Victor Suarez started his Saturday slow, sleeping in and enjoying a big breakfast before the Roseburg Rampage bus left for Medford.
It was only the second game into the Rampage’s inaugural semi-pro football season on April 26 and Suarez was excited about the months ahead.
That all came to a halt when the 23-year-old Suarez, a linebacker, was injured in a helmet-to-helmet hit with Southern Oregon Renegades player Daniel Welcome.
Roseburg Rampage General Manager Eric Murray said he watched film of the game to try and figure out what went wrong.
“It’s difficult to really see what happened,” Murray said. “It was just two guys making a play.”
The hit broke Suarez’s fifth vertebrae and caused irreparable spinal cord damage that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“This type of injury is a very real risk in football,” Leona Westdahl, Southern Oregon Renegades co-owner, wrote in a press release. “When you hear about it happening, you file it away in the back of your mind as a low blow and an unfortunate situation for all involved.
“You think for one quick moment how grateful you are that it hasn’t happened to any of your players or to any players in the league. And then it does happen. It’s absolutely soul-crushing. Your heart breaks for Victor, as well as Daniel. It was an accident. A horrible accident.”
The Rampage started the season with 25 players and are down to 19 as they near the end of their first season. Roseburg has fielded semi-pro teams in the past, most recently the Umpqua Valley Knights.
“It’s on everybody’s mind and there have been a few other guys who got hurt and they don’t want to come back because they fear they’re going to get hurt worse,” Murray said. “But most of the players want to continue playing. I’ve been in semi-pro football for 25 seasons and this has never happened before. It happens one time and it’s one time too many, but it can happen and it’s unfortunate that it did.”
Suarez had moved to Roseburg just a year earlier with his girlfriend of four years, Corina Sustaita, from Southern California to start a family.
“We told ourselves if we want a family we don’t want to be in California,” Sustaita said. “So we took whatever we could find and moved up here.”
After seven months of trying to conceive, Sustaita, 22, became pregnant with the couple’s daughter who’s due Aug. 22.
“We were very happy starting a family,” Sustaita said. “We were doing really well. We both had jobs and a stable home. It was going good.”
Suarez was looking for a way to stay active and found an advertisement for the Rampage through Craigslist and responded to the ad.
Suarez and Sustaita soon began planning camping trips while the team played in Washington and began to form friendships with the other members of the team.
Due to Sustaita’s pregnancy, Suarez asked her to stay home while he went to Medford to play football.
“It was probably a good thing I wasn’t there,” Sustaita said. “A teammates’ wife knocked on my door and handed me the phone. My heart just dropped (when I heard about the accident) and I got worried. All they knew is that he couldn’t feel any of his limbs and I didn’t know what to think.”
Sustaita jumped in her car and raced down to Medford.
“I remember that it rained,” Sustaita said. “But I didn’t care, I was speeding just trying to get there. It was the longest drive ever.”
When she got to the emergency room at the Rogue Valley Medical Center, the Roseburg Rampage players filled the waiting room.
“He was laying down and crying,” Sustaita said. “He told the emergency nurse to get the doctor so the doctor could tell me what was happening. Victor didn’t want to tell me, he just kept telling me sorry. I don’t know why he kept saying sorry. I told him to stop and that accidents happen, but then he started worrying about the baby and worrying whether he’d be able to hold her.”
Suarez told his girlfriend he doesn’t remember anything from the hit that injured him.
Those first weeks were tough for the couple.
Sustaita had to quit her job to be with Suarez and the young couple is moving to Ashland to move into a wheelchair-accessible home.
Sustaita’s mother came to Roseburg a week before the accident and has been helping clean the Roseburg home and is helping pack for the move.
“She came a week before the accident and now I’m really glad she was here through the whole thing,” Sustaita said.
Sustaita has been training to become a caregiver for Suarez once he’s able to leave the hospital.
“He’s working hard in therapy,” Sustaita said. “He jokes around and has a great attitude. He still loves football.”
The Roseburg Rampage and Southern Oregon Renegades have also been helping the young family by hosting fundraisers.
Brewed Awakening in Medford held a benefit in Medford in May and on Saturday the Rampage hosted a grand opening/fundraiser at Eagle Point Plaza to help the family.
“Our hope is to help with current and future needs; to help set this little family up for future success,” said Renegades co-owner Rockne DeMello. “Starting a family is a big deal. We want Victor and Corina to be able to focus on the joys of becoming parents as well as Victor’s recovery, and not the woes of mounting medical expenses.”
Donations to help Victor Suarez and his family can be made to any Umpqua Bank branch to the Victor Suarez donation fund or online at www.gofundme.com/forvictor.
• You can reach sports reporter Sanne Godfrey at 541-957-4219 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org