Before his team plays in the high school football state semifinals on Friday night, Riggs Robben will slip on the crop top that his father, Roger, wore when he played for Bishop Carroll 31 years ago.
Also underneath his jersey, forever inked on the left side of his chest, is his father’s favorite phrase from coaching — “Practice winning everyday!” — written in his own handwriting.
Riggs and his father will always be linked on the football field. Riggs, now a 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior linebacker at Carroll, plays football with the same ferocity his father showed as a fullback at the University of Kansas.
His father won’t be in attendance when Carroll (10-1) plays at Goddard (11-0) in the Class 5A semifinals. Roger Robben died Nov. 30, 2015 after returning home from an early-morning run. He was 46.
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Without his best friend, his mentor, his coach, Riggs has done everything he can to keep parts of his father with him.
“He set an example for what I should do in my life and how I should be,” Riggs said. “I play every game now to make him proud. I want to be just like him.”
‘He was our everything’
Growing up the kid of a football coach was just how you thought it would be for Roger Robben’s three children.
Robben was a coach for nearly two decades, including stints at Remington, Buhler, Goddard, and Augusta.
“When he was coaching high schools, he would take us up there to the field and play with us,” Riggs said. “I loved playing football with my dad growing up.”
“That was the highlight of our week every week watching dad coach on Friday nights, then playing with him on the weekend,” added Olivia Robben, who is a year older than Riggs and a freshman at Newman.
During the summers, Roger would take Riggs to the backyard and set up cones for agility drills to improve his footwork.
“He could always tell with me if I wasn’t going all out,” Riggs said with a laugh.
Following his playing career at KU, Roger joined coach Alan Schuckman in his early years at Carroll as an assistant coach. Schuckman was thrilled when Robben decided to return to Carroll in 2014 as a freshman-level coach so he could coach Riggs.
Carroll’s coaching staff had such great continuity that it was largely the same as when Robben left nearly 20 years earlier.
“It was kind of like getting the band back together,” Schuckman said. “That’s how we started and Roger was a big part of that building process at the beginning. I’m glad he was able to come back.”
Dusty Trail, the current coach after Schuckman stepped down following the 2016 season, was the team’s offensive coordinator when Roger first joined the staff and when he returned. He was amazed by how genuine Robben was in his interactions.
“My father had passed away right when he first came on and when (Robben) came back, he would still ask me about how my mother was doing all these years later he remembered,” Trail said. “He was one of the few people who genuinely cared about what was going on in your life. ‘How are you doing?’ wasn’t just a greeting for him like it is for most people. When he asked, he actually listened and cared about what you said.”
When Roger Robben returned to coach Riggs as a freshman, Trail was amazed by how he handled a delicate situation.
“That can be a difficult task trying to treat them like any other player on the team, but also treating them like a supportive father,” Trail said. “I think Roger found that perfect balance.”
At home, his three children — Olivia, Riggs, and Sylvia — adored him.
“He was our No. 1, our best friend, he was our everything,” Olivia said. “He’s still the best dad, best coach, best role model all in one.”
‘It’s one of those phone calls you just dread getting’
On the morning of Nov. 28, 2015 — the day Carroll was set to play Mill Valley for a state championship — Schuckman arrived to the coaches office at Carroll a little after 5 a.m. with sleet falling outside to find Roger Robben drenched in sweat inside.
Schuckman incredulously asked what he was doing. “Gameday tradition,” Roger said with a smile.
Two days later, following a Carroll loss in the title game, Schuckman was at breakfast with one of his daughters when he received a phone call from police. Robben had gone for another morning run, this time he had collapsed in his own home and died, the police told him.
“It was one of those phone calls you just dread getting,” Schuckman said. “It was a very low time.”
Olivia found her father collapsed in the bathroom. She remembers the panic, the attempts at resuscitation, the tears. It still doesn’t seem real two years later.
“The fact that you can be so fit and run all the time and do everything the right way and it still doesn’t end up for you…,” Olivia said. “I guess when it’s your time, it’s your time.”
Riggs was comforted by the outpouring of support from the Carroll community, but nothing could quell his anger.
Why did this happen? How could this happen?
It will never make sense to him.
“After it happened, I remember just wanting to get back out on the football field so bad,” Riggs said. “I wanted to take my anger out.”
For a tight-knit coaching staff, it was stunning. Two nights before, following the 35-14 loss in the championship, the staff stuck around for hours in the coaches office when they returned to Wichita, discussing the game. For most, it would be their last interaction with Roger Robben.
“I hate even going back and remembering that time because it was so tremendously difficult,” Trail said. “It was devastating not only to us, but to our entire community at Carroll.”
Schuckman remembered talking with Robben the next day about an alum, Blake Bell, playing in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers.
“I never thought that would be the last exchange of words we would have,” Schuckman said. “After that day, I never worried about losing a state championship game again. It put football in perspective.”
The next year Schuckman, at age 52, resigned following 22 seasons, 193 victories, 11 City League titles, and two state championships.
‘That big smile beaming from ear to ear’
The night before a big game, Roger Robben used to print off a picture of the other team’s star quarterback or running back and tape the picture in Riggs’ room.
He called it “target practice” and used it as a motivational ploy to let Riggs know who he needed to be hitting on Friday night.
Riggs hasn’t needed any reminding this season. After finishing second on the team in tackles last season, Riggs has had a breakthrough season with a team-high 102 tackles (the next closest is 68), 28 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and two safeties.
“My dad would be on Cloud Nine right now if he was here watching Riggs plow through the line and annihilate people like he’s doing right now,” Olivia said.
It’s been a joy for Schuckman to watch the uncanny similarities between the man he considered a close friend and his son Schuckman once coached.
“The apple don’t fall far from the tree, that’s for sure,” Schuckman said. “I remember the intensity and the physical style of play Roger had and believe me, Riggs is right there. Riggs has carried on his legacy and I know his dad is somewhere up there looking down on him and is so proud right now.”
Trail started to smile when he began thinking of what Roger Robben would think of his son now.
“I can so clearly picture Roger in my head right now with that big smile beaming ear to ear on Friday night,” Trail said. “He’s going to be watching from heaven with that big smile on his face, for sure.”
A couple of weeks following his father’s death, Riggs started searching through his father’s old belongings. He came across some film of Roger’s playing days at KU.
To this day, watching that film of his father is the one thing that can cleanse Riggs’ pent-up anger.
“He was a hard runner and it was so cool seeing him run over people like that,” Riggs said. “He would go 100 percent every single play.”
It’s a reminder to Riggs to practice winning every day.
“It always makes me feel better,” Riggs said. “I know he would want me to go out there and play hard every day and win the day, so that’s what I try to do.”
Friday’s state semifinals
Class 6A: Derby (10-1) at Wichita Northwest (10-1)
Class 5A: Carroll (10-1) at Goddard (11-0)
Class 4A-I: Andale (11-0) at McPherson (10-1)