Taking Advantage of a Second Chance
Bret Robertson, a defensive back at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., will be presented Monday morning the Armed Forces Merit Award at the Football Writers Association of America Breakfast in Scottsdale at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald, the FWAA's President, and Brant Ringler, the Executive Director of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, will jointly present Robertson the award as the breakfast will also honor Irv Moss of the Denver Post with the FWAA's Lifetime Achievement Award and Chris Dufresne of the the Los Angeles Times as the FWAA beat writer of the year.
By Gene Duffey
BOOM!!! - The sound of a roadside bomb, exploding just in front of the U.S. Army truck, reverberated through the ears of Bret Robertson, halfway through his 12-month tour of Iraq. Then, seconds later ….
BOOM!!! - Another bomb exploded, right next to the truck. “I just remember a loud noise,” Robertson said of that day in January 2011. “Then everything went quiet. I heard someone screaming. 'This ain't good,' ” he thought.
Robertson had suffered a large gash high on his left cheek, hit by a piece of flying shrapnel. It missed his eye by inches.
“I didn't feel it because my adrenaline was so high,” he said. “Until the squad leader asked if I was OK, I didn't know I was hit. Then I felt the blood dripping down my face.”
The wound was stitched up, but that wasn't nearly enough. He underwent a three-hour surgery. For the next two days Robertson couldn't open his eyes. He was in more pain after the surgery than before. He spent another four or five days in the hospital.
Then he returned to active duty.
And it changed his life
“A near death experience gives me a little (perspective). I got a second chance. We got lucky,” said Robertson, who received the Purple Heart Award for being wounded in action.
Now a safety for Division III Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., Robertson has been named the recipient of the 2015 Armed Forces Merit Award and will receive the trophy at the Football Writers Association of America’s breakfast prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Arizona.
Robertson knew he wasn't ready for college when he came out of high school in 2008 in California, Mo. He had been diagnosed with a learning disability, a reading comprehensive disorder plus a spelling problem. He needed to study extra hard just to get through high school. It took him twice as long as the average person to learn something. The prospect of more studying in college didn't sound appealing.
He wanted to get away from his small hometown, population 4,000. He wanted to travel. The Army seemed like a logical alternative.
There was a strong military background in his family. Brandon, his older brother, served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Lance Addison, his step dad, served two tours in Afghanistan. Raymond Sumler, his late grandfather, fought in World War II.
“I didn't think I was made for college, the challenge of homework,” he said. “I didn't think I'd be able to do it (academically). I wanted to go in the Army.”
Robertson began at Fort Benning in Georgia, then it was off to Fort Lewis in Washington state. Next stop: Iraq.
He knew what he was getting into when he joined the Army, the Iraq War nearing its peak.
“I signed up for being on the front line,” he said. “I was definitely scared. I think any person would be scared going into that. But I made up my mind. I was ready to die for my country.”
He almost did.
Back from Iraq, alive and well, Robertson finished his service at Fort Lewis. Now what?
“When you get out of the military, you just go home and don't have any support,” he said.
Robertson wasn't sure what to do with his life. He did know that he wanted to play football again. He had been a wide receiver and safety in high school. College was merely a vehicle to get him back on the field.
So he enrolled at Westminster, a private, liberal arts school with just 950 students, only 45 minutes from his home. He went to college dreaming of wearing a helmet rather than poring over text books. Finally, Robertson was where he wanted to be. Things seemed back to normal.
He went out for football as a wide receiver. That didn't last long. Reaching back to catch a pass, he hurt his little finger the second day of practice. “I thought it was just jammed,” he said. “I kept playing.” If he could fight through Iraq, he could fight through an injury to his finger.
But the finger was broken. He needed surgery and a pin put in the finger. His season had ended before it even began.
“It was very frustrating,” he said. “The main reason I was there was to play football. It was a pretty rough semester. Some days I didn't want to go to class.” Some days he didn't go.
Studying, because of his learning disability, was hard enough in high school. College was that much tougher.
It required a different type of discipline than the Army. No one was going to yell at him to get out of bed in the morning, to get to that 8 o'clock class when the snow was blowing and no one takes attendance and your parents will never know whether you went or not.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “I didn't want to do homework. The main reason I came to school was to play football, and I couldn't do that. I was really down on myself. I wasn't sure I was going to come back for the second semester. I applied for contracting jobs overseas. Luckily, nothing came up.”
And luckily, Robertson, an organizational leadership major, received support from his family and the faculty at Westminster. Learning took extra time. But he learned. And he studied. And he passed his classes. “By the end of the second semester I got the hang of it,” he said. “I figured out it was possible to be a student and an athlete.”
Robertson returned to the football field as a sophomore, switching from receiver to strong safety. No more broken fingers and a smaller playbook.
“I wasn't getting the plays down (at wide receiver),” he said. “I made the choice to go to defense. Coach (John) Welty was all for it.”
Robertson didn't start the opener at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., but he was on the kickoff coverage team. What he waited four years for was here.
“The heart rate was through the roof,” he said. “I ran down there and made a tackle on the first play. I was pretty excited. I found what I was looking for through football.”
He moved into the starting lineup at free safety for the third game. He broke his thumb in that game, but that injury wasn't going to stop Robertson, or even slow him down much. He played the rest of the season with a cast on his hand.
Robertson became a leader on defense and a leader for the entire team. Although he was five years older than some of his teammates, he fit in well.
“It takes a while,” he said. “I'm older than all the seniors and I'm the new guy. I'm the old man. The guys look up to me. The things I do on and off the field really have an impact.”
“I consider it an honor and privilege to coach him,” said Welty. “He's not afraid to voice his opinion at any-time. Our kids admire him and follow him. He has a positive influence with every student here.”
Robertson even found time to throw the javelin for the Blue Jays track team in the spring.
He moved from free to strong safety for his junior year, helping Westminster to a 6-4 record and making 86 tackles with three interceptions.
Last summer he went to Africa, helping out a professor who is president of Humanities for Children. He spent time in Rwanda and Tanzania.
“Rwanda was a great experience,” said Robertson. “They had genocide there in 1994. That's not that long ago. The stories I heard were remarkable, that they can go through such hardships and be able to smile. They showed great resilience. It was just amazing. You don't really need that much to be happy.”
Now 25, Robertson will return for his senior season at Westminster next fall, a captain for the second year in a row, thinking of grad school. He joined a veterans club on campus. He would like to help others who walked the same path that he did.
“I began envisioning a program to help other returning vets,” he said. “One of the hardest things is transitioning back into civilian life. The transition back for me wasn't easy. Today I feel like a very lucky guy.”
Veteran sports writer Gene Duffey was born in Boston, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of Syracuse's Newhouse School of Journalism. He worked for the Rochester Times-Union, the Houston Post and the Huntsville (Ala.) Times. He covered the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a Super Bowl, World Series, two NBA Finals, nine Final Fours, the College World Series, most of the major bowl games and authored a book, 60 Years of the Outland Trophy in 2006.