Max Roberts loved nothing more than to watch sports, especially sports being played by his nieces and nephews.
And one niece in particular brought him a great amount of joy, although he knew his time with her was dwindling and wanted to let her know what he meant to her.
Before Max died earlier this year, he told his niece he wanted greatness. He had seen glimpses of it in her, but he wanted more. Nothing less than an undefeated season with a state championship would do, Max said, his final challenge to her.
On Friday, the niece kept her promise. Newton junior Payton Roberts completed an undefeated season in the shot put, winning her second consecutive Class 5A title with a winning throw of 45 feet, 4 inches.
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“I know he would be over there yelling right now,” Roberts said, smiling. “He knew he wasn’t going to get to see me throw again, so when he passed I knew it was my time to show him what I can do. I wanted to stay undefeated and win a state title for him.”
When Max passed away, Payton was almost done with her basketball season. It was initially very difficult. They had always shared a bond, united through their love of sport and the same ornery sense of humor around family.
But when basketball season ended and it was time to start throwing, Roberts channeled her emotion into training. She vowed to not let Max down. He had always been there for her, so this was her time to return the favor.
“She seemed very inspired since then,” said Keri Boley, who is Max’s daughter and Payton’s aunt. “She’s been on a mission and she has strong mind toward fulfilling that wish for him. It probably helped her because she felt like she had someone pushing her along.”
Roberts has improved all aspects of her throwing this season. Length, consistency, winning. Roberts had to as close to a perfect season as possible, winning all 10 of her competitions this season with a personal-best mark of 46-8 — good for the No. 11 throw all-time in Kansas and No. 24 in the country this year.
“Once she clicks everything on a throw and feels it a couple of times, she’s going to bump up near 50 feet,” Newton throwing coach Pete Anderson said. “She’s got some technical things she’s working on. Maybe it’s not showing in distance yet, but it’s coming.”
By Roberts’ definition, she struggled in the opening round of throws. Her first two throws didn’t eclipse 44 feet, a mark she personally feels she should always clear. Then another sub-44 throw came out and Roberts became frustrated.
She was in no danger of losing — five of her six throws Friday would have won the state title — but Roberts was in danger of losing to her own lofty standards.
And then finally, it came. Not a perfect throw, but certainly a great one. The shuffle was there, the release was there, the twist was there, and the distance was there, as Roberts let fly the winning mark of 45-4.
It was an emotional release for Roberts, as she knew she had just kept her promise to Max.
So she let a smile escape during the competition because she knew, somewhere, Max was smiling, too.
“You always knew he was proud when he smiled or laughed,” Boley said. “After that, I know he would be smiling if he were here.”