Mike Roberts kept getting faster, picking up speed each year he ran. In middle school he was a standout; in high school, an All-American; at Hillsdale College, almost a national champion.
A middle and long distance runner, Roberts used to smoke sprinters for fun in footraces. Horsing around after practice his sophomore year of college, however, he tried too hard to run too fast. Mid-sprint, he felt lightening in his legs before suffering fiery agony.
“It felt like my muscles had rolled up my leg into a tennis ball before bursting,” Roberts recalls, squinting with fresh pain over an old injury almost twenty years later.
He had exploded his right hamstring, and for the next season, he’d be on crutches. For the first time, Mike Roberts was slow. He says he still wonders, “what if — how fast could I have gone?”
Roberts grew up a skinny kid in Sturgis, Michigan, where he wrestled, ran cross-country, and excelled especially at track. Posting speeds of 50 seconds flat in the 400 meter and 1:57 in the 800 meter, he quickly became a top collegiate prospect.
Through personal phone calls and hand written notes, track coach Bill Lundberg wooed the small town stand out to Hillsdale College. Years later, the coach says he was impressed by the boy’s raw athletic ability — “ Mike was very impressive…he earned 12 varsity letters.”
His collegiate career accelerated quickly when he came to campus in 1994. While running relay freshman year, his team almost earned All-American status but fell by a tenth of a second. At the nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska, Roberts set a school record finishing fourth in the nation in the 400 meter.
But cross-country season sophomore year, it all fell apart after the hamstring explosion.He’d regained his legs but never his blazing speed. Yet from adversity came opportunity as Roberts rallied his team as a student coach, beginning a remarkable career.
A history and physical wellness double major, Roberts says he always planned on coaching. His injury just sped up that process.
After graduation, he bolted out of the gate, taking a teaching and coaching position back in Sturgis. After a two-year teaching stint in Colorado, Roberts returned to Hillsdale for the challenge that would define his career.
His alma mater had called him home in 2002 to build an athletic program for its tiny flagship charter school, Hillsdale Academy. He’d have to do it from scratch, drawing from a student body of less than a hundred.
Roberts added five sports for both boys and girls and demanded excellence in each. An athlete and an educator, he realized that fostering an environment that encouraged competition and participation would be “the number one priority.” He argues that athletics anchor the Academy’s rigorous academics.
Headmaster Dr. Kenneth Calvert agrees but adds that fundamentally it’s Coach Roberts who is “indispensible to the success of our school.”
Since Robert returned, Hillsdale Academy has kept getting faster, winning divisional titles and chasing state championships. What Roberts jumpstarted won’t slow down anytime soon.