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Despite polio, Roberts family tree thriving thanks to 1920s Shriners Hospital

Roberts Shrine Family Photo
Posted at 3:05 PM, Jun 11, 2024

BILLINGS — As this year's East-West Shrine football all-stars work out for Saturday’s showdown, at least one player likely wouldn’t have been born without help from the Shriners Children’s Hospital just over 100 years ago.

Maddox Roberts is a defensive end from Billings Central. His great grandmother Irene survived the 1920s polio epidemic thanks to the very cause Maddox will play for Saturday — Shriners Hospitals for Children (now branded Shriners Children’s).

”She couldn’t really use the right side of her body much, her right arm and right leg," Maddox told MTN Sports recalling Irene's complications from the disease. "She lived to (age) 104 and doing that, especially with polio … I’m really inspired by her.”

Maddox's brother Maverick and his dad John are also inspired. All three will have played in the Shrine affair that delivers additional inspiration to a family tree that may not exist if not for the dedicated hospital.

“She went to the Shriners in 1923 when she was 6 years old and, you know, a lot of kids ... when they got polio, it was not a good result,” John said.

Growing up in Helena, John was close to his grandmother.

“She remembered stories of, really, it being a gathering of young children — all with polio, because it was almost a quarantine situation — and she talked about playing with them,” he recollected.

John stayed close to home playing football at Carroll College where he and Irene would ironically share professors.

“She would audit these classes throughout her 80s and 90s, and I wound up being in a theology class with her,” he said with a smile.

Class assignments were required to be typed. Having lost the use of her right arm to polio, Irene would write with her left hand, then lean on her grandson to type.

“And she would send me back to the dorms with trays of cookies,” John recalled of the informal trade off.

John would eventually marry Tara Thelen and the Shrine Hospital story would grow. Tara's dad Jim was treated there for club foot. He passed away at 66 before Maddox and Maverick were born, but they hear tales of his athleticism in football, basketball and track.

“Mom talks about, you know … because he had the club foot, he had the really small calves, but he was super fast despite it,” Maverick said.

The feeling is Grandpa Jim and Great Grandma Irene will be watching Saturday as Maddox embraces the Shrine family legacy. It’s an all-star game that Montana alone — over the last decade — has funded over $1 million to the hospital, most of any East-West Shrine Game in the nation, according to the group's website.

Saturday's 77th Montana East-West Shrine Game will be broadcast and streamed live across Montana Television Network platforms.

Meantime, Maddox will pull on his yellow jersey that night trying to repeat Maverick’s East win five years ago. Dad won his game playing for the West — and wearing red — in 1993. So, what happens if John nostalgically breaks out that red jersey for this game?

“I’m fine with it because I know he’ll always root for my side," Maddox said with a confident smile. "Go yellow.”