Now removed from a bad situation and living area, Garfield senior is looking to raise his stock in football. He had an offer from Eastern Washington but opted to attend prep school next year.
SEATAC — The street is dark and narrow. There are no sidewalks and lamps dimly shed light every 100 yards. There is only one person they need to accommodate at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., and he slowly steps out of a shallow cul-de-sac onto the street, stuffing a football into his backpack.
Winfred Roberson zips up his gray jacket, pulls the hood over his head to protect himself from the steady cascade of rain that has briefly stained the street and twists ear buds into place. Lil Herb starts rapping, Roberson stuffs his hands in the jacket pocket that runs across his stomach and starts running.
The end of the single-lane soon veers left and Roberson joins the main road. The ching-ching-ching-ching of metal rattles from the backpack with every step, a metronome to keep pace.
It’s the odd time before sunrise, when light escapes the horizon and gives the world a muted glow. Not on this November day, though, as dark clouds snuff out any light, and the constant drum of the rain attempts to drown the artificial brightness of the few street lamps.
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Roberson’s route takes him over Interstate-5, where the build-up of tail lights are already gathering to form a northbound river of red. Eventually, after about two miles, the sidewalks and shoulders take the 18-year-old to International Boulevard. This is where he waits for the A-line, a bus that will take him to the light rail station, which will take him to Seattle, where he will either ride a bus or walk to Garfield High School.
This is Roberson’s daily ritual during football season, one that persists on great occasion throughout the school year, although the basketball player’s schedule flexes during the winter season. It starts as early as 5 a.m. on some occasions, and never later than 5:30 a.m. It’s his time. An opportunity to think and reflect, and dream.
“When I run, I just think about the positive things,” Roberson said.
His situation is still not ideal, but it’s better this way, better than living in an area that provided temptations for Roberson that were hard to avoid — the ease of skipping class, of missing football practice, of hanging out with a crowd that was certain to derail a promising future.
These changes have made it possible for him to envision a realistic future with football. Roberson holds an offer from Eastern Washington, but he didn’t sign Wednesday when hundreds of other prospects inked commitments with colleges. Instead, he will attend prep school next year in order to elevate his rocketing stock as a prospect.
For Roberson, Wednesday’s national signing day could easily have been just another day of the week, but now it is a motivational reminder, thanks to his willingness to make personal changes.
Roberson’s dad moved the family — him, his sister and step-mom — to SeaTac during his sophomore year in part to separate Roberson from the decisions that led him to make poor choices, ones that led to run-ins with the law. Roberson is eligible to play at Garfield still because he started there. The move wasn’t a cure-all, but Garfield’s first-year football coach Derek Sparks has provided the additional mentorship that has Roberson on the right path.
A freak athletically at 6 foot 3 with a body that shows obvious signs it is no stranger to the weight room, Roberson has flown under the radar during the recruitment process. But Sparks — a former Washington State standout and NFL player — has connections and already has exposed Roberson to recruiters who will most likely come calling again in the next year.
Part of Roberson’s allure from a recruiting standpoint is his versatility: Sparks believes the senior can play running back, receiver, safety or linebacker in college, depending on where a team’s needs are greatest. Physically, Roberson looks more like a stereotypical college linebacker than most current college linebackers.
“He has raw natural talent that universities go in and invest in young men all over the nation,” Sparks said. “He is the product they are looking for. He hasn’t even tapped his potential, in terms of working on his speed, getting in the weight room. He’s just a natural athlete that dominates and he’s very smart with regard to where he needs to be.”
When Roberson heads to prep school, and perhaps to college in two years, he can thank his love of football and his personal dedication, but it’s his relationship with Sparks that has really been the catalyst for change.
Sparks became the fourth football coach in as many years at Garfield prior to last season, a revolving door of male role models not sticking around long enough to provide the players with the stability and mentorship they craved.
When he took the job, Sparks, who also runs the school’s career center, did it without weighing the football aspect too heavily. If he was going to coach Garfield, he was going to make sure he helped the players in their personal lives.
Enter Roberson. The two first met in principal Ted Howard’s office over the summer. Among previous difficulties with the law, Roberson had been pulled over a couple months earlier and ticketed for driving without a license. Instead of a fine, he chose community service.
“I didn’t know Winfred from a hole-in-the-wall,” Sparks said. “All I had ever heard was that we had lost a tailback due to some circumstances that no one really told me about other than he had been a troubled teen since he’s been at Garfield.”
Roberson doesn’t like to talk about his past mistakes, and he doesn’t willingly open up about them. But he admits he has made mistakes. The embarrassment is evident. His record is sealed and will be expunged if he stays on the straight-and-narrow. He prefers to keep it that way.
Roberson’s life was difficult well before he started high school. He bounced between living with his mom and dad from when he was 4 until he was 10. One semester in Memphis with his mom, the next in Seattle with his dad, then back to Memphis, and then Seattle. On and on and on.
Some of the kids he grew up with in the Central District became gang members, but living there was nothing compared to North Memphis. Roberson lived in a gang-affiliated area and there was often no food in the fridge. At times, the electricity was shut off. School became a refuge where a meal would be served.
“Usually kids think it’s all joy and fun being a kid and you don’t think about certain things like that,” Roberson said.
“But when you come home and then your mom’s working two jobs and she’s like, ‘Oh honey, I don’t have no money to go on this field trip that the school’s offering.’ It was hard.
“There was a roof there. That’s the best we could say.”
When he was 10, though, Roberson’s dad felt he wasn’t playing as large a role in his son’s life as he should. His parents agreed that Roberson would live full-time in Seattle. He is thankful his dad wanted to be a full-time father and still talks regularly to his mom, who now lives in Florida. But he knows it’s not an ideal arrangement.
The Central District was an undeniable upgrade. Still, though, bad influences ran abound and childhood friends became gang members. The wheels were set in motion for Roberson to head down a path of derailment.
“I was associating myself with those people,” Roberson said. “I learned if you want to be some type of athlete, you want to be some type of doctor, lawyer, you got to associate yourself around those people that want the same things that you do.
“Now, the way I associate that is, I’m cool with what you guys are doing. I don’t want to get mixed up in what your guys are doing, I want to focus on me. I’m a football player, so I got to surround myself with football players. That’s what I’ve been overcoming this year. Those people in my life that do other things than me, I’m starting to let them go.”
And that’s been the focus for Roberson this year. With Sparks’ mentorship, he’s taking responsibility.
“I see a lot of parallels with working with Winfred; I see myself in him a lot,” Sparks said. “That’s why I believe that when people say, ‘Oh, you know, we gave him three strikes and he’s done, I don’t believe in that because we work for an institution where our job is to push young men forward, regardless of how many times they fall down.
“The joy I get from working with Winfred, he gives me that reminder that so many people had already given up on him that he wasn’t even supposed to be here.”
But he is, and Roberson is well down the path of redemption, one foot at a time as he jogs down a quiet street in SeaTac in the still of the morning.