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Palm Coast Wednesday, Mar. 21, 2018 6 months ago

'I play for him'

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Jonah Robertson lost his father, Mickey Robertson, to brain cancer. Now, Matanzas’ standout midfielder plays with a chip on his shoulder — and pain in his heart.
by: Ray Boone Sports Editor

Jonah Robertson was sitting quietly in his eighth-grade classroom at Buddy Taylor Middle School on a calm December day when he got a call to report to the principal’s office.

A sickening feeling overcame Jonah as he gathered his things and left the class. And as he made his way across the school, he knew. Before setting foot in the office. Before seeing the faces of his worried mother and two older brothers. Before any condolences or reassuring hugs were offered, and before any confirmations were made, Jonah knew what was going to happen. This was it.

His dad was about to die.

Mickey Robertson was diagnosed with glioblastoma — an aggressive, incurable brain tumor that affects two per 100,000 adults per year, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons — in November 2013. His health deteriorated rapidly. Mickey died later that night in December.

He was 49. Jonah was 14.

“It was the worst time of my life,” Jonah said. “It brought me down. I went into a hole for a while.”

But something was there to help pull Jonah out of that hole: lacrosse.

And if Jonah, who started playing lacrosse in sixth grade, wasn’t serious about the game before, he was now. His father’s death was his motivation. Five years later, it still is. Jonah is a senior and a captain of the boys lacrosse team at Matanzas High School, and in the fall, will head to Hartsville, South Carolina, to play college lacrosse for Coker College, a Division II program that plays in the South Atlantic Conference.

Lacrosse is his safe haven.

“When I play lacrosse, it’s almost like nothing else matters,” Jonah said. “It’s a clean slate. You don’t have anything on your mind but being out there with your brothers on the field.”

“HE’LL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES.”

Efrain Gutierrez was a mainstay in Flagler County lacrosse ever since he suited up for Matanzas as a high-schooler from 2008 to 2011. He became the Pirates’ defensive coordinator soon after and also coached several club teams in the area. Gutierrez started coaching Jonah in club lacrosse when the youngster was in the sixth grade. Jonah was playing on Gutierrez’s club team, the Wave, when Jonah’s father died. Gutierrez immediately got a call.

“He was begging for me to get out there with him, to practice with him,” said Gutierrez, who has been the head coach of the Pirates for the last five seasons. “I dropped what I was doing that second and went out with him.”

It’s been like that ever since.

Jonah has been on every club team Gutierrez has coached and has known no other head coach in his four years at Matanzas. But while Jonah was able to learn the ins-and-outs of lacrosse from his coach, it was Gutierrez who was most impacted.

Jonah taught his mentor how to deal with adversity.

The Pirates' Jonah Robertson dodges a St. Augustine defender. File photo

“I can’t even relate to what he’s gone through,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t know how I would react and then adapt to everyday life after that. And this is a kid who’s had to grow up well before his time. He’s 18 now. He’s been a man since he was 16 years old. He’s been in the house with his mother, and he’s really taken on that ‘man of the household’ role, in my opinion. That’s what I’ve seen watching him grow over the last few years. It’s humbling to see, and I’m just honored and privileged to even say that I’m a part of his life and his success as a young man.”

In all his years in lacrosse, in sports, Gutierrez has seen few like Jonah.

After the Pirates’ one-point loss to Buchholz on Feb. 23, Gutierrez’s phone buzzed. It was a text from Jonah. Not even an hour after the game had ended, Jonah was in the weight room working out.

“He has a rare ability to fixate on a goal and then block out all the white noise,” Gutierrez said. “He will do whatever it takes, and he will make any sacrifice in order to reach his goal. He’s motivated me to be more like him. You don’t see that in teens too often nowadays: just an ability to realize what they want and that success comes with sacrifices.”

“IT’S ALL I DO.”

The Pirates’ grueling practice has just ended. Tired players shed gear and jerseys, and the coaches prepare to go home. Not Jonah, though. For him, there’s still work to be done.

After a two-hour, rain-soaked practice, Jonah heads to the weight room. He’ll be there for three more hours.

“Lacrosse and the weight room,” said Jonah, who can bench press 315 pounds, “it’s all I do.”

Jonah had always worked out. But it was his sophomore season with the Pirates that changed everything. Inspired by the physicality of college lacrosse players, Jonah decided that in addition to his on-field game improving, his body needed to evolve along with it. He gained 20 pounds by the end of his sophomore year. He ended his junior year weighing in at 155 pounds. He now weighs 190.

“I like to be the big guy on the field,”Jonah said. “My freshman and sophomore years, I was a lot shiftier. I had to dodge. Now, if I get a full head of steam, I’m just going to run through you.”

He added: “It’s pretty cool to look back and see your defender on the ground.”

Jonah pauses for a moment to shake the rain water out of his wavy, bleach blond hair before he continues.

“Oh, and the ladies like it, too,” he jokes.

“IT’S WHAT KEEPS ME GOING.”

Jonah never looks into the stands when he flings a ball into the back of the net. The person he wants to see most isn’t there. He kisses his finger, looks to the sky and points upward, instead. When he runs back down the field, you can almost catch a glimpse of it: the patch on his helmet.

Tucked on the bottom right corner of the face mask of his Matanzas helmet is a little white patch. There’s a three-letter word scribbled in neat, black ink on it: Dad.

The patch hasn’t come off since he got the helmet three years ago. Before, it was on his old helmet.

Matanzas' Jonah Robertson runs toward the net against FPC. File photo

“I just play for him every game,” Jonah said. “It’s what keeps me going.”

The lacrosse field and the weight room are Jonah’s escape. It’s his clean slate, his do-over. It’s what lessens the pain — partially.

That will never truly leave him.

“People try to say that it gets better, but it really doesn’t,” Jonah said. “Some people choose to forget about things, and that’s their version of it getting better. But I think about it every day. Every time I’m on the field. Whenever we’re doing the national anthem, I look up in the sky, and I think about it. And every time I score, I think about it. I know that if he were here in the stands, I could look up to see a smile on his face.”

When he thinks of his father — his smile, his laugh, the times he’d look up and see him in the stands cheering (even when he was sick) — Jonah smiles. But there’s sadness there, too.

“I miss him,” Jonah said. “But I try to live in the ‘now.’ I know he wouldn’t want me to be getting upset about it. He’d want me to be happy.”

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