June 13, 2024

Richard Jacobs lies on a slice of pavement on Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, his face looking up at the night sky. In front of him, his Jeep Grand Cherokee he’d just driven back from his job with Con Edison. Behind him, his apartment building. Beneath him, a growing pool of blood.

It’s August 18, 2015, and two men had just approached him and demanded everything he had. But he had nothing, which they either didn’t believe or appreciate, so one of the men wielded a gun. Richard heard one shot ring out, but he feels no pain now. He tries to get up. He can’t.

“Please, not like this,” he prays.

He can’t die, not now. He has two young daughters, just 4 and 3 years old, who need him. He hangs on and is rushed to the hospital.

The bullet tore through his left arm, ricocheted off his shoulder, breaking it, then blazed toward his neck. “Paralyzed from the neck down,” the doctors tell his family, as Richard, 32, lies in an induced coma.

Three days later, when Richard opens his eyes, he looks around the hospital room and sees his cousin, Little Alicia. She’s just a few years younger than Richard, and they have always been so close, more like brother and sister, so he does the most natural thing in the world to him. He lifts his arm, ever so slightly, and reaches out for her.

Eight years later, Richard lifts his arm and reaches across his body.

“Took me a little while to get here because my body was fighting against me tonight,” he tells the dozen or so people tuned into his stream on this night in mid-June. Late Night Rocket League with ya boy Breadwinner1007, he has called tonight’s action.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he goes on. “It’s nothing but a towel on my arm. I just got my arm wrapped up because, for some reason, the left side of my body right now feeling like it got a small chill to it. Spinal cord injuries are strange sometimes, y’all.”

The doctors were only partially right back in 2015. Richard did injure his spinal cord, sustained a C7-T1 injury, one that left him with quadriplegia. But he is not paralyzed from the neck down. Which is why Richard can adjust the white towel draped over his chilled shoulder; why he can lift up his right arm to show his viewers how that side of his body feels just fine; why he can hold the controller to partake in tonight’s game of choice: Rocket League.

He considers this — streaming — a full-time job. His sessions will stretch on for seven or eight hours, mostly during nights and weekends, because that’s when his phone isn’t chirping and his oldest daughter, Destiny, who lives with him, is asleep. Richard sets up camp in his living room, the Brooklyn skyline to his back and a camera fastened to the 65-inch TV to his front. He logs onto his PC to livestream his games so more than 1,000 subscribers can tune in — from India and Kenya; Japan and Australia; Fiji and the UK — to watch as he competes in Rocket League.

This is what gaming has brought to Richard in this new chapter. Family in the form of streamers, and teammates, and a team — the Quad Gods — made up of five other gamers with quadriplegia who have traveled his same road. They see him: They understand the toll of living with quadriplegia. And he sees them: They show him how to go on living in his chair, in a body that fights him.

He joined back in 2019, when the Quad Gods was just a kernel of an idea. He had been at Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem one day, finishing up with the Transitions support group, where people living with quadriplegia met with the hospital’s in-patients, who were recently injured and starting to navigate the new shape of their lives. The group session had just wrapped when Angela Riccobono, who ran Transitions, pulled Richard aside to tell him about a pet project of hers. She and another doctor at the hospital, David Putrino, had their sights set on assembling an eSports team comprised exclusively of players with quadriplegia. All these years later, the doctors are now affectionately known as the Quadmother and Quadfather. They’ve become Richard’s family. So, too, have his fellow Quad Gods:

Prentice Cox, who in the summer of 2002, hopped on his motorcycle and raced uptown on FDR Drive after he got word Kobe Bryant was playing at Rucker Park. He never saw Bryant; only woke up in the hospital a few days later to find out he had crashed his motorcycle and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him with quadriplegia.

Blake Hunt, who suffered a broken neck in a high school football scrimmage two days before his senior year 16 years ago. He dove to tackle the running back, and collided with that running back’s knee. His neck snapped, and he would never walk again.

Nyree Stevens, who left a Brooklyn night club on Christmas Day in 2009, only for her friend to open fire on a group of people with whom she’d been fighting. A stray bullet caught Nyree in the neck, left her with a C3-C4 spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the neck down.

Sergio Acevedo, who lived for extreme sports, and rode his mountain bike in upstate New York back in 2006, attempted to leap over a rock, but didn’t complete the landing. He flew over the handlebars, then collided headfirst with a tree. The helmet saved his life, but his spinal cord was crushed: A C3-C4 injury, which left him able to move his shoulders and neck, but nothing else.

Alejandro Courtney, who went to Jones Beach one day during his summer break from community college in 2008, dove into a wave, but didn’t brace himself on takeoff. The current was strong enough to twist his body, and he sustained a C5-C6 injury. He’d regain 70% of movement in his arms, but would never regain movement in his legs.

And Chris Scott, who Richard only met two or three times, but who is chiefly responsible for bringing this family to him in the first place.

Chris wasn’t sure he could go on after a catastrophic skydiving accident left him with a punctured lung, a compound fracture of his femur, and a neck broken in five places. He was paralyzed from the chest down, and Riccobono and Putrino, both of whom were working with Chris, were desperate for something for him to latch onto. Then they discovered his love of gaming.

Chris was incredulous at first, skeptical that he’d find any takers to play with or against. He needed a community that wasn’t there, so he, along with Riccobono and Putrino, helped build it instead.

That community is here now, even though Chris is not.

He died in July 2019, four months after the idea for Quad Gods was born. He texted Riccobono that he was considering not coming in for a Quad Gods meeting one day that summer — he wasn’t feeling well — but, in the end, he couldn’t stay away. He showed, and after that day’s session the Quadmother sent him a text:

I thought you were a great captain today.

A few days later, he became septic and died. He’d just turned 32.

Now, four years after Chris’ death, Richard and his teammates sit in a tight ring in the Abilities Research Center — the very sub-basement where the group first came to life. Nearby is the exoskeleton robot that Prentice comes in twice weekly to use, and which allows people living with paralysis to stand, to take steps. A piano, painted blue in the corner, is decorated with affirmations. Today is going to be a great day. You are not alone. You will be found.

The group grows quiet as they consider who is not in the room with them. “You see him on Friday and then on Monday, he’s just …” Blake starts, then stops.

“It was shocking.”

Chris never got to compete with the Quad Gods as a fully formed team. But he’s there, still. Richard says they feel him. When they’re all together. When they play.

Blake and Prentice — Blake in a white Scottie Pippen jersey; Prentice in head-to-toe 49ers gear — wheel themselves to the ARC’s large-screen TV to duke it out in NBA 2K. (Prentice uses a standard-issue controller; Blake has an elaborate system of individual, oversized buttons he’s laid out on a desk in front of him and uses his hands to compress.) Nyree, the quiet one and lone woman on the team, stays in the back in her simple tee and jeans. Sergio and Richard watch the NBA 2K battle, each wearing their Quad God uniforms. Sergio designed the logo — though he, like Nyree, is paralyzed from the neck down, he uses his mouth to paint — and he sports it now, the shield with an interlocking Q-G and a set of red angel wings.

“I think about Chris every time I put this jersey on,” Richard says. “We had the idea of adding wings to try to represent him after he passed. That way, every time we put it on, we’ll have him in mind.”

For weeks after the shooting, Richard dreams that everything is fine. That he’s fine. There he is, playing basketball. There he goes, running around after his two daughters. Doing everything his body once managed with so much grace and so little effort.

It’s jarring, the lightning bolt of grief, every time he wakes up and grapples anew with all that he can’t do anymore. Not even breathe. On his own, anyway.

The ventilator is supposed to breathe for him. But he can’t talk with the breathing tube down his throat. His mind is there, whole, unbroken, unharmed, but he can’t give voice to it. He’s left to communicate using a letter board, blinking in rapid, staccato bursts once the person he’s talking to lands on the right letter.

It’s in this slow, painstaking way that Richard argues with his doctor about removing his ventilator.

“It feels like it’s taking my breath away, instead of giving me breath,” he blinks.

“It’s killing me.”

The doctor insists, no, it’s keeping him alive. Richard’s lungs might last 30 minutes on their own before they caved.

He’ll die without the ventilator, but he feels like he’ll die with it, too, so he tells the doctor one more time:

“If you don’t remove this ventilator, I’m going to find a way to pull it out on my own.”

And so he finds a way. He can only lift his right arm a few inches, but that’s all he needs to maneuver that arm between the ventilator and the blue tube running from the machine and into his mouth. He yanks and jerks his arm and, eventually, he succeeds. He wrenches the tube out.

That’s when Richard goes code blue.

He has so little time before his lungs won’t be able to do the work of keeping him alive. A team of doctors descends to rush him into emergency surgery, and he hears them pleading with him to just calm down, just relax, just be still. His adrenaline is outworking the anesthesia, and if he won’t go to sleep, they can’t get his breathing tube back in.

He gasps for breath. Then the doctors realize there’s only one person who can help Richard help himself. They run out for Little Alicia.

“Please, cousin,” she says. “If you don’t let them do this, you’re going to die.”

She starts to cry, and Richard manages to calm down as Little Alicia rubs his head. He drifts off, and when he wakes up again he’s back in recovery, with the ventilator safely in place. He looks at the contraption that’s giving him life, but stealing it, too. He’s unsure he’ll ever see the day when he’s not connected to it, and that feels like another kind of death. But he keeps hanging on.

Richard wishes he could say the day he ripped out his ventilator was his rock bottom. What does the bottom look like, anyway? Is it not wanting to go on breathing? Or is it wanting to breathe so badly on your own you don’t care if you try and fail? Is it leaving the hospital with a new body, feeling afraid and alone? Or is it not knowing how to — not even wanting to — live in this new body in your old world?

Because those were all depths Richard reached. After he was discharged from the hospital, he transferred to nursing homes, where he remained for 14 months — long after it was strictly necessary. He didn’t know how to go home.

Inside the apartment that Destiny’s mother offered to share with him after his release, he was confined to one room because her space wasn’t wheelchair-accessible. The kitchen was too small. He couldn’t make it to the bathroom. His aides bathed him in bed. Sometimes they’d wheel him to the living room where he’d watch a little TV, but such was the extent of his travels.

Outside his home, he fared worse.

“It took me almost five months to even want to go outside,” he says.

Once he did, he’d find himself fixated on other people’s legs. All these people walking, mindlessly, easily, like he once did and would never do again. He’d stare, then spiral.

It’s a common refrain, Riccobono says, for people restarting their lives with quadriplegia. How do I keep going?

Chris Scott was haunted by this question, more than just about anybody Riccobono has tried to guide in her 30 years helping people navigate spinal cord injuries and the havoc they wreak on bodies. He had been a skydiving instructor, and when a dust devil — a small, powerful whirlwind that looks and acts like a tornado — caused his parachute to collapse, he plummeted some 150 feet to the earth. Chris fell on top of his student, who died on impact, and then sustained a C3 spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

What Riccobono found, in the years after his accident, was a man who had, at one point, lived his life in motion. And then couldn’t move. A person who had thrived through his senses. And then couldn’t feel. He was nothing more than a floating head in the air, he told her. In a desperate bid to bring him back from the brink, Riccobono sought Putrino’s intervention, and so she traveled with Chris from her office through the tunnels of Mount Sinai to meet with Putrino in the ARC. What should have been a 10-minute journey took nearly an hour. Every 10 feet or so, Chris would roll his wheelchair to a stop and tell Riccobono he couldn’t go on. She’d coax him back. Then he’d stop again. Then she’d coax him back again.

He made it, at last, to Putrino’s office, where the doctor attempted to engage Chris on something he felt connected to. The answer was gaming. Putrino asked Chris to show him how he played. Chris directed Putrino to his backpack, where he kept his QuadStick. He proceeded to use the mouth-operated controller — sometimes he’d puff on the device, other times he’d sip — to soundly defeat Putrino in a game of NBA 2K.

“Right there and then,” Putrino says, “I said to him, ‘Have you considered joining a team?'”

The chance to play a game — and play that game with others — was something familiar. And that was everything.

“I’ve seen people die from loneliness,” Riccobono says. “People die from isolation.”

Richard has yet to reclaim parts of his community that his injury stole from him. In the years since he has left the hospital, when his family, which is scattered throughout the country — Pennsylvania and North Carolina — reunites, he can’t join. He tells them to go on without him, and he means it when he tells them to have fun in his absence. “‘Just make sure y’all take a lot of pictures,'” he says he’ll tell them. “‘I’ll be here when y’all get back.'” Then he stops. He cries, unable to say more.

This is why new communities — the Quad Gods, Riccobono’s Transitions — are so vital. After a Transitions meeting one day, Richard pulled Riccobono aside.

“Angela, this group saves lives.”

She thanked him, but he kept going, unsure she understood all he wanted to say.

“I was going to take my life,” he told her. “But then this group, and the love I have here …

“I changed my mind.”

Richard goes to Destiny’s middle school every time her team has a volleyball match. It’s in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, three miles away. His power wheelchair gets him to the building in nearly an hour, but that’s where his journey ends. Outside the building, looking in.

He travels to the school on sidewalks that aren’t made for him to get to a building that is not accessible to him — no ramps, no elevators. He’s never gotten the chance to sit in the bleachers to cheer her on. He sits outside, alone, waiting for her. All the enthusiasm he wants to expend in an overheated gymnasium, he releases instead when she walks through the school’s heavy doors. He hollers and sometimes she’ll let him know, “Dad, we lost,” but he doesn’t care, and he hollers some more.

But it’s a lot. The weight of all these things — small and enormous; momentous and ordinary — that this injury has stolen from him, it’s too much.

Just before he was shot, Richard had started helping Destiny learn how to swim. Now, she’s taking swim classes again, and she regales him with what she’s learning — how to burst off the pool wall then kick down her swimming lane. What Richard never got the chance to finish teaching.

He doesn’t want her to know the way it steals his breath when he makes it to the school but can’t see her volleyball match in person. That all these things she learns are reminders of what he lost. No, he wants her to know her father is strong. So when he drops something — a water bottle, say, that is more weight than his hands can handle now — and it rolls out of his reach, he won’t ask his aide for assistance. He’ll work and sweat and toil to retrieve it on his own. And when Destiny emerges from those school doors, as his heart breaks a little each time, he won’t cry. He hollers for his daughter instead.

“I’ve got to wear this mask like everything is OK,” he says. “When it’s really not.”

All of the Quad Gods wear their own masks.

Blake, who battles nerve pain all day, every day. He can sit in a crowded New York coffeeshop and never let slip what he’s going through.

“Right now, I feel like I’m sitting in water, being electrocuted,” he says.

And Prentice, who is in the midst of his fourth season as an assistant coach with Canarsie High’s football team in Brooklyn. On the last day of practice before school let out for summer, he couldn’t get to the field. There was a step between the parking lot and the entryway to the field, and someone — a student or coach or random passerby — who didn’t have to pay any mind to that six-inch incline, had moved the small wooden ramp he uses, tossed it aside under the metal bleachers.

So the Quad Gods must carve out spaces for themselves, evangelize for the team and bring believers into the fold.

First, Logitech, the electronics company. The organization donated practically all the equipment the Quad Gods use, the PCs they game on, the very uniforms they wear. Next, Mark Cuban, whose foundation made a donation; with that influx of money, the team bought the only equipment not covered by Logitech. Then the Brooklyn Nets, who have allowed the Quad Gods to use their training facilities.

Through all of these things, players reclaim a part of their life — gaming. All the Quad Gods, save Prentice, who uses a standard-issue controller, use adaptable devices. A standard controller is too small and requires the kind of fine motor skills that are beyond Richard at this point. He uses an ASTRO C40 TR instead, because it’s weightier and has extra grips. Blake rolls out an array of extra-large buttons, each roughly the size of his palm, on a mat in front of him and then uses a fist to tap each as necessary. And Nyree and Sergio, like Chris before them, use mouth-powered QuadSticks.

The miracle behind all of this is that, even if it’s just for a moment, the field is level. They play against each other and gamers without disabilities, and there is gratification in surprising people.

Prentice turned on Rocket League one day and was enjoying an especially good showing. He had mentioned to his opponent, in passing, that he was on an eSports team made up of people with quadriplegia. A few minutes later, with Prentice firmly in control, he heard the player on the other end of the headset chime in.

“I could have sworn you said you were quadriplegic.”

Prentice confirmed that’s what he did, in fact, say.

“Are you kidding me?”

But there are times, of course, when the realities of life with a catastrophic spinal cord injury push their way to the forefront.

Another night, another Rocket League faceoff, but this time Prentice teamed up with Richard. They were mid-game when Richard heard Prentice lament: “Man, I’m pissing myself.”

Prentice’s catheter had come undone, he said, and he had announced as much to Richard — and the players they were up against that night.

The truth is, both nights are emblematic of this Quad Gods experience. And that, too, is the idea. The Quad Gods fought to exist; now they push to coexist.

Gaming as an exercise, isn’t rehabilitative for them, in the truest sense of the word. Even if the team members report back to Putrino that their hands are feeling nimbler because they’re repeating the same motions thousands of times, or that they feel less neuropathic pain because of the distraction of the game at hand, the act of gaming is not restoring any physical capabilities they have lost. If that’s what this team was after, Putrino would tailor their controllers so they had to, say, reach for a specific button and get some shoulder range of motion in the process. But that’s not this team’s aim.

“The point of the Quad Gods is to win,” the Quadfather says. “The point of the Quad Gods is to kick ass.”

Richard arrives at Destiny’s school to pick her up from another volleyball match.

When she swings open the school doors, he’s there, waiting. The two head toward the bus stop together to catch the city bus back to their apartment. They talk — about her day, about the game — and it’s not until Destiny inches up just a hair ahead of him that he notices the back of her hoodie: the shield, the interlocking Q and G, the red angel wings spread open like a flame.

“Oh, shoot,” he says. “You got on the Quad Gods hoodie?”

“I always wear it,” she says. Like it’s no big deal at all. Like it doesn’t make Richard’s heart swell to the point it feels too big for his chest.

He smiles so hard his face starts to ache.

A few weeks later, Richard’s face aches again. It took an entire season and a championship run, but Destiny’s team plays a title game in a school in Brooklyn that is wheelchair-accessible. He takes the elevator to the gym and parks his chair on the sideline of the gym floor to, at last, watch his daughter compete up close.

“They probably thought I was at the NBA Finals game,” Richard says. The moment, so long in coming, is joyous. It is relief.

When the game is over (with a victory in hand; “Destiny’s one of the best servers on the team,” Richard says, sounding like every rhapsodic father ever) he finds his daughter. He was expecting elation, instead he finds her weeping.

Destiny has misplaced her favorite sweatshirt, she tells him. She had put her Quad Gods hoodie down, and now it’s lost. And it’s then that he realizes how much this thing that means so much to him — this Quad Gods experiment — also means to her.

This is Richard’s great joy, the discovery that this team means so much to so many people. In January, he and Sergio, as a duo, made the finals of the adaptive Rocket League tournament Logitech hosted for disabled gamers. The night of the championship round, they made their way to OS NYC, an eSports lounge in Lower Manhattan, and a village followed them. Richard and Sergio set up camp by the bar’s oversized projector screen, and behind them, sat their team. The rest of the Quad Gods, yes, and the Quadmother and Quadfather, of course. but their families too. Their friends. People they didn’t know at all, just fans along for the ride. And Chris. He had died nearly four years earlier, but the weight of him was there, his absence a presence. In the dim of the lounge lighting, this village chanted their names and cheered their victories, then their loss in the finals, because even if they were defeated, this was as far as they’d ever made it in a tournament.

They returned to competition this summer, contending in another iteration of Logitech’s adaptive tournament. They fell short of the finals this time, but they plan to be back for more. More of the glory of winning. More of this village that has come along for the ride. Just more.

Here is Putrino’s wish list for his Quad Gods: a Quad Gods institute — a physical space that is accessible to them, where this team can show up every day; that is constructive for them as competitive gamers; that is a home base for anyone who wants to become a Quad God. The team gets something like 200 emails a week from awestruck disabled gamers saying they didn’t know something like this was possible for them. From people wondering how they can join, too.

That is the Quad Gods’ magic.

“People don’t end up defining themselves by how they’re limited, but by their possibilities,” Riccobono says. “Because it’s hope. It’s about hope.”

A few years ago, in the heart of the pandemic, a teenager named Andy made his way to Yonkers at his cousin’s beckoning, to play basketball at a new court. They played for hours, played on as day melted into night. It was dark when gang members mistook Andy and his cousin for rival gang members; Andy was shot in the neck. He wound up at Mount Sinai for his in-patient care, which is how he found the Quadmother and the Quad Gods. At Riccobono’s and Putrino’s urging, Andy came to the ARC, and there, in this sub-basement that has morphed into the beating heart of the Quad Gods, he was offered a lifeline in the form of possibility.

Richard and the Quad Gods surrounded Andy. Here were people who forged a path he could follow.

Here is how you can carry a QuadStick.

Here is how you can carry this piece of your old life into your new one.

Here is how you can carry on.

They were his tour guides into this new world of gaming. His soon-to-be teammates, the Quad Gods, are working with Logitech to procure Andy’s uniform — and one for their other newest recruit, Alex — and make his onboarding official.

“From the first moment I talked to him, I knew he would be a perfect fit for the team,” Richard says.

It began with a QuadStick — Chris’ — and lives on with another, this time Andy’s.

Just before he died, Chris left a Quad Gods training session and, on his way out, paused to ask Putrino a question. “Can we really pull this off?”

The Quadfather was quick in his assurance. “You already are.”

They continue to pull this off. Richard spoke to Andy on Andy’s first visit to the ARC and saw a place for him on the team. Someone who was driven by competition, like him. Someone who was looking for a way to keep that piece of himself, like him. There was Andy, a gamer, just like the rest of the Quad Gods. The gamers. The possibilities.

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