Among Rori Schreiber’s earliest recollections is kicking a soccer ball around her family’s yard.
As a youngster, it was almost as if her ball was attached to one of her feet. Wherever Rori went, so did the ball.
Schreiber, who began playing soccer at the age of four and is now a senior at Bentworth High School, committed last year to West Liberty University for soccer. Last Monday, Bentworth hosted a gathering as she signed a National Letter of Intent with the Hilltoppers.
A three-time all-section and two-time All-WPIAL player, Schreiber is fourth in school history with 55 goals and also third in assists.
For many athletes, earning a full ride to play at the collegiate level is a goal and many times their stories are similar.
However, Schreiber’s story is unique. Only her closest friends, and even fewer teammates, have known her whole story.
In March of 2014, as a sixth-grader, Schreiber was playing soccer and mentioned to her parents that her ankle was bothering her. Schreiber’s doctor said she had a sprain and put her foot in a protective boot. A few weeks later, she began to experience hip pain. She continued to play, and eventually the pain began to radiate throughout her entire body.
On the morning of June 18, 2014, Schreiber could barely get out of bed because she was in so much pain. Her mother, Michelle, took her to the family’s pediatrician, who sent Rori to Children’s Hospital.
After being wheelchaired into Children’s, Rori went through a series of blood tests, X-Rays and an MRI.
Later that day, the family met with a rheumatologist and she informed the family that Rori had Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA).
JIA is the most common type of arthritis in children. It is caused when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues, causing inflammation in joints and potentially other areas of the body.
“My initial reaction was shock and disbelief and I asked, ‘Why me?’” said Schreiber, who has a 4.1 GPA and is the vice president of the National Honor Society. “I could not understand how I went from being an extremely active girl who was involved in many sports and activities to not being able to walk or move my body. I was really angry. You never think something like this could happen to you until it actually happens.
“It turned my world upside down and I didn’t look at myself as a normal teenager anymore.”
Rori was immediately given high doses of prednisone to bring down her inflammation as well as several other medications to begin treating her condition.
That summer, while Rori was preparing to enter seventh grade, everything was a blur for the family.
“Our weeks were filled with doctor appointments, including with an eye specialist because JIA can cause vision issues, to physical therapy three times a week due to severe muscle atrophy and joint pain,” said Michelle, who is a secretary with the Bentworth School District.
Rori was told that she would not be allowed to play soccer that fall.
“I was terrified that I would never be able to play soccer again and was mostly afraid that I would not be a part of a team anymore,” Rori said. “Being a part of a team has always been really important to me.”
Doctors recommended that Rori join a local swim team. She did along with her younger twin sisters, Reagan and Mallory, who were freshmen this past season on the Bentworth soccer team.
“The doctors said to try swimming because it would not put as much pressure on my joints as soccer,” Rori said. “I hated swimming because it was more of an individual sport and I missed being part of a team.”
In October of 2014, Rori went back to Children’s Hospital. While the medications were helping, they were not doing enough. It was recommended that she start taking Enbrel.
“The side effects listed can be startling, but we had to take a leap of faith and know that God was guiding this doctor to help us make the best decision possible,” Michelle said. “Rori started the injections that month and within weeks, the results were amazing.”
Rori returned to playing soccer for her eighth-grade season and she struggled.
“The first year back was really rough,” she admitted. “My friends and I were at an age where everyone was starting to mature and I felt like I was a step behind everyone physically and mentally. I was cautious in the beginning because my joints were still very swollen and painful and it took me a while to realize needing to take a break was alright.”
Since then, Rori has had several minor relapses, primarily in one or two joints, and she takes multiple weekly injections along with several other medications that help her manage JIA.
“The daily regimen of medication is a daily reminder of her illness, but one that allows Rori to now live a normal life,” Michelle said.
The Schreibers chose to keep Rori’s situation close to the vest.
“Only four or five of my teammates know and I only told my really close friends,” Rori said. “I never wanted my diagnosis to become an excuse for me and I did not want people seeing me as weak. I kept it to myself for a long time because I never wanted people to feel bad for me.
“When I was first diagnosed, I missed a lot of school for doctors appointments so my friends wanted to know what was going on. The ones who knew were really supportive, have been there for me and have made sure I am OK when I have rough days.”
Tyler Hamstra, the successful head coach of Bentworths girls soccer team, was made aware of Rori’s condition the summer between her eighth- and ninth-grade years.
“I really didn’t know what to think at first, but I felt bad for her because it was during a time that she was making huge strides in soccer, really falling in love with it and putting everything into it,” Hamstra said. “I was a little nervous because I knew she was instantly going to be one of the players to build the program around and I wasn’t sure how this would affect her.”
In Rori’s four years with the Bearcats, three of them ended in section championships. As a junior, she helped Bentworth reach the WPIAL finals.
“Truthfully, you’d never know Rori had a condition. She never complained and never talked about it much,” Hamstra said. “I know she had some flareups but it never slowed her down. I think it is a real testament to her to see her overcome such adversity to become one of the best players and most accomplished players in school history.”
“Rori is a fighter,” he continued, “and a leader who I will miss so much. She is going to be ultra-successful in life.”
Rori, who will major in human biology at West Liberty and hopes to get into a physician’s assistant program when she completes her four-year degree, says she still takes precautions, especially in the winter, because of her condition.
“When it gets cold, I have to stay warm because my joints will get stiff and I also have to wrap some of my joints to make sure I won’t damage them more if I fall,” she said. “Because of my diagnosis, my joints are more frail and susceptible to breaking so I need to make sure they are supported.”
When walked across the pitch on Senior Night, back on Oct. 9, with her father, David, the middle school principal at Bentworth, and Michelle, Rori reflected on her journey.
“I have a very strong faith, and since I was diagnosed I have always known that God has a plan for me,” she said. “Walking out there with my parents after all we have overcome, it showed me that plan and His plan for me is bright. With so many family members, friends, coaches and teammates there to support me, I understood that everything I have gone through is part of his plan.”
Rori said that the time was right to make her condition public.
“I want to show people that everyone has something they are struggling with but that it doesn’t define you,” she said. “No matter what you are going through, you have to make the best of it.”
Rori hopes she can become a role model and provide motivation for other youngsters fighting an illness or physical ailment.
“Words cannot begin to describe how proud we are of Rori for deciding to let others know about her condition,” Michelle said. “I pray that Rori’s story will reach other kids who are struggling with this condition or any condition and inspire them to keep going and to not give up.
“I think it will help a lot of people, especially younger people, to know that it is alright to struggle with something and that you don’t have to hide your pain and struggles,” she said. “I hope it shows people that even though you may be dealing with something that is hard to overcome, you can do it and do whatever you dream of as long as you work hard. Don’t let it hold you back.”