The hushed whispers come out like stabbing daggers: "He might never play football again."
To some, this would be an irrelevant proclamation -- the game is just a game. But for some, the game defines much of who they are because it's what they long to do.
Losing that, or even the thought of it, especially to a young person who has just barely reached his teens, can be devastating.
For Craig Roark, who's coming to Nebraska from his home state of Oklahoma next fall, it might have been that. He might have spun into a depression at the thought of losing his passion. He essentially broke his back, just when the mutterings of his ability went from potentially good to probably good to possibly great.
The future looked bleak indeed, but not to Craig. A brief moment of doubt might have lingered, but he knew that things could be so much worse. He knew he had the strength to move on, thanks to the inspiration of someone much smaller who'd fought much tougher odds.
Thanks to Colton.
Colton Roark was the youngest brother of three. His entire life spanned just 21 months. A victim of glioblastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer, his existence was a muddled collage of hospital stays, examinations, transfusions and surgeries. His life was a fight for life itself.
This was a battle that his parents, Bryan and Christy, knew probably would not end well, but it was a battle they and the rest of the family fought together. They fought it by trying not to acknowledge the disease's presence whenever possible.
"You just try to be a family like any other," Bryan said. "It's always in the back of your mind, but you enjoy what you have and the time you get to spend together. You actually enjoy it more."
For Craig, the eldest brother watching the youngest brother endure constant misery, this was the toughest time of his life.
"That was my little brother," Craig said. "Every day that he hurt, we all hurt. We didn't want him to have to go through anything alone."
Craig, not even a teen at the point of Colton's diagnosis, dealt with his brother's illness one day at a time. He didn't focus on the ultimate prognosis for Colton.
"I never thought about that," he said. "We never thought about any of that. He was home and with us, so we enjoyed every moment and didn't think about what we would do if he was gone."
From the point of Colton's initial diagnosis, he was given but a few months to live. The few turned into multiple as the youngest Roark fought the odds, extending his life past the doctor's predictions by one, three, five months and beyond.
"They said he didn't have that long, but he wouldn't give up." Craig said. "He kept fighting and whatever the doctors said, he just kept proving them wrong."
Colton battled symptoms that only progressed. The head swelling, motor dysfunction and headaches ultimately resulted in his total loss of sight and eventually, in surgery, his pituitary gland as well. After that, the family had to give him injections every four hours to keep his potassium and blood levels correct, Bryan said.
As persistent as Colton was in his defiance, this insidious disease was more so. It was only a matter of time.
"Both Craig and Chad (Craig's younger brother) used to hold him through all of this," Bryan said. "There wasn't a moment that we would let go by that we didn't let Colton know how much he was loved by all of us."
Craig doesn't talk of this much.
"He went through so much." Craig said. "During the big surgery, he had like four times his bodyweight in blood put back into him. You wonder just why anyone has to go through that, especially Colton. You never think something like that is fair."
After 18 months of fighting, Colton died, not even 2 years old.
"Colton passed away at home at 2:30 p.m.," Bryan said. "I had to pick up the boys from school at 3 and tell them what had happened. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life."
Fast forward a few months to a football game. During this game, Craig broke a vertebrae in his back – an injury that was thought to be the end to his football-playing days.
While there was a lapse into grief and anger at yet another trial and tribulation for a Roark, the family knew they would be OK. It hardly took the reminder of Craig's parents of his situation and how really lucky he truly was because Craig knew it as well.
Thanks to Colton.
"I can't say I was happy about (what my injury had done), because I wasn't," Craig said. "I love football, everything about it, so just thinking about not being able to play it any more was terrible.
"I knew, though, that this was nothing compared to what Colton went through. He fought through something that I can't even imagine. A broken back sounds serious, but compared to what he went through, it was nothing."
Craig had a life perspective unimaginable for someone so young. That perspective, though, spurred Craig on to fight instead of flee. Rather than let someone tell him he might never do something again, he was going to prove them wrong.
"I watched my brother fight for his life and me, I was just fighting to play football," Craig said. "I knew though that he proved the doctors wrong, and I was going to do the same thing."
As resolute as Craig was in coming back, his parents were equally so in telling him he didn't have to. There was another life outside of football, other opportunities. Football wasn't the end-all-be-all of his existence.
"He wasn't having any of it," Bryan said. "We told him he had so many other talents and that football wasn't it for him. And that it was a serious injury and that he could hurt it worse. He just never thought twice about it, though, and he was coming back no matter what anyone said."
After two years of rehab, sophomore Craig Roark started on the defensive line for Ada's first game of the year.
He had made it back.
Craig's first game back was one of relief, but for his parents, it was one of trepidation as well. That first snap, the first hit – they held their breath early on as their minds feared what could happen.
"We were pretty nervous those first couple of games," Bryan said. "Craig, he never thought about it one bit whether he might be injured or not, but you can bet we were there for awhile."
Game two of the year was even more of a test. Craig, barely 6 feet tall, barely 200 pounds, faced McCallister High School's star player, Brandon Keith, a 6-foot-6, 320-pound scholarship for the Oklahoma Sooners. In this game, Craig confirmed to everyone, especially himself, he was truly ready to play, Bryan said.
"Oh, he gave him a game," Bryan said. "That kid was just a giant, but Craig just kept going at him all game long. And Craig, he was just so excited after the game was over. It was like he went against this giant of a kid and never backed down once, so he knew for himself that he was back."
Craig started for Ada on the defensive line until the playoffs that year, when he switched to the offensive line. Now, Craig is a 6-foot-3, 295-pound lineman regarded as one of the best interior linemen in the country. He combines aggression with a brute-force mentality, making him one of the more lethal maulers around.
He's lethal enough that before Roark chose to go to Nebraska, he turned down the likes of Miami, Kansas State and Alabama.
This may sound like a rags to riches story of sorts. But it's not to Craig. Craig feels like he's not done much at all.
"I feel great to be where I am right now," Craig said. "My faith in God is always the source of my strength, but Colton just made me that much stronger. He inspired everyone around him. He made you believe that you could do anything because he was just a baby and he wouldn't give up. I knew I couldn't give up for him."
The inspiration that comes from devotion to a brother he barely had time to know lives on with Craig Roark. It's molded him into the person he is today, and yes, even when he's on the field.
"I play the way I do because that's just how I am," Craig said. "I learned that no matter what's in front of you that no matter what other people say, you never give up on anything. You do what you believe, but you do it with all you have and whatever happens in the end doesn't matter."
Craig will soon walk onto the campus of Nebraska, and he'll bring with him all that Colton gave him. In fact, what Colton was is now what the entire Roark family finds best about themselves.
"We have been blessed with some very special kids," Bryan said. "But what happened with Colton brought us all together more than anything ever could. What happened molded Craig into the person he is, but really, it's made us all who we are. It's made us all realize just how precious the little things can be."
The little things for Craig are the national championship trophies he wants to win. They are All-American awards he'd like to achieve. They are the academic honors, starting for the team and playing every down of every game. Those are little things indeed, because he's already in possession of something infinitely more valuable.
Some people spend their entire lives trying to inspire others. Years upon years talking, preaching and teaching, if only in the hopes of touching one life in hopes of making it better in the end. In 18 months, one life brought meaning to all others and for one family, inspires them to this day.
"We've all been affected by this and will be for the rest of our lives," Bryan said. "It's made us all very different people. It's been a positive thing, though, for everyone, because we appreciate everything and every little moment more than we did before. You know you can't take anything for granted, that you have to enjoy your time together. And we do, maybe more than we ever did before."
Thanks to Colton.
Steve Ryan can be reached at SteveRyan@bigredreport.com or 402-730-5619