Few preschool graduation ceremonies draw scores of people, but the one Friday for the Head Start program at the Frostproof Childhood Development Center did so thanks to a famous alumnus, NFL star Nickell Robey-Coleman, a defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams.
Certainly Robey-Coleman’s athletic success drew the crowd, but he came hoping his little noticed academic success would inspire the 16 graduates and other children more.
″(The Development Center) prepared me way ahead of other institutions in my life,” said Robey-Coleman, a 2010 honors graduate of Frostproof Middle-High School, who recently received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California, which he left early in 2013 to pursue his NFL career. “This is by far one of the best programs around.”
Robey-Coleman credited the center with laying the foundation for his future success in athletics and academics, including becoming a member of the National Honor Society while at Frostproof High. The Society honors students with high grades (at least 3.5 on a 4-point scale) with a record of community service and leadership.
“I remember only good times here,” Robey-Coleman told The Ledger. “This was the kick starter. This is how I became what I am.”
Having a successful alum return as a role model means everything to the current graduates and students, said Aletta Stroder, program director of operations at the Development Center.
“He highlights the importance of early education — introducing literacy at an early age and fostering a thirst for education,” Stroder said. “It means everything to this community. Early education is very important. It determines what you do in the future. Nickell Robey-Coleman demonstrates that.”
Many casual football fans may not recognize Robey-Coleman by name, but they will recall his part in one of the most controversial plays in the 2018 NFL season.
With just 1:45 to go in the Jan. 20 NFC Championship game between the Rams and the New Orleans Saints, Robey-Coleman collided with Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis, resulting in an incomplete pass. The game ended at a 23-23 tie in regulation. The Rams won 26-23 in overtime and went on to the Super Bowl, which they lost to the New England Patriots.
The play became controversial because the referees did not flag Robey-Coleman for pass interference. Had a penalty been called, the Saints would have had a first down on the 5-yard line.
Most people who saw replays of the play, including top NFL officials and Robey-Coleman himself, judged it was pass interference. Saints fans yelled loudly (some still do) that it cost the team the game and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Robey-Coleman said he still gets comments about the play, and he again acknowledged he normally would have been flagged for pass interference. But he takes it all now with humor.
“I still hear about it. It’s still shown on ESPN,” he said. “It is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. At this point, now that the Super Bowl’s over, we can joke about it. It’s over.”
In the past month, Robey-Coleman has gotten a lot more attention for his recent bachelor’s degree in policy, planning and development from Southern California.
Rams Head Coach Sean McVay surprised Robey-Coleman by announcing his degree at a practice in early May, and his teammates celebrated the occasion by giving him a Gatorade bath while McVay furnished a cake. A video of the event is on ESPN’s Facebook page.
“I’ve gotten a lot of reaction on social media,” Robey-Coleman said.
He got the degree because he promised his late mother, Maxine Coleman Robey, that he would get a his degree, Robey-Coleman told the media. She died in 2010 shortly before he began at the university.
“I think she would be so proud,” Robey-Coleman said Friday. “This is an extension of her love.”
Christine Wilson, Robey-Coleman’s aunt and the child development manager at the Frostproof Development Center, said Maxine Robey was a “stern advocate for education.”
Wilson has worked at the center for 46 years, and she remembers when her nephew was a student there. She pointed to his graduation photo on the wall of the library.
“I feel the center definitely gave him a head start,” she said. “I think he shows children can grow up to be whatever they want to be. Education is important.”