Schools unite to honor late Eagles standout Robertson

RANTOUL — Last Friday morning, the Rantoul football team's Twitter account released a moving image.

Various members of the program surrounded Monticello football coach Cully Welter, and the tweet's accompanying text expressed gratitude for the Sages' gridiron boss and both schools' athletic league, the Illini Prairie Conference.

The two parties had come together to establish a $1,000 scholarship in memory of Donnell Robertson, a 17-year-old Eagles football player and track and field athlete who died last month.

"It was a blessing and nice for the kids to see that," Rantoul coach Tom Hess said. "It's nice that we can be competitors but also respect each other and have the type of sportsmanship we can emulate for kids in our conference."

But the man who kickstarted this idea isn't among those featured in the social media photo.

"Really, the impetus for all of this came from Jim Risley," said Welter, referencing the former Mahomet-Seymour girls' track, wrestling and volleyball coach. "Ris contacted me (last week) because he really didn't want it to come from him."

Here's the connection: Risley's backyard contains an obstacle course frequented by a number of local prep football programs for training purposes.

Among them is Rantoul, and Risley met Robertson through that endeavor.

"Ris got to know Donnell and really took to him," Welter said. "So he contacted me to see, if he would put some seed money into the scholarship, if the conference would join in."

In all, Welter said, this one-year memorial scholarship received investment from Risley and officials at Monticello, a few other Illini Prairie programs and Mahomet-Seymour.

"I've got to be honest: Coming from Coach Welter and some of the coaches and people in the conference, I wasn't surprised," Hess said. "They're Hall of Fame people, class people."

The funds can go to any male Eagles student-athlete, but Hess hopes to direct them toward a boy who is both a football and track competitor because those were Robertson's ventures of choice.

"We promote kids doing multiple sports to try other things and get out there and participate," Hess said.

Robertson suited up at running back and linebacker for the Eagles football team in 2017, compiling 299 rushing yards and two touchdowns to go with 19 defensive tackles. During his junior track campaign, Robertson served as an alternate for Rantoul's state-qualifying 400-meter relay.

Roberston also was a hurdler who occasionally worked with independent coach Gary Spezia, also a tutor for Welter's daughter, Aliyah.

"I got to see him a little bit more in that capacity," said Cully Welter, who is the Monticello girls' track coach as well. "It's just a tragedy, and from a conference standpoint, you want to rally around kids like that if you can."

Hess thinks of Robertson whenever he's in the Rantoul weight room, as Robertson's name tops the charts of various lifting records. This scholarship, for Hess' money, is just another way to underscore Robertson's lasting influence.

"At this point, the best we can do is honor him and use his life and the things he did well as a demonstration for the rest of our guys," Hess said. "It's a reminder to appreciate life and appreciate every moment."

clikas@news-gazette.com

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