When Pinkerton Academy boys track coach Wally Roberts was retiring in the spring of 2012, Ian French started a Facebook page to gather some memories.
“The response was nothing short of incredible. I created the page only about four days before the end of the season and in that time hundreds of people joined the page and wrote some wonderful things about Walter and the effect he had on their lives,” said French.
“I printed it out to give to him at the Division 1 championship meet and it was 46 pages long. It was pretty clear that this was someone who was more than just a great coach, he was an exceptional person. The world is simply a less bright place without him in it.”
Roberts, 60, of Hampstead, died Friday at Boston Medical Center.
In 21 years as indoor track coach, his Pinkerton teams went 488-53-1 (most of the meets included numerous teams), won the 1993 state title and were runner-up in 1995, 2000 and 2001. In 23 years in spring track, his squads had a 116-28 dual meet record and won state titles in 194 and 2012 and were second in 1995 and 2001.
The spring 2012 championship came down to the final event. The Astros won the 4x400 relay to earn the dramatic championship. Afterward, relay member John Keisling said, “We had to win it for Coach, and there couldn’t have been a more perfect way to end it.”
He was named Eagle-Tribune and NHIAA Boys Track Coach of the Year that season. He also was a longtime assistant for the Pinkerton football team, helping the Astros to several more titles.
For a coach who won an awful lot, though, Wally Roberts was never about wins and losses.
For that, Mark Daniels is eternally grateful.
A record-setting middle school sprinter at the Hood School, Daniels’ career at Pinkerton never took off due to a series of hamstring injuries.
“I was never able to live up to that initial hype and it drove me crazy, but Coach Roberts consistently made it a point to tell me he wasn’t disappointed in me,” said Daniels, a sportswriter at the Boston Herald. “In fact, he’d always applaud my leadership and awarded me the team’s Coaches Award. ... He spent extra time to not only make us better athletes, but better students and people. He helped me become the man I am today.”
When Daniels had to give up running, he said Roberts made sure his teammates continued to support him and even named him an assistant coach.
“I am forever grateful that he was a part of my life,” said Daniels.
Two people wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for Roberts.
Roberts, his brother-in-law and father-in-law saved a Haverhill woman in 1998 at Salisbury Beach when she was boogie boarding and drifted 300 yards out to sea.
In 2008, he used CPR to save Pinkerton hurdler Matthew Statler, who stopped breathing after taking a bad fall during practice.
“We’re very grateful,” Matthew’s mother, Kim Statler, said at the time. “God was watching over him. And his coach was, too.”
Roberts, the son of Mass. Hall of Fame football coach Walter Roberts Sr., was an Eagle-Tribune All-Star football center at Lawrence High, where he held the pole vault record for 21 years
Randy Hart, the quarterback on that 1970 Lawrence team, called him, “My dear friend, teammate and a great track coach.”
Andover football coach E.J. Perry knew Roberts since Roberts was an assistant coach for his father’s Lawrence High track teams.
“One of the true coaches in the area. One of my dad’s favorites,” said Perry.
Pinkerton’s French, The Eagle-Tribune Boys Indoor Track Coach of the Year the last two years, gained newfound respect for his old coach when he went to college.
“I didn’t realize how great a coach Wally really was until he wasn’t my coach anymore,” he said. “When I got to college, I just kind of assumed all coaches were like Wally, dedicated to winning but more importantly dedicated to athletes and making them better people. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“When I realized how lucky I was to have had him, I made the decision that I would find my way back to Pinkerton and work with Walter to try to be a positive influence on young people like he always was for me. ... He took me into his program and taught me more than I ever could imagine. I hope that when my last meet comes, I’ve been even half the coach he was.”