ELKHART — I didn't know Rod Roberson well prior to our meeting last Thursday to talk about some major changes at Rice Field and North Side Gym.
I knew he was a tremendous three-sport athlete in Elkhart in the 1970s, earning both a football and basketball scholarship to Northwestern after his high school career ended. He would eventually choose basketball and famously helped lead the Wildcats to a win over a Magic Johnson-led Michigan State team that would win a national title later that year.
Rod had served on the city council in Elkhart and was council president at one time. He had also been the Executive Director of Church Community Services in Elkhart.
Then last spring, Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Robert Haworth called and asked to meet with him. A short time later, Roberson was named to the newly-formed position of District Director of Co-Curricular Programming of the Elkhart Schools.
While Roberson didn't replace the high school athletic directors, he does oversee athletics at all levels, as well as performing arts such as band, orchestra, choir and theater.
Roberson is keenly aware there were people in the community that questioned the move. Not necessarily the choice of Roberson, but the fact that Haworth was creating a new position.
After Thursday, it's my belief that Haworth knew exactly what he was doing.
Roberson was instrumental in helping raise $1 million to upgrade Rice Field with field turf, while also adding a drop-down scoreboard at Elkhart's North Side Gym. The key to the project? Not $1 of Elkhart School Corporation money will go towards the work.
To me, what Roberson did in helping raise the money was astonishing.
The field turf at Rice Field will pay for itself in the coming years, just with the lack of maintenance that will be needed to care for it. Meanwhile, the new scoreboard at North Side Gym – the first improvement there in decades – should help lure more tournaments to which is, unfortunately, an under-used great facility.
Are you listening Indiana High School Athletic Association?
But what impressed me most during our two hour meeting was Roberson's eagerness to see the co-curricular activities of the Elkhart schools do well.
It's general knowledge that Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial will merge in the near future – the school board has approved the change for the 2020-21 school year. When that happens, Elkhart will be the sixth biggest high school in the state, just a few students behind Penn.
Rod and I talked about a lot of things concerning the eventual merge, some on the record and a lot off.
We spoke about expectations and conference affiliations. Volleyball and lacrosse. Girls sports and boys sports. Coaches and facilities. Single-sport athletes versus multi-sport athletes.
As I said, much of it will stay between us for now.
But what I learned most is the tremendous passion Roberson has for his job and the city of Elkhart.
"I know I'm blessed coming to work every day for the Elkhart School Corporation,'' Roberson said. "This is my home ... my school ... my family has been through it all here for a couple of generations. Can you imagine how you'd feel if Plymouth (my hometown) had come to you and asked for your help? It's an honor that Dr. Haworth trusted me with this position.''
Roberson wants the co-curricular activities at Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial – and eventually Elkhart High School – to succeed. The chalkboard in his office is filled with working plans and future ideas.
He desires the very best for Elkhart students. From the band and theater to the basketball and soccer teams.
Roberson knows it won't be easy. There will be tough barriers to break through at every level his job takes him. There will likely be people that don't want him to do well ... folks with their own agendas.
But after two hours with him, I believe in Rod Roberson's vision.
Now it's time for Elkhart to do the same.
Ken Fox is the sports editor of the Elkhart Truth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @KenFoxTruth on Twitter