Western Hills High School senior Wandale Robinson started playing football when he was 5 years old.
It wasn’t in Frankfort — the city didn’t offer tackle football yet — and it wasn’t under his own name. Since he wasn’t yet old enough to play in Louisville, his parents used another child’s birth certificate to sneak him into a league for 6-year-olds.
“’So I went by a different kid’s name the whole year and they didn’t know?’” Robinson asked his parents when they reminded him of the incident later in life. “Oh well, I never got caught.”
Vicki Davis, Wandale’s mom, said the head coach eventually figured it out but didn’t seem to mind; as he usually is now, Wandale was the best player on the field.
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“Since he started walking they have called him speedy,” said Vicki. “He used to give my cousin a hard time ‘cause he was so fast and he would do anything. I would be like, ‘He’s all right, calm down, what’s the problem?’ I think he might have been ahead of schedule.”
Technically, he was: Charles Wandale Robinson, named after his father, was born a month earlier than planned but came out healthy. He was 6 pounds, 3 ounces.
Charles Dale Robinson had been in prison serving a sentence on drug charges since Wandale was 6 months old but was released when he was 4 — just in time to help encourage a burgeoning love for football. Dale, a star quarterback at Franklin County High School who was recruited to Western Kentucky University, helped coach the team in Louisville. He was excited to make up for lost time.
“Me and Wandale, we were like Batman and Robin,” Dale said. “We were together every day.”
A year later, Dale was indicted on conspiracy charges related to the trafficking of cocaine and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
‘She’s always been there’
You would never suspect that Wandale grew up without his father for most of his life. In conversation, you’d think you were speaking to a 25-year-old man who’s been through college, not a 17-year-old on track to graduate high school in December.
Vicki made frequent visits to see Dale while he was serving time in Charleston, Tenn., then Lexington, and then Virginia. The visits were more sporadic when he ended up in a New Jersey facility.
“But as far as talking on the phone? Every day. Every day,” Vicki said. “You could never tell he was gone any amount of time.”
She started laughing. “Sometimes it makes me mad, ‘cause I think he’s closer to his dad than he is me and everybody else is like, ‘No, no, no, Vicki, no.’ It’s the same if not you more than his dad.’ I’m glad that they do have the relationship that they do.”
“She’s always been there,” Wandale said. “Most people don’t know that before the age of 14 my dad was only in my life for about a year and a half, physically. It’s always just been me and her.”
Vicki was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 25 and fibromyalgia this year, which have made it difficult to work and keep up with the week-to-week hysteria that comes with being the mother of a four-star football prospect.
“When I tell people, ‘Oh no, I don’t know where he’s going.’ they look at me like, ‘Oh, you’re lying. You know you don’t have to lie, just say you’re not gonna tell me,’” Davis said. “ ... I have a lot of fatigue, so, right now, it’s kind of hard, everything that he’s doing. And I hurt. I can’t run up and down the field with him like I used to.”
Wandale was the top-ranked player in the Herald-Leader’s preseason survey of coaches entering this season, after finishing among the state’s top rushers with 2,330 yards and leading the state in scoring with 43 touchdowns as a junior. He’s not yet decided on a college, but his final six consists of Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue and UK.
A decision is expected in late September or early October, bringing him one step closer to the dream he’s had since he was 5: to play in the NFL.
“Once I got old enough and realized football is something I can use to give my mom everything she wants and everything we’ve talked about, that’s why I play football,” Wandale said. “All for my mom.”
‘I love him to death’
Dale’s second prison term ended after eight years and a few months, just in time to see Wandale blossom into one of Kentucky’s best high school football prospects.
He knew from the moment he said “I’m gonna be gone for a while” that he would have to be a different man when he was released. Dale returned to Frankfort and established businesses, G.U.R.U Fitness and G.U.R.U Sports Performance, along with his brother, Roni, another former Frankfort sports star who went down a criminal path. The two train local athletes and are motivational speakers who don’t shy away from their past actions.
“If I am intelligent enough to make a million dollars doing wrong, I’m intelligent enough to make a million dollars doing right, you know?” Dale said. “Why not use this same intelligence and transform it into something that’s not wrong? You’re not hurting society, you’re helping society by helping kids and other people become better than what they actually think they can.”
Wandale was his first student.
“He’s always been the guy that’s like, ‘This is what I did, don’t mess up like I did,’” Wandale said. “Everybody that looks at him now is like, ‘You have the perfect dad and yada yada yada,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, now he’s the perfect dad,’ but most people don’t know what happened before. But I love him to death. I wouldn’t trade him for anything. He’s always helped me through everything and definitely some of the choices I’ve made I wouldn’t have made if he wasn’t in my life. I wouldn’t have known, ‘Don’t do this,’ if he wasn’t in my life. The mistakes that he made helped me.”
Wandale wants two things from his final football season: for his team to improve on its 8-4 record in 2017 and to win Mr. Football. He’s humble, but that doesn’t mean he lacks confidence.
“That’s been a dream of mine ever since I heard about the award,” Wandale said. “People are like, ‘The best player in the state always gets this award,’ so my freshman year I’m like, ‘Senior year, that’s gonna be mine.’ That’s always been my mentality ever since I was 5. That’s when my dad taught me, ‘Whenever you step on a football field, you’re the best player.’ That’s what I’ve thought, even if I wasn’t, that’s how I always am.”
The rumor mill churned out a good one in January: Wandale Robinson was transferring to Trinity High School. A superstar whose first football steps were taken in Louisville would return and lead the city’s most distinguished program to yet another state title.
Turns out, there was fire behind that smoke.
“I will say that was almost a thing, but I decided it was best for me to stay here,” Wandale said. “I’ll get to graduate early and everybody in Frankfort has been around me ever since I started getting publicity my sophomore year. I just wanted to have something that Frankfort can claim, and they can claim me as ‘The Guy.’”
Western Hills will have a hard time competing for a district championship, let alone a state title — Boyle County and Lexington Catholic, two of its district foes, annually trot out rosters that dwarf that of the Wolverines — but sticking it out with his hometown teammates is a memory he’ll more cherish 30 years from now than a ring he might have won as a mercenary.
“Frankfort, we don’t have a LeBron James or a Derek Anderson or whatever,” Dale said. “But we have Wandale right now. The kids need that to see it doesn’t matter where you go to school, it’s how much work you’re willing to put in and how many sacrifices you want to make to get to that next level.”
His parents have touted the benefits of leaving Kentucky for college, among them insulation from the forces that derailed the careers of Dale and Roni, but Wandale has a tight-knit group of friends, most of them already in colleges around the state, and a support system that has helped keep him focused and away from any trouble.
At the end of the day, whether he’s playing 30 miles down I-75 or 12 hours away in Lincoln, Neb., he’ll have family in his cheering section.
“That’s my duty. That’s my job,” Dale said. “That’s why I work for myself, so I can have that availability and be able to leave when I choose to, cause I never want my kids to feel like they’re never gonna have a parent at a game or anything like that.”