with a prosthetic leg in her arms. You know, most people with amputations just want to blend in – we hide it. I’ve never cared; I’ve always worn shorts. But I saw them over there talking, and I got ticked off. I was still a very angry person at this point, and if I had taken half a second to actually pay attention to him, it would have been very obvious that he had CP, but I thought it was just an able-bodied “normal” person looking at the cripple trying to do normal things. I went to ask her what the hell was up, but she was like, “Why don’t you just go talk to him?” He put me in contact with the U.S. Amputee Soccer team, and six months later I found out I had made the team! Actually, the day I found out I made the team was the day I had planned to propose to my wife on Dynamo field during halftime!
Not long after that, I was in Orange County, California, where I did my first international caps against Haiti, and that’s when everything just became the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
What does ‘defy convention’ mean to you?
You have to defy convention. We can’t be conventional – you have to think outside the box. Honestly, as an amputee, you have to defy convention all the time just to perform everyday tasks, especially if you don’t have the ability to get a prosthetic, or even the ability to wear it. You can’t look at a problem as black and white. You could go over the mountain, but there might be this little trail on the side that cuts around and makes it easier to go over. Yes, it might be an accomplishment to get over the mountain, but if you have nothing to give after you get over it, then you’re presenting yourself with another problem. When you work smarter, not harder, that’s defying convention.
What are your passions in life?
My passion in life right now is bringing passion to others, especially through soccer. My passion is building people up and getting them to see that they’re more than they’re giving themselves credit for.
This semester I’ll be finishing my degree in psychology. I’ve started my own non-profit. I hand cycle marathons. I’m an Amputee Coalition of America peer support visitor. I’ve changed so many kids’ lives. One of my players, when I first met him, used to hide behind his mom, and now he’s gone out for his school’s rugby team. All I did was give him the tools. All these parents tell me that their kids aren’t the same kids they gave me a year ago. They’re just so much more confident, outgoing… you know, the whole nine yards.
My biggest and best investment has been with my kids. I’ve seen them come from where they were hiding in the shadows and not wanting anybody to see them, to stepping out into the spotlight to say “Here I am”. I work with kids as young as five years old. I prefer working with kids, because I’ve found adults think that by wearing their prosthetic, they’ll be normal. And no disrespect to anybody, but you’re never going to be normal. Normal is boring, honestly. I teach my kids that we’re better than normal, because we do everything that everybody else does, but we do it with less, so we’re stronger.
I’m also a motivational speaker. When I do my motivational speaking, I usually wear pants. I walk around the whole time – you would have to be paying very close attention to tell that I’m an amputee because my gait is almost perfect. When I tell my story, I speak about “my buddy from the army” and everything “he” went through. If I’m speaking to high school kids, I’ll tell them about the painkillers, the alcoholism, everything. I’ll tell them he got very depressed and didn’t want to go outside, and then about halfway through, I’ll say, “I gotta come clean, I’ve been lying to you this whole time… the person I’ve been talking about has been standing right in front of you”. And then I pull up the pant leg.
I’m a big believer that life is what you make it. I mean, yes, life can be hard, but if you allow it to keep you in that frame of mind, it’s always going to be hard. Whatever situation you’re going through, whether it’s a bad day or a car wreck, you can put your hand right here over your heart and feel that heartbeat… that’s purpose. There’s still something going for that day – you’re still here for a reason. I was literally two minutes from not being here. I had two tourniquets on and I was still bleeding out.They said that if I had gotten to the hospital two minutes later than I did, I would not be here today. It took me a long time, a lot of therapy, and a lot of understanding from the woman that I love, because she saw me for who I was, not what I was. She stuck through a lot of depression, anger, and more surgeries. Life was hard, but it made me stronger, and now I’m here doing what I’m doing.
What is your favourite thing about SideStix?
As a child, my dream was always to go to the World Cup – I thought I was that good. But, you know, life and circumstances took me to where I really excelled, which was in the military. I don’t regret that at all, but after losing my leg, soccer was out. Thankfully, I was reintroduced to it, but I was using all the really heavy, aluminum, bright, shiny, uncomfortable crutches. Just thinking about it now hurts my wrist! (Laughs) Thankfully, I was able to get in touch with SideStix, and I got so much quicker, because they’re so much more comfortable and lighter. I love the grips – I have the BioKork grips. I also love the shock absorbers, which save my shoulders quite a bit. I do demonstrations when I do my motivational speaking. I run and literally spin on the crutches in circles, and run backwards on them. It’s really cool. They’ve lasted through four years of competition. I’ve only had one issue with the left cuff, and you guys replaced it without any questions or hesitation. I wish you had a satellite company down here, because I would go to work for y’all in a heartbeat.
How do you stay motivated?
By finding something that doesn’t necessarily have to do with me. My motivations are my kids. I mean, none of them belong to me, but they’re my kids. I’m getting them all ready to go up to the next level, and then hopefully to the national student levels. That’s my motivation, and it has nothing to do with me. I get a certain amount of gratification out of it, yes, but others depend on me. Finding something that’s bigger than yourself is a good motivator.
Do you have a message for other crutch users?
Push your limits. Get out of your comfort zone. Quit using your crutch as a crutch – don’t let it be the reason you don’t go out and do something. And if somebody says something, who cares? Don’t make them more than they are, because they have an ignorant opinion of what they don’t understand. Educate them. Like I said, normal is boring! Normal is no fun. Nobody is normal – I guarantee you they just hide whatever their abnormality is better than most care to. No one is the same person in public that they are in private. Even I have my days. I still have my bouts with depression. I still have my doubts with waking up and not seeing part of me there. But in public, you couldn’t tell. I walk tall, I walk straight, my chest is out, and I tell the world to bring it on.