Carlisle’s football Bison need look no further for a role model of discipline and hard work than defensive coordinator Lonnie Roberson.
Roberson, 34, was six years removed from an all-conference player at Bald Knob High School — with a wife and young son — when he chose Arkansas Baptist College, the private, historically black liberal arts college in Little Rock to continue his football career.
He played two years for the Buffaloes before becoming a Harding Bison, earning his degree in kinesiology there before arriving at Carlisle in 2013.
“It took some acclimation,” said Roberson, a 2001 BKHS graduate of his Buffalo journey in 2008 and ‘09. “I was working at the same time at the Walmart Distribution Center (in Searcy), and they worked with me. I drove in (to Little Rock) every day.
“I’d always stayed in decent shape. When I got there, I gained a lot of weight and got bigger and stronger. I was ambitious enough and disciplined enough to go back and do it. Football was something I’d always loved.”
Carlisle head coach Mark Uhiren said those experiences helped mold Roberson into just what the Bison need now.
“He’s addicted to the weight room,” Uhiren said. “He knows that’s where you make your players. He has confidence we’re on the right path. I depend on him all the time to do his part. That’s why I made him defensive coordinator.
“I turn it over to him. I’m good about remembering how it was coming up in the ranks.”
Brad Horn, CHS principal and athletic director, said Roberson brought “intensity and football smarts.”
“But probably the biggest impact he has is how the kids respond to him,” Horn said. “He’s worked under three different head coaches in those five years, and a wide range — but he just soaks everything in. I think he’s got big things in store for him.”
Roberson grew up in Bald Knob and also represented the Bulldogs in track and field.
“I was pretty good,” he said of his high school career. “You always say you’re better than you were, but I was all-conference all three years at defensive end. I threw the discus and qualified for state as a senior. I also ran the 800, but I was only in the top three or four in that.”
After high school, he married his high school sweetheart, Candace, and went to work.
“But I decided I didn’t want to work in a warehouse my whole life,” he said.
Roberson began coaching youth sports — and loving it — so after their son Tyson, now 12, was born, Candace encouraged her husband to pursue his dream.
“I loved the kids, loved doing this every day,” Roberson said. “That was what drove me back.”
Arkansas Baptist had only recently started its football program.
“I figured that was my best option,” Roberson said. “I was 24, and I decided if I wanted to be able to play, I could go there and work my way in.”
In his first year, he played mostly linebacker and special teams. In his second, he started at fullback and defensive end and played some linebacker. His teammates christened him “Bill Bates” after the long-time Dallas Cowboy safety.
The Buffaloes faced Cam Newton when he played at Blinn College.
“They whipped us pretty good,” Roberson said.
He said he wasn’t big or fast enough to play Division I football, but Harding University, back home in White County, was a good fit.
“That was a great learning experience as far as coaching,” he said. “A lot of things we did, I still do. Some coaches stay in the same grind, but I was able to see a lot of stuff and experience a lot.”
He earned his degree in kinesiology and wound up with a job offer at Carlisle — as assistant football coach, elementary physical education teacher and head softball coach.
“I really wanted a job, and I ended up getting a good one,” he said. “I really enjoy the elementary PE. It’s a fun job. They told me I had to coach softball — I had no background in softball or baseball. I hadn’t played baseball since Little League.
“But I jumped on it. I’ve learned a lot and really enjoy the softball.”
Roberson said he had worked his way up to coach every position in football. Uhiren said he appreciated the stability Roberson provided when Uhiren arrived in spring 2016.
“By him being there, and as active as he was with them, that gave us a little easier transition,” Uhiren said. “His mindset about coaching football is very similar to mine. There wasn’t any kind of a struggle there, and sometimes when you come in like that, you come into one.
“Probably the No. 1 thing about him I enjoy is his willingness to learn. He’s got a great desire to be a head coach, and I think at some place and time he will be a good one. He’ll give his time and his effort. I never have to push him to do stuff — just tell him and keep him going in the right direction.”
Roberson is proud of the growth of the softball program. The Lady Bison came within two runs of reaching the Class 2A State Tournament this spring, falling in the opening round of the Class 2A North Regional to Salem, 3-2.
“We’ve improved,” Roberson said. “We hosted our first tournament this year. Our field is top-notch — better than anybody else’s in (Class) 2A or 3A that we go to. We’ve got a new scoreboard, and we’ve changed the dugouts.”
Horn said Roberson’s work with fundraisers had allowed such improvements.
“He’s a hard worker,” Horn said. “That field looks better than it’s ever looked. He’s got a lot of support. The board and the community think highly of him.”
Roberson said his non-traditional experiences had contributed to the message he relays to his athletes.
“I like to tell them everybody brings something to the table,” he said. “Some have strength, some have speed, some have power, some have heart. Whatever you bring to the table, you need to use that every day.
“You may not be as talented as somebody else, but you’ve always got some intangible your team can use, whether it’s on the field or through practice.”
Roberson said he enjoyed Carlisle. Candace is a fourth-grade teacher and enters her second year as dance coach. Tyson now has a 2 1-2 year-old brother, Rudy.
“The kids are good, and it’s a good environment for my sons as opposed to bigger schools,” he said. “That’s important. I like having my kids with me all the time. That’s the joy of coaching and teaching — you’re with them. You do miss some time with them when they’re young, but Tyson is with me all the time now, and he will play for me this year. And Rudy will do the same thing.”
Horn said Roberson was a popular figure throughout Carlisle.
“The kids respect him,” he said. “Softball loves him; football loves him. My son is 6 and in kindergarten, and they love him. It’s not uncommon for the PE teacher to be the cool guy, but he works them hard. All the kids respond to him very well.”
Uhiren said he was taking advantage of Roberson’s teaching position and popularity.
“We don’t have any other coaches over there, and he can keep an eye out for us,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve put him in charge of recruiting the elementary.”