This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2020 Nebraska Football Yearbook. Never miss a Yearbook, or any issue of the magazine, with a subscription to Hail Varsity.
Cool, crisp air blew between people awaiting a special announcement to be made on a stage east of Memorial Stadium on September 27, 2019. ESPN’s College GameDay was in town, building its elaborate set for the next day’s Nebraska-Ohio State game. It only added to the excitement of the big news: Nebraska was getting a $155 million, 350,000-square-foot football facility, a new stand-alone, state-of-the-art home for Nebraska football operations. With athletics staff, VIPs, recruits, and a crowd assembled to kick off the “Go Big” campaign, only one football player spoke on stage that day—Wan’Dale Robinson.
Robinson had enrolled the previous January as the highest- rated recruit in the 2019 class. He was calm on stage as he waited his turn to speak. Athletic Director Bill Moos, Coach Scott Frost and Chancellor Ronnie Green spoke about what the new project would do for Nebraska athletics. Seated in the first chair next to the podium, Robinson was next to senior soccer star Sinclair Miramontez. Speaking off the cuff, he mentioned from the podium that he hoped the new facility would attract more recruits like himself. After the event, Moos went directly to greet Robinson before leaving the stage.
It wasn’t just his play on the field that led him to the stage that day. Up to that point in his Husker career, Robinson had only appeared in four college games. How could a true freshman be ready for that historic moment with two days’ notice? His ability to command the stage at that ceremony stems from being built for something greater by his upbringing.
“Who is the best player on the field? I am. I don’t care if Randy Moss or whoever’s on the field, you have to know you are the best player out there.” – Dale Robinson, Wan’Dale’s Father
Dale Robinson started his son in football when Wan’Dale was 5 years old, still too young to play tackle football in their hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky. Wan’Dale was supposed to be playing flag football, but his father felt it taught bad mechanics. Someone the family knew had a 6-year-old son, so Dale used that kid’s birth certificate to slide Wan’Dale into tackle football early. The Robinsons drove 55 miles every day to football practice in Louisville.
From an early age, you could see Wan’Dale’s advanced skillset. He played tailback with 6- and 8-year-olds that year. He thrived against older competition. He scored a few touchdowns that first year, but if you had film of him running then and in high school, you’d see the same style of runner. When Wan’Dale was 6, Dale made a highlight tape for him and that was the first time the Husker offensive weapon went viral on YouTube.
He’s always been the smallest guy on the field, but also the best. He enjoyed playing football, and it came to him naturally. Every time Wan’Dale steps on the field he believes he is the best, a mindset that carries over today. His youth teams practiced against older teams and they enjoyed getting hits on the smaller Wan’Dale.
But he didn’t let that deter him or break his spirit.
“He was on the ground and I’d be like, ‘You ready to go home? No? OK get up, go back
in again,’” Dale said. “Ever since then, that’s just been who he is, the heart to say, “I’ll take a hit and get back up.’ Some people are taught to have heart, so I just feel like that right there was the start of Wan’Dale Robinson.”
That belief in himself was on full display the week before the “Go Big” event as the Huskers took on Illinois. That day, Wan’Dale helped lead Nebraska to victory, carrying the ball 19 times for 89 yards in place of an injured Maurice Washington, and catching eight passes for 79. Wan’Dale scored his first collegiate touchdown in the first half of that game and added two more as Nebraska rallied for a 42-38 win.
“We got one there. We got a real guy there,” Frost said after the game. “Not just from a talent perspective but from a heart perspective. He wanted the ball. He wanted to take over that game and in a lot of ways he did. I’m glad he’s wearing scarlet and cream.”
“If don’t have to worry about why it’s happening to you. Those things happened to you but also for you.” – Dale Robinson
Wan’Dale was 6 months old the first time Dale was incarcerated on drug charges. When Dale got out of prison, his son was 4, young enough that they didn’t need to explain where his father had been. In an alternate universe, Dale would have had the same accolades his son earned through athletics. As Wan’Dale’s mom, Vickie, said, Dale was the same type of athlete in high school, but he made the wrong choices.
Dale and Wan’Dale were both star athletes in high school. Dale excelled as a quarterback at Franklin County High School. Wan’Dale was a do-everything weapon for Western Hills, Franklin County’s cross-town rival. Dale ended up being one
of the first people in Frankfort to get a Division I scholarship, while Wan’Dale received scholarship offers from virtually every school in the country.
Their parallel paths included more than athletics. They both worked the same high school jobs, at a pool and at a masonry company. Dale and Wan’Dale have a shared bond over a deep love for their mothers. Vickie lives with the nerve condition multiple sclerosis, better known as MS. Wan’Dale says the driving force behind his dedication to football is to help make his mom’s situation better.
In many ways his and his dad’s stories are similar, yet they’ve taken different paths. Breaking the generational curse is something that Wan’Dale has thought about throughout his life.
“I don’t think I’d be the same way I am now if those things didn’t happen,” Wan’Dale said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I kind of had to grow up a little
bit earlier than most kids with my mom going through MS and my dad being gone. So, not always having my dad around, I knew that I just had to grow up and I had to be a man at a young age. Just seeing him now and what he’s achieved is an example for me.”
“This is just normal. This is our family. It is what it is. He’s a very special young man.” – Kelley Hawkins, a close family friend
The story of the Robinson and Hawkins families goes way back. Dale and Kelley Hawkins met over football. Hawkins and her sisters were managers of the high school football team, and their father was very active with the team, running the chain gang, keeping stats and supporting the booster club even though he didn’t have any sons. He was close with Dale and his younger brother, Nathan, so the families became intertwined.
When Wan’Dale was 6, Dale went to federal prison on conspiracy charges related to the trafficking of cocaine. Everyone knew Dale would be going away for a long time and from that point forward Hawkins treated Wan’Dale like a son. Wan’Dale spent holidays with the Hawkins family and stayed with them for weeks at a time. Kelley’s kids consider him their sibling and he feels the same. The Hawkins family is close with Wan’Dale’s mom, Vickie, as well. When Dale went away, Hawkins’ husband stepped in and coached Wan’Dale and their son from age 7 all the way through high school.
They all describe Wan’Dale as being athletically advanced, hard- working and mature for his age. For Hawkins, that’s how he always has been.
“He has another gear (on the field) that most kids his age don’t have,” Hawkins said. “He was an excellent student that never got in trouble. He just always wanted the best for himself. Whatever that was, he was going to do it. There would be no stopping him. No matter what it was.”
During that time, Dale was “at school” 20 minutes away and Wan’Dale and Vickie went to visit him every weekend. Everything changed when Wan’Dale was
8. Dale transferred to a federal prison in New Jersey. Over the last six years of the sentence, Wan’Dale saw his dad twice. Dale did his best to help raise his son by talking to him. He tried to teach him not to follow his example. He kept the conversations basic––making sure that Wan’Dale kept his grades up and was respectful to his mom. Those were the things he knew his son could build on one day. Still, it was difficult knowing that so much was happening that he couldn’t be part of.
“That’s trauma. It’s heartbreaking,” Dale said. “But it’s gratifying to know that your son’s out there doing what he loved to do. Something that you started him in. The joy and the pain are mixed together because you can’t be there cheering him on. You can’t be in the stands or whatever the case may be. You just can’t be there and it’s heartbreaking.
“It’s super hard and you have to be in the situation to totally understand. You lay down at night and wonder, ‘Is someone at his game? Are they making sure he’s OK?’ That’s the stuff you think about, and then you get mad at yourself sometimes. Because, damn, I did this to my kids. I didn’t do it to me, I did it to my kids. I left my kids to fend for themselves.”
Something had to change.
“I knew I was going to come back and be somebody different. I will be a different man. A man that can be seen as an example, not someone that could just keep giving you advice.” – Dale Robinson
Change sparks in people for different reasons and at different times. For Dale, that spark occurred when looking through the glass to tell his tearful 6-year- old son that he would be going away again. There would be no more drives to football practice. No shopping or fun times at Chuck E. Cheese. Dale spent that time in prison growing his hair into the dreadlocks he still has. They are symbolic of his becoming a different man.
When Dale was released from prison, Wan’Dale was a freshman in high school. Dale got to see his son play in his first freshman football scrimmage. On Wan’Dale’s first play from scrimmage at running back, he scored a touchdown.
“This is phenomenal,” Dale said. “He has turned out to be a great kid. To get to start for varsity as a freshman, I’m like, ‘This is the same story because I started as a freshman.’ Just seeing him out there for the first time, I could have cried but probably didn’t because of all the people. I could have broken down because of joy.
“You can tell that’s my kid. You can tell physique-wise that’s Dale Robinson’s kid.”
Wan’Dale dominated Kentucky high school football, totaling 118 offensive touchdowns. He ended up second in Kentucky-scoring history with 781 career points. Wan’Dale’s teammates could always count on him to carry a heavy load. By today’s standards of recruiting, it took a while for
Wan’Dale to start getting college offers. That didn’t happen for him until his junior year. Even as he saw others around him getting offers, he didn’t give up. He made a plan.
Wan’Dale sat down with Dale and Dale’s wife, Taylor, with a list of football camps strategically planned so they wouldn’t interfere with his seven-on-seven schedule. He listed which ones Dale or Vickie could take him to. He also knew which ones would fit him best.
“The schools that were sending me letters, I went to those camps because I knew that they had at least seen my film and messaged my high school coach,” Wan’Dale said. “They said they were interested, they just needed to see me in person. At the end of my sophomore year, going into my junior year, I went to, I think, six camps. Out of those six camps, I came away with about six offers. Then more offers came my junior year.”
That day is one of Taylor’s favorite moments with him. It was inspiring to her to watch him strategize his summer so he could become a national name.
At that point, Wan’Dale was training 50 minutes away every weekend in Louisville. At first, he made sure that Dale, Taylor, or Vickie was available to drive him. Once he had his license and a car, he drove himself.
“It got to the point where it was normal,” Wan’Dale said. “I just knew I had to go up there and do what I had to do to get better. I knew working out in Louisville was the best thing for me. It was going to get me to the position I wanted to be in.”
The place Wan’Dale wanted to be turned out to be Nebraska after an initial verbal commitment to Kentucky. Now that Wan’Dale is in Lincoln, Dale makes sure
to show up to every game. It’s important to him because he missed so many games when his son was growing up. He knows Wan’Dale appreciates the show
of support and it will really hit him once he has kids of his own someday. The Hawkins family also attended several Nebraska games during Wan’Dale’s freshman season.
“I will be the blueprint that will break the generational curse with my kids and set them up for generational wealth.” – Dale Robinson
The freedom to be able to attend those games drove Dale owns his to own business. The concept of Guru Fitness was born when Dale was in prison. Once released, he applied to every gym he could but wasn’t getting anywhere as a convicted felon.
“Christmas of 2015, I knew I was going to own a gym,” Dale said. “My son comes into our bedroom. I was married to his mom at the time, and he said, ‘What do you got for me for Christmas?’ I told him I got nothing for him, and he broke down.
“So, on Christmas Day, I literally started posting workouts in my garage on my phone, $10 a session for everyone. Two people showed up. But I didn’t quit. Some days nobody showed up. One day might have six or seven people. So I said, ‘You know what? I’m not working two jobs, this is going to be my job,’ and it took off. I started with two or three people to now having over 200 people and my own gym.”
The change that started the day he told his son he would be going away now feels complete. Dale wanted to be somebody his kids could see didn’t let anything stop him from reaching his goals and dreams. He’s driven to continue beating the odds by thriving and wants his kids to understand what it means to say your goals out loud and work for them. For the Robinsons, persistence is a family value.
“Just being able to see what he’s been through and where he’s at now has pushed me to be the best I can be,” Wan’Dale said. “He went from nothing to something. He worked real hard for everything he’s got now.”
“He’salways been a leader. We worked almost a year ahead of time to try to get him ready to be able to leave high school early. By the time he got to his real, first semester of senior year, he had pretty much taken everything he needed. For two of his hours, he volunteered at the middle school and mentored all these young boys, some of which still follow him.” – Kelley Hawkins
In his first season at Nebraska, Wan’Dale caught the most passes and totaled the most receiving yards by any true freshman in school history. An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, he was named a two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week. Despite injuries limiting his production over the final three games, his impact on the team went beyond his role as wide receiver. He challenged his teammates to approach the turbulent season with a strong work ethic, persistence, and the right mentality.
At the new facility announcement, he said, “I already realize the impact sports can have on you and everything that it gives to you. This place stands for commitment, excellence, championships, and I feel like this facility is going to help us achieve that even more.”
The championship mentality is leading with your goal in mind. When Wan’Dale believed he was good enough to play college football, he set the goal, made plans, and worked for it. In high school, Dale’s wife, Taylor, listened to Wan’Dale doing a phone interview. She was blown away by how personable and respectful he was. She came away thinking that he was just born for this.
As Nebraska fans found out in 2019, Wan’Dale was ready. Ready for major college football, ready to be a spokesman for the program. A result of two families rooting for him and a father pushing his son to not waste his potential, Wan’Dale earned his place on the stage welcoming Nebraska’s future.