Marx: Jarrius Stars in Purple & Gold
Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Marx is the author of “Walking with Tigers: A Collection of LSU Sports Stories” and five other books. You can follow him on Twitter: @LSUTigersBook
Fourteen-year-old Jarrius Robertson – a remarkable blend of medical challenges and magnetic charm – is usually wrapped in black and gold when we see him.
That’s what happens when you’re a small boy with a big personality, you’re in need of an organ donor to save your life, and the New Orleans Saints have basically adopted you and transformed you into a media star.
Your wardrobe colors become redundant.
Black and gold are as much a part of Jarrius as the wide scars that wind across his abdomen and announce his medical history.
Saturday, then, brought a dramatic departure for the young dynamo from the small Louisiana town of Lutcher.
It was his first chance to see his favorite college team play in person. So instead of his usual black and gold, Jarrius – also called Li’l JJ or just JJ – happily went with the purple and gold of the LSU Tigers.
JJ entered Tiger Stadium – being shown straight into the LSU locker room – with strong words for the day’s opponent: “Florida’s going down!”
As a guest of the LSU football program, he was then greeted with a few gifts. The first – given to him by assistant equipment manager Louis Bourgeois – was an official No. 1 team jersey: white with purple numbers, gold and purple trim at the shoulders, “JJ” in purple letters high on the back.
“Boom!” JJ said as he pulled on the jersey. “It’s game time!”
Actually, close to three hours remained before the noon kickoff, and that was a good thing. Clearly, JJ was going to enjoy every moment of his glorious day as an honorary Tiger.
He also had work to do. Part of it was “work” as a “co-reporter” with Emily Dixon, media reporter for LSUsports.net. Part of it was work of a much higher order – the work of saving lives.
Without seeing the scars, without knowing the history, one might look at JJ now – smiling and dancing and clowning for all to see; strutting his stuff on Good Morning America and on ESPN; piling up hits on social media, countless strangers drawn to his inexplicable energy – and reach a faulty conclusion: “What a grand existence!”
His overall existence has not been grand.
Jarrius Jamoz Robertson – those first two initials accounting for the nickname JJ – was born on March 26, 2002. Several weeks later, he was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a life-threatening disease of the liver and bile ducts.
There were many ups and downs, including multiple surgeries, during the initial stages of his life. Then things got really bad. JJ’s parents, Jordy Robertson and Patricia Hoyal, could only watch and pray as he was listed for a life-saving transplant and eventually got a new liver soon after his first birthday.
There were more complications. JJ caught pneumonia. His lungs collapsed. He was placed on a respirator. And his breathing issues were only part of his struggles. Doctors at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans eventually had to induce a coma – and JJ remained unconscious for close to a year.
“Five, six times we were told he wasn’t going to make it,” JJ’s mom recalled last week. “Then they told us for the seventh time. He was still on the respirator.”
“We didn’t want to see him suffer no more,” JJ’s dad said. “So we finally signed the papers to let him go … papers to remove the respirator and let him go.”
The respirator was taken away. But JJ was not ready to stop fighting. He started to breathe on his own.
Doctors couldn’t really offer much of an explanation.
JJ’s mom came up with her own: “It was a miracle – nothing but God.”
JJ also got some nice gloves from the LSU equipment guys – a colorful pair that displayed the eye of the tiger when he held his hands together just the right way.
Then he was ready for action.
JJ posed for pictures in front of the iconic “WIN!” bar mounted atop the double doors leading from the locker room to the field.
He did a quick interview with Gordy Rush of the LSU Sports Radio Network.
He walked outside the stadium – along with his dad – because he wanted to see where Mike the Tiger used to live. JJ being JJ, he enthusiastically fist-bumped a few police officers along the way. “Put it there,” he said each time. “Put it there.”
Part of JJ’s appeal is that he’ll say just about anything to anyone. He’s quick with a quip. And sometimes he’ll intentionally escalate his verbal game with an unexpected jab – moving right up to the line of disrespect but somehow managing to avoid it with a playful combination of tone and facial expression.
Then there is his diminutive size – just short of four feet tall, weighing only 54 pounds, his growth stunted by a lifetime of illness – which also contributes to the way so many people attach the word “cute” or “adorable” or “lovable” to him and his wisecracks.
A recent example from his time with the Saints: Standing on the field before the start of a game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, JJ boldly instructed Carolina backup quarterback Joe Webb not to dance in his end zone. “Alright, my bad, I got you,” Webb said, shaking hands with JJ. What quickly became JJ’s signature line – “Don’t dance in my end zone” – is now available on T-shirts.
Even a miracle does not necessarily afford its beneficiary a straight line to future health – and JJ is vivid proof of that.
He has never really reached optimal strength.
His body has repeatedly tried to reject his transplanted liver. That is one reason for the twenty pills he has to take every day – ten in the morning, ten at night. In addition to his anti-rejection drugs, human growth hormone and blood-pressure medicine are also included.
There are ways in which JJ might be just like any other boy his age. He loves music. He can play video games for hours in a row. He loves to eat – red beans, gumbo, and French toast being among his favorite foods.
But there are also major issues that set him apart from his peers. Intense bone pain. Relentless muscle aches. Internal bleeding. Constant itching all over his body.
Late last year, his liver enzyme numbers spiked and a combination of problems made it clear that JJ needed another fresh start – another new liver. After being referred from Children’s Hospital to Ochsner Hospital for Children, he was listed for a second transplant.
The wait for an organ donor was on. Unfortunately, due to a horrible shortage of donors in our nation, the wait would not be a short one – and there was no promise of a happy outcome.
JJ spent all of August and September in the hospital. He spent most of October sick at home. As an eighth-grader at Lutcher High, JJ has hardly been able to attend classes, so home schooling is for now the plan.
“He spends a lot of time in pain,” says Jeanne Bergeron, pediatric transplant coordinator for the liver team at Ochsner. “It’s hard to see him like that. But it appears that he’s dealing with it really well. He’s an inspiration to all of us who work with him – that’s for sure.”
JJ waited just outside the exterior door to the locker room as the LSU players and coaches made their traditional walk down Victory Hill. But he could not just stand there and wait. He also bounced around signing autographs and taking pictures with fans – young and old alike – who kept calling out his name.
“Pretty amazing,” Jordy Robertson said as he stood nearby and watched his son put smiles on the faces of so many people.
When the players and coaches finally arrived, JJ greeted them as if they were old friends – slapping hands, bumping fists, hugging people he’d never before met – and the players and coaches responded with an immediate connection.
“What’s up, big dog?” linebacker Duke Riley said with great excitement. “I see you all over the Internet!” JJ loved that.
He also got a kick out of the suit worn by Arden Key: a look-at-me number featuring a colorful floral design. JJ quickly dubbed the six-foot-six defensive lineman “Cam Newton” because Newton – star quarterback of the Carolina Panthers – was the only other person he could imagine wearing such a thing.
Key got a good laugh out of that.
As much as JJ has always enjoyed football – never able to play on a team but always watching – nobody ever could have foreseen the wild football-centered journey that is now such a wonderful focal point of his life.
It began last December when a group of Saints players went to Ochsner to visit children and give them Christmas gifts. Punter Thomas Morstead was told that JJ was “the mayor” of the place – his personality overriding the need for any vote – and the two became instant buddies.
The Saints soon invited JJ and Jordy to watch a practice at their Metairie facility – and JJ even got to catch a few passes from quarterback Drew Brees. Morstead then invited JJ to be his guest at a game in the Superdome. And everything took off from there.
“Jarrius just has this amazing ability to connect with people,” says Saints social media manager Alex Restrepo, who accompanied JJ and Jordy to Tiger Stadium. “It’s just impossible not to like him.”
With that in mind, the Saints have tried to do whatever they can on two fronts: One, finding ways for JJ to have fun whenever his body will allow him to do so. Two, helping him create and build a platform to increase public awareness of the overwhelming need for organ donors.
On average, twenty-two people in the United States die every day while waiting for a transplant. JJ and his family desperately want to change that – to serve both their own need and the needs of so many other families. JJ has another signature line to promote organ donation: “It takes lives to save lives.”
It was Restrepo who reached out to Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts and eventually landed JJ an appearance on the show last month. As part of the segment, Saints coach Sean Payton appeared via satellite along with Brees – by now “my man Breezy” to JJ – and defensive lineman Cam Jordan.
Payton surprised JJ with a contract making him an honorary member of the Saints and committing him to travel with the team to its October 23 game in Kansas City. “You don’t have to tell me twice!” JJ said as he immediately put pen to paper.
JJ served as the team’s social media reporter for the trip – temporarily “stealing” Restrepo’s job – and that led to all sorts of additional print and broadcast stories about him. ESPN is now working on a feature piece scheduled to air Thanksgiving weekend on Sunday NFL Countdown.
“We have to keep telling people about organ donation,” Jordy says. “We have to keep fighting.”
After pausing to gather himself, Jordy Robertson, thirty-four years old, an independent contractor who builds fences, matter-of-factly shares the most devastating thought of his life: “Having to bury my son. It’s the biggest fear I ever have. And I think about it. You know, the dad is never supposed to bury the son. The son is supposed to bury the dad.”
JJ stayed busy in the locker room.
He helped the LSU equipment staff by handing out gear to players.
He tracked down Leonard Fournette to give him one of his “Don’t dance in my end zone” shirts – this one purple and gold instead of the usual black and gold – and JJ even signed it for the star running back: “From your best friend Jarrius #1.”
He searched the wall displays for anything related to his second cousin – former LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry – and found a good picture to stand by for a photo of his own.
Mostly, though, JJ wanted to dance.
“Where’s Cam Newton at?” he said several times to nobody in particular – meaning he was looking for Arden Key.
Soon, he found him, and with JJ front and center, Lil Boosie’s “Set it Off” bouncing off the walls, the locker room was temporarily transformed into a high-energy dance hall. Twenty-five or so LSU players surrounded JJ as he put on a show – Arden Key, Duke Riley, and Jamal Adams among those right up in the mix – everybody laughing, holding up phones to record videos, and generally having a blast.
This lasted only a few minutes. But what a scene it was. Using coach Ed Orgeron’s terminology, this was clearly a group of guys who loved being together – “One team! One heartbeat!” – and JJ would never forget it.
He also had a great time out on the field before and during pregame warm-ups.
“Gotta throw you a deep ball today,” Coach O told him.
JJ stood at midfield – on the eye of the tiger – for pictures.
He interviewed ESPN reporter Kaylee Hartung.
He busted a few more dance moves with Jamal Adams in the north end zone. Yes, dancing was for the moment allowed in this one.
Then he again took care of his adoring public – posing for more pictures, signing more autographs, shaking and contorting for fans who simply couldn’t get enough of his dancing.
“You’re so shy,” Emily Dixon told him.
“I get that a lot,” JJ said.
When the game finally started, JJ and Jordy sat with Alex Restrepo of the Saints – who had arranged with LSU for JJ’s visit – in a booth toward the south end of the press box.
It was quite a view for any young fan in Tiger Stadium for the first time: a wide look at the largest sporting cathedral JJ had ever seen – its seating capacity listed at 102,321.
As JJ took in the scene, there was another number – even bigger than that one – that he could happily ignore for a few hours. It was the number of people on the national waiting list for an organ transplant: 120,037 at that very moment (2,196 of them in Louisiana alone).
JJ and Jordy clearly know what they are talking about: It takes lives to save lives!
With LSU trailing 16-10 late in the game, JJ was about as close to the action as he could be when LSU got its final possession. By then standing on the LSU sideline, he was totally locked in – extremely nervous, too – as the Tigers faced a fourth-and-ten at the Florida forty-eight-yard line. When quarterback Danny Etling connected with D.J. Chark on a huge thirty-yard pass play to the eighteen, JJ hustled to the south end of the field and stood just outside the ten-yard line to watch.
Then came his biggest moment of the game.
With the clock stopped at 1:53 – referees were reviewing the play – a man who recognized JJ from the Saints games had an idea: Maybe we should put him on the videoboards and let him fire up the crowd. Ricky Marshall assists with the camera crew that shoots for the boards, and JJ was of course happy to do it.
Holding a purple-and-gold football he’d been given, JJ danced up a storm – intermittently lifting his arms or cupping hands to his ears in search of even more noise – and the crowd absolutely loved it. When JJ ended his moves with a dab to his right arm, the place went wild.
Hundreds of people in the section just behind him even chanted with appreciation: “JJ! JJ! JJ!”
“I think that’s got to be the number-one JJ moment we’ve had,” Jordy said with a big smile. “If LSU scores a touchdown here, then it’s definitely number one.”
Alas, the Tigers were stopped just short of the end zone on the last play of the game. JJ was crushed. But not for long.
One of the ball boys, Matthew Hood, an LSU junior, walked over and gave JJ a game ball to keep as a souvenir.
“They treated me like family,” JJ said as he left the field.
Soon thereafter, he was back in the locker room, helping the equipment staff collect game pants and jerseys to be laundered. He kept telling players the same thing: “I had fun with you guys today.”
Despite the pain of a tough loss, the feeling was clearly mutual. JJ had yet another football team pulling for him.
“He’s like a little brother now,” Arden Key said. “He needs to come around more.”