Though the accident happened in a blink of an eye, its effects will last forever for Rocky Stoutenburgh.
“I was at a graduation party actually and we left to go to my friend’s house. We were just hanging out and I started wrestling around with a buddy of mine and I got dropped on my head on a mattress and broke my back,” Stoutenburgh tells PEOPLE of the moment his life changed in 2006.
“I got airlifted to Ann Arbor hospital, and I don’t remember anything about the next couple of weeks. I was probably drugged up pretty good,” the 33-year-old from Detroit recalls. “I’m basically paralyzed from the neck down. I can move my shoulders, but that really doesn’t serve a purpose really.”
Stoutenburgh was 19 at the time and ready for the next chapter of his life. He had a job, a girlfriend, and regularly played ice hockey with friends. He was also good with his hands, having spent time working on a car he was looking forward to driving. Then, just like that, so much he had planned for was taken away.
“I had all types of things that I did that I obviously couldn’t do anymore,” he says, bluntly. “It definitely sucked.”
Though it was an arduous process, Stoutenburgh slowly adjusted to his new reality. But most of his days were spent watching television to keep himself occupied and entertained. He had a board listing the showtimes of different shows and regularly recorded ones he was worried about missing.
But without the use of his hands, getting into something like video games hadn’t crossed his mind — that is, until his brother found a way to make it possible.
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“My brother would come over and I would watch him play Xbox with my brother-in-law,” he recalls. “Then he just searched on the internet, trying to find a way for me to play video games and found the Quadstick online.”
The Quadstick is a hands-free way for disabled gamers to play their consoles or personal computers. The device — which comes in three different versions — contains a joystick that a user can operate with their mouth and one or more pressure sensors that users sip or puff on to perform actions in the game.
“At first, I didn’t really want to get it because I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be as good as you guys with this thing. It’s impossible,’ ” Stoutenburgh recalls. “But you somehow kind of get it. And I played all day and all night for years and years, to this day.”
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As Stoutenburgh’s skills progressed, he began playing increasingly complex games, eventually moving on to Call of Duty and Fortnite to face dozens of others in elimination matches.
“When you do something wrong, you learn not to do it that way,” he tells PEOPLE of how he’s learned to compete. “I just had to learn how to play games differently than most people play them, since I know I can’t do something that they can.”
“For example, I know I’m not going to be able to run up into an attic and kill a guy and such, and have as good of odds of pulling it off of another guy,” Stoutenburgh says. “So, I just find a way to get him out of the attic instead of going up in the attic. Three years of trying this and trying that, I’ve learned that that’s not a good idea.”
But not only has he played these games, but he’s also excelled in them, becoming one of the top competitive gamers in the country. These skills recently landed him a contract with Luminosity, a professional esports organization owned by Enthusiast Gaming.
“It was kind of an out of your body moment where you’re having a phone call, but you’re not,” Stoutenburgh — who goes by the moniker “RockyNoHands” online — recalls of the phone call that made his signing official. “You’re there, but you’re not there a moment.”
Adrian Montgomery, CEO Enthusiast Gaming, tells PEOPLE of Rocky: “He’s not only a great gamer, but a true inspiration — to those who have faced and overcome adversity, and all those who are chasing their dreams and passions. If we’re able to shine a light on and share his story among our 300 million gamers and esports fans, it’s a journey we’re glad to be on with him.”
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Video games, Stoutenburgh says, have given him a renewed purpose following the accident. Through them, he can still tap into the competitive spirit and momentarily be released from the constraints of his everyday life.
“I can tell you that, it’s almost like when I turn on the video games, you’re in a different world. You’re doing something different to take your mind off of the real world or whatever pain you have that day,” he says.
“It definitely helps out in terms of that and just a guy like me who doesn’t really have options. Job-wise or hobby-wise, or anything like that, you don’t have many options other than looking at things,” Stoutenburgh explains. “Being able to play video games at a level to where … well, I just made a video today. I was watching it, I was like, ‘Geez, man — damn I’m good.’ “