The day she found out her first child would almost certainly need both legs amputated, a doctor asked Rochelle Benton a pointed question:
Do you want to get an abortion?
And frankly, she was a little bit offended.
“I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ ” she recalls. “ ‘He’s gonna be fine. I mean, his heart works, his organs look fine.’ So I wasn’t afraid.”
That’s because she was born with the same genetic condition – an extreme form of an incredibly rare disorder called tibial dysplasia that leads to missing tibia bones. She’d had both legs amputated above the knee when she was 18 months old.
It’d be a little bit difficult, she remembers thinking about her baby, but if I’ve survived this long and I live a happy life, why shouldn’t he?
Since then, Rochelle’s faith in Landon’s ability to survive and thrive has been unflagging. Yet there were things she couldn’t foresee on the day of that pivotal sonogram – an insecurity she hadn’t felt yet, pain she hadn’t yet endured, and a profound turnaround to come.
“Basketball,” she says, “has completely changed everything.”
‘They took it easy on me’
Rochelle’s parents were just 18 when she was born. Her disability blindsided them.
It looked, she says now, like a severe case of club foot, on both sides. Doctors eventually told them she would be stuck in a wheelchair for life – unless her legs were amputated, which would allow her to get prosthetic limbs. (In addition, both she and Landon have split hand syndrome; she is missing two fingers on her right hand and Landon is missing the middle finger on his right hand.)
The surgery was a no-brainer, since her mom wanted Rochelle walking. Running, however, was another story.
“They were worried I was gonna get hurt,” Rochelle says, so they discouraged her from being very active – with only moderate success.
“I would play around at home, climb trees, gymnastics-type things. My cousin used to do dance, so I would try to pretend like I was her. ... When I was in elementary school, I climbed to the top of the jungle gym and got scared because I couldn’t get back down. My tall third-grade teacher comes out there and she was so mad because she was like, ‘I told you not to climb up there.’ But I had to try it. ... In eighth grade, I got an award for being in gym because I’d dress out every day no matter what.”
And (surprise!) she never got hurt.
The public schools she attended in Waxhaw were devoid of other kids with physical disabilities similar to hers, though, and her family was never introduced to adaptive sports. So Rochelle’s exposure to athletics was limited to being someone her able-bodied classmates “took it easy on.”
“I always felt like I was the only person like me in the world,” she says. “The first amputee I can remember seeing was Landon.”
‘It was a reality check’
The moment that the hospital blanket was pulled away to reveal her 15-month-old son’s freshly bandaged stumps was the moment his life – and hers – flashed in front of Rochelle Benton, then just 21 years old.
She’d known there was a risk. Tibial dysplasia is hereditary, and she says doctors told her there was a 50-50 chance any child she had would be born with it.
“But that’s when it hit me,” she says of the surgery. “It was a reality check. I finally felt every fear that they (my parents) must have felt. It was like the weight of the world came crashing on my shoulders. You go, ‘Did I make the right decision?’ I mean, you can’t take it back at that point. It was done. So it was very hard. I kept myself together until I left the room, and then ... I just had to be by myself.”
Still, she was sure: If I could do it, he could, too.
Problem was, at some point along the way, she started doubting herself. She’d been put on bed rest seven months into her pregnancy with Landon; as a result, her husband Mike took over most of the cooking, which she says involved “lots of butter.” They found out they were expecting two more children – fraternal twins Emma and Kayden (who would both be born able-bodied) – shortly before Landon’s surgery.
She finally returned to her artificial legs when the twins were about 7 months old, and in the nearly three years she was off of them, she’d put on about 100 pounds. She was so heavy that readjusting to being upright caused agonizing back and hip pain; a steady diet of painkillers were the only thing that provided relief.
Meanwhile, Landon was proving to be an even more active kid than Rochelle had been, emboldened by a mom who helped him feel less different in the world than she had.
If there was an opportunity to go outside, he took it. If he saw a tree while he was out there, he tried to climb it. Landon did have prosthetic limbs, but he was perfectly happy navigating playgrounds on “stubbies” – the custom-fitted pieces of rubber that cover his stumps, so that he can move around on them with maximum mobility.
So when Mike Godsey recruited him for Charlotte’s Rollin’ Hornets wheelchair basketball organization, Landon happily ditched Boy Scouts (too much talking about camping, not enough actual camping, he says) and started learning to dribble and shoot from his wheelchair.
Just 6 years old at the time, he initially couldn’t heave a shot high enough to get through the baskets, set at 8 feet for youth teams. So he improvised, practicing and eventually mastering a method of shooting by slamming the ball onto the hardwood in front of him to give it the necessary height.
Landon was hooked. And Rochelle – who hung out during practices among the other kids’ able-bodied parents – began to feel like she might be on the wrong side of the sidelines.
If he could do it, she thought, maybe I could, too.
“So I came out and I practiced with them a few times (four years ago),” she says. “But I was still going through all the pain and everything in my back and my hip, and I was overweight, and I couldn’t keep up.”
She bowed out, but swore she’d back.
Butter and other saturated fats were the first thing to go.
Chicken, rice and vegetables became a staple on the Benton dining table. She bought a FitBit and focused on step goals, and – by coincidence – the family moved into a two-story house during what she calls her “year of transformation.” She found every excuse she possibly could to go up and down the stairs. She’d do laps endlessly around the neighborhood on her prosthetic legs.
Rochelle was on a mission, determined to do the thing she’d missed out on as a kid herself: participate in a team sport on a level playing field, among people who wouldn’t go easy on her.
Within a year and a half, she’d shed those 100 extra pounds, was pain-free and ready to try again. There was just one more thing she wanted: Landon’s blessing.
‘There’s a bond that they have’
Landon – big personality, bold fashion statements (check the faux-hawk), totally secure on his stubbies – comes off as older than his 14 years, while it hardly seems possible that Rochelle – fresh-faced and quiet – could be 34.
And when they saunter up the sidewalk at SouthPark mall to greet a reporter, Landon is ribbing his mom about parking so far away, like a brother might tease a sister, while Rochelle won’t stop apologizing for being late.
Before long, they’re finishing each other’s sentences.
Landon: “She barely ever goes in my room ’cause of my –”
Rochelle: “Bearded dragons. He has –”
Landon: “Three of them. She doesn’t –”
Rochelle: “I don’t like them.”
They both laugh – at, and with each other. But she was serious when she recalled her reservations about getting involved with the Rollin’ Hornets.
“(The team) had been trying to talk another mom into playing, and her daughter was not OK with it,” she says. “That mom didn’t want to take away from her child. So I wanted to make sure I wasn’t taking away from his spotlight.”
Landon sighs, smirks and rolls his eyes. “She always kept asking me, ‘Are you OK with me doing basketball?’ ‘Are you OK with me doing basketball?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, Mom. I like you being at basketball!’ ”
That was all she needed to hear.
Today, Rochelle and Landon are the Rollin’ Hornets’ only parent-child combo. In the past three seasons, Rochelle has developed into one of her team’s most dependable players and recently helped launch the Rollin’ Hornets’ first all-women’s team; her coach, Donnie Langford, says she could someday be good enough to play for a U.S. Paralympic team.
And Landon? He so impressed Langford with his skills that he’s allowed to practice with his mom’s adult squad every week. (Says Landon: “They have learned not to treat me like a kid or I will score on them.”)
Which means for a few hours every week, this mother and son are on the basketball court taking shots, setting screens and scrambling after loose balls as equals, bonded by their pastime but also by a biological connection that Rochelle struggles to articulate.
So Mike Godsey, Landon’s coach, gives it a try.
“The old saying is you love all your kids equally, and I do believe that’s true,” he says, “but there’s a bond that Rochelle and Landon have that parallels the relationship that our team members have with each other. It’s just this unwritten acceptance.
“You know, most of our kids, most of the time they’re the only kid in the entire school with a physical disability. So every part of each day, they’re different, and it is a very obvious difference – usually the walker, the wheelchair, the crutches, the prosthetic that makes them different. People will stare. Well, that gets old. So when they come into practice, there’s 30 other kids rolling around, and the (able-bodied people) become the oddballs. It’s basically the real world, flipped.”
When Rochelle and Landon finish the interview at SouthPark, the ribbing re-commences. They argue about how to get back to their car: Rochelle wants to try to re-trace the circuitous path that got them there. But Landon insists there’s a shortcut, and points toward a long flight of steps.
Wearing his stubbies and a smile, he turns, she follows, and the two of them head for those stairs.
About the Rollin’ Hornets
▪ It consists of six wheelchair basketball teams (three junior, two adult and one women’s), all of which are registered members of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Currently 35 children and 25 adults are in the program.
▪ Anyone with a permanent lower-body physical disability is eligible.
▪ The season runs August to April, with games October to April.
▪ The program is 100 percent volunteer-run, with no corporate sponsors. Its primary source of funding is the nonprofit Abilities Unlimited of the Carolinas.