The Wolverine's Uncanny Comeback
Rojas, a swingman on the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, fell to the floor with an injury that threatened to end far more than his basketball career. And the moment still lingers in his mind.
The Mad Ants were down against the Iowa Energy on Feb. 21 of last year, with the team trying to rally back in the third quarter. The ball was inbounded to Rojas, who drove to the basket.
"I faked a guy and went baseline for a dunk," Rojas said. "He tried to come from behind and block it so he tipped the ball. I hung on the rim with two hands and he just kept going under me until I couldn't hold on anymore. My feet were on his shoulder and then I fell six or seven feet."
In a flash, Rojas was slammed down to the ground in a sequence that could have easily ended his career - if not his ability to ever walk again.
"I tried to get up but I just couldn't," Rojas said. "I turned over and couldn't even crawl so I started swimming on the floor."
After getting carried away on a stretcher by an ambulance, doctors diagnosed Rojas as having broken the lower three discs of his spinal cord. As a result, he lost the ability to control many of the muscles in his body that had essentially shut down after the injury.
Contrast that moment to Rojas' season with the Mad Ants now. Not only did he recover from an injury many other athletes in his situation never fully heal from, Rojas now has more explosion in his game than he did before he was injured.
For two months after the February 2012 injury, he couldn't even put on his socks and had to re-learn how to walk. By June, doctors cleared him for workouts.
"I got into the gym and pretty much stayed in Fort Wayne for the entire summer working out with the coaching staff," he said. "They pretty much built me back up. It’s such a blessing that I'm still able to play."
Rojas, 23, played college basketball at Oklahoma Wesleyan University where he was named the NAIA Division II's Player of the Year in 2011. He went undrafted in the 2011 NBA Draft before joining the Mad Ants for the 2011-12 season. Mad Ants head coach Duane Ticknor took note of Rojas' aggressive rehab workouts and decided to give him more minutes this season.
"He was in the gym all summer at least two hours a day," Ticknor said. "Not only is my confidence in him growing, but my confidence in playing him more too. The minutes he's gotten, he's produced tremendously."
Rojas has improved this season in just about every statistical category compared to last season. He went from averaging 5.9 points in 17.7 minutes per game last season to 8.7 points in 22.3 minutes this season, to go along with 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals. While they're not numbers a superstar would generate, Rojas said he isn't trying to be one. Another nickname given to Rojas is "The Garbage Man," because of his willingness to do anything on the court that other players might not want to.
"I do all the small stuff like late hustle plays that people don't want to do," he said. "I'm not worried about the stats book. I'm not a player that's looking to shine on his own. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get us wins."
Ticknor said Rojas' biggest challenge has been transitioning from playing college ball to the pros. He dominated college, but for a small school in the NAIA, and didn't have the advantage of playing against fiercer and tougher competitors in the NCAA, Ticknor said.
"He went to an NAIA school, and in college a lot of his game was in the inside," Ticknor said. "But he went from being a 6'4 NAIA power forward to playing as a wingman at our level. I want him to turn into a go-to perimeter guy."
Rojas’ game seems to be meshing with Ticknor's strategy. His three-point percentage has ballooned from 14.3 percent behind the arc last season to 34.5 percent this season. His assists, rebounding, steals and field goal averages are all up this season, too. All this from a guy who a little over a year ago was carried out of the game on a stretcher when it was unsure if he could ever walk again.
"When my back was broken, I never let it get to me too much," Rojas said. "Everything happens for a reason. Doctors assured me that I was going to come back. The very same day I was cleared by doctors, I was in the gym shooting free throws. I know I still have a lot to work on in my game. It's going to take a little bit of time, but I'm willing to work, work and work."