by Mitch Wilson, Head Track Coach Rantoul High School (IL), Assistant football coach
To quote the late President Franklin Roosevelt, June 10th, 2018, “a date which will live in infamy,” at least in my mind and many others in our small community in Northern Champaign County. My brother who is in the United States Army and is stationed at Fort Bragg, NC was home with his wife for a brief visit with family. He and his wife were getting ready to head back to North Carolina that night and we were all saying our goodbyes when I received a text message from our Athletic Director that told me to call him ASAP. It was a Sunday evening around 7pm so I knew this had to be something important. As the phone was ringing a million thoughts raced through my head about what was so important that he had to tell me tonight. He answered the phone and immediately said, “are you sitting down?” I replied, “no but I can” and he said, “ok take a seat.” The next words out of his mouth were not what I was expecting. “Donnell Robertson is no longer alive.” My immediate response was there is no way, you have to be kidding me right? I just spoke to him on Thursday and we made plans to meet at the U of I football camp the following Friday. He said, “Mitch I am not kidding he took his own life sometime this afternoon.” I immediately started sobbing, I could not speak, somehow I muttered I will call you back. My wife was standing next to me and put her hand on my shoulder and said Mitch what is wrong, why are you crying? I told her what our athletic director had just told me. Her response was the same as mine and everyone else that I talked to that evening, you are kidding right? My next action was to call our head football coach and as we talked and both cried on the phone it became apparent that this was going to affect hundreds of people in our community. Donnell Robertson was one of the cornerstones in both of our programs.
The events that followed over the next two weeks were the hardest two weeks I have had being an educator. Nobody prepared us for this in our education classes in College. You learn about classroom management, lesson planning, all kinds of other stuff, but never once do I remember talking about what to do when one of the best student-athletes in your school dies. They never teach you what to say at a service when you are asked to stand up in front of other students and a young man’s family and talk about how much he meant to everyone.
That evening myself, our AD, and our head football coach went to Donnell’s house to pay our respects to the family and to be there for the other students and athletes that would eventually hear the same saddening new that we did. Everyone was in shock, tears, hugging, and asking one question, Why? The question that we will never know the answer to until we meet again on the other side.
The next night our community put together a candlelight vigil for Donnell in front of his house. A couple of hundred people showed up. Many people spoke about what they would remember most about Donnell. They spoke about how much they loved him, how our community needs to reach out to young teenagers, how the adults need to continue to talk with teens and check on them to make sure they are ok because most of the time they will not tell you what is going on. Many people talked about Donnell’s infectious smile.
Who was Donnell Robertson to people outside of Rantoul?
He was the chiseled, sculpture of a man that ran the hurdles, threw the shot put, played football, a polite young man from Rantoul. So many times I can remember other coaches saying, “that Robertson kid is put together,” or “every time I talk to him he is so polite.” The Friday before he passed, he turned heads at the U of I one-day camp when he ran a 4.56 40-yard dash. He was mentioned on a few recruiting blogs as possibly being a Power 5 recruit depending on the type of season he had this year. He had everything going for him.
Who was Donnell to the people in our community?
To people that knew Donnell personally he was a son, brother, grandson, friend, boyfriend, mentor, teammate, leader, weight room junkie, and a student who wanted to be successful. Donnell ended his junior year of high school with our top returning marks in the bench press- 275, parallel squat- 495, and power clean- 265, which are not bad numbers for our small school. He also finished his junior on the honorable-mention list and a great rapport with his teachers. Donnell was like a big brother to many of our students here at Rantoul High School. Of course like many big brothers he would pick on you every once in a while, but you were glad he was on your team! There were so many people in our community and his teammates that were anxious to see what kind of numbers he would put up his senior year of football season.
He had a plan. He knew that he wanted to play football in college, hopefully at a bigger school, and someday when his playing days were over he wanted to coach, possibly even be a teacher. We often talked about his senior year of track and field. Donnell was going to be the top returning hurdler in our Sectional as the two guys in front of him his junior year were both seniors. We talked about him being a part of our 4×100 relay team next year, he also wanted to throw 50’ in the shot put. He loved working with kids and found joy in making young kids smile! He encouraged his teammates to get better every day and to give their best effort whenever they were competing.
So how did these plans get cut short?
Five days before Donnell passed away was the four-year anniversary of his older brother passing away. Coincidentally they both passed away at the age of 17. Donnell’s sophomore year during track season right before we were getting ready to leave for Collinsville, his cousin was struck and killed by a drunk driver while getting off the bus stop after school in Florida. There are two stories on what might have happened to Donnell. We will probably never know the real answer as to why, but my hope is that coaches all across America will read this article and talk to and warn their students, and athletes about two things; the reality and permanence of suicide, and the dangers of participating in the “choking game”, that several other teens across the United States have tried.
Donnell woke up Sunday morning and had a normal day. Came down stairs and had breakfast with his family, left to go to the store, spent time with his girlfriend, and then came back home. On his way to the store he saw one of our assistant football/track coaches at a stop light and spoke to him for a few seconds before the light turned green and they both said see you tomorrow morning for workouts. Donnell shared a post on Facebook about a movie he wanted to see around 4:20pm. Sometime between 5-6pm his father and grandmother pushed Donnell’s bedroom door open and found him slumped over behind his door. At first they thought he was just sleeping until they saw that he had something around his neck. They immediately called 911, but it was too late, Donnell Robertson was gone. The first thought was immediately suicide, but there was no note, nothing found on his phone, no red flags, nothing that stood out that he was hiding something. He was making future plans for his life after high school. As the days went by everyone started to think maybe he was playing the choking game. There is also a movie out called Flatliners, where five medical students die and bring each other back to life and talk about what they experienced on the other side. Some of them talked about seeing relatives that have passed on before them.
What happened? That is what puzzles us all. These challenges that teens are playing, like the Tide Pod challenge, are not games. In games you keep score. Donnell had asthma and his inhaler was found in his coat pocket on his bed. When you constrict your airway it clearly has a negative effect on your body. When you have asthma, it makes things worse. Maybe his suicide was intentional, but for a guy who was set on being a big time college football player, and having a life that he was proud of, that notion is hard to come to terms with.
If you are reading this please share with your athletes, teens, students, daughters/sons that it is not a game and suicide is real. If they are depressed or sad talk to someone. Let them know they are loved more than they will ever know and will be missed by many.
Where do we go from here?
For weeks after his death it seemed like life was moving in slow motion. However, life keeps going for those of us still here, but we are all hurt. We all shared stories about how Donnell made us laugh or smile. The days are especially hard for family members, his girlfriend that he leaves behind, the teammates that were with him the days before, the ones he was communicating with on social media, and everyone else who wonders, “is there something I could have done, was there something I missed?”
Life continues but our days are numbered, we all know that. However, sometimes we live like we will be here on Earth forever. Live each day like you do not know if tomorrow will come. Love often, talk to your kids, ask them if they are ok, they will most likely say yes, but be involved in their lives because sometimes teenagers do not know how much they are loved. Talk to your kids about the dangers that these so called challenges have.
A Mahomet native Jim Risley who met Donnell through his intense training course at his house and Monticello head football coach Cully Welter helped create a $1,000 scholarship in Donnell’s name for us to award to one of our athletes this year. Other schools from the Illini Prairie Conference chipped in to help create the scholarship also. There is a picture of Donnell hanging up in our locker room now with the words “Rest in Peace”. As the months go on more tributes to Donnell will be made. All of these memorials are great to see and help remind us of who Donnell Robertson was, but we ultimately wish we still had him here with us! I know Donnell’s family has been very thankful to everyone that has helped them through this difficult time.
Please share this story with everyone so that Donnell’s life might help save the life of someone else.
I would like to thank assistant coach Nick Cole who is a History teacher at our school, and one of Donnell’s teacher’s Mrs. Jenna (Wienke) Flessner for doing an excellent job of proof reading this page for me.
Thank you for taking the time to read Donnell’s story!