Roberts named MPCC Distinguished Alum

Willie Roberts
Thursday, September 7, 2023

Willie Roberts, of North Platte, has been selected to receive the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award from Mid-Plains Community College.

Roberts was nominated by MPCC cabinet members based on his ongoing support of the college and its student-athletes. He will be recognized Nov. 5 during the Nebraska Community College Association’s annual meeting in North Platte.  

“I’m surprised and honored,” Roberts said upon hearing the news. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this. I don’t do what I do for the attention – it’s just me giving back.”

About Roberts

The college holds a special place in Robert’s heart. It’s what brought him to North Platte in the first place.

Originally from Quitman, Miss., Roberts transferred to North Platte for the 1996-97 season to play basketball for the MPCC Knights under Coach Kevin O’Connor. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury and had to redshirt.

“I was an older kid coming to Nebraska,” Roberts said. “I was 21, and North Platte was a completely different landscape from what I was used to. I grew up around a lot of gangs and violence, so I had a protective barrier up when I got here. I was lucky to have a great host family in Rick and Laurie Johnson [now Jones], and their kids Erick and Hayley. Laurie broke down my barrier just by being a mom.”

Roberts spent a lot of time with the Johnsons. He helped Rick coach Erick’s youth league basketball team and also assisted Erick with his homework.

“I shot my first and last duck with Erick,” Roberts said. “Whatever the Johnsons did, I did. They were my home away from home.”

When his girlfriend Amanda, now his wife, became pregnant with their son Dijon, Willie quit playing basketball and got a job to support his new family.

“Even though I was no longer a student-athlete, my host parents were still there for me,” Willie said. “Laurie was the first person to buy Dijon diapers.”

Willie Roberts family

Willie Roberts’ entire family has been involved with hosting student athletes for North Platte Community College. Pictured left to right are: Brittney DeMilt, Willie’s future daughter-in-law; Darnell, Willie’s son; Amanda, Willie’s wife; Dayonna, Willie’s daughter and Ashley Hassett, former NPCC basketball player.

When his children were little, life kept Willie busy enough that he didn’t have much time for Knights basketball. He didn’t go to many games until Dijon was in high school.

That all changed during the 2015-16 season, at which point Dijon became a student manager for the team, and Willie and Amanda were thrust back into the Knight life full-time.

“Suddenly, all these basketball kids were at our house,” Willie said. “For a while there, Amanda and I were feeding them twice a day. Eventually, I started asking, ‘Where is the host parent program?’ I found out it kind of fell by the wayside.”

Gary and Connie Jo Essells had coordinated the host family program for the Knights men’s and women’s basketball teams for nearly two decades – including the time when Willie was in college. After the Essells moved to Hutchinson, Kan. in Sept. 2006, the program fell into a state of dormancy and only operated on a limited basis.

“Carol Sandau was basically trying to run it alone, so I asked Coach [O’Connor] if I could help out, and we started the program back up again,” Willie said. “I contacted people my wife and I trusted that we knew were good families, with a halfway decent financial background, that could have a kid over and not be put in financial straits. They didn’t have to be rich, but they had to be able to feed two or three more kids because a lot of times those athletes bring a friend to meals.”

They also had to be families who weren’t expecting something in return.

“You don’t get paid for this,” Willie said. “It takes a special person to want to do this. It means sharing personal time. You’re cooking a dinner and inviting the athletes to your house on a holiday with your family. It means being available – to answer the phone and talk to these kids, to listen to them, to cheer them on at a game, to let them sit down and watch TV without being bothered by life’s problems.”

In the beginning, Willie and Amanda were primarily focused on spearheading the host family program for men’s basketball. They became increasingly involved with women’s basketball when their daughter Dayonna played for the Knights during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons.

Dayonna Roberts

Pictured left to right: Willie Roberts, his daughter Dayonna Roberts, Willie’s wife Amanda Roberts and NPCC women’s basketball head coach Jeff Thurman participate in Sophomore Night at NPCC last spring.

Willie said the core group of host families that currently exists is strong.

“We’ve also had a lot of support from the community along the way,” Willie said. “I had a farmer donate a whole beef to feed these kids. We made steaks for them one summer and gave hamburgers to the host families so they could invite the kids over for barbecues.”

That support is why one of his goals is to incorporate the student-athletes into the community. Host families are encouraged to take student-athletes with them when they attend community events or participate in an activity that helps them feel vested in North Platte.

“A lot of these kids are from different backgrounds,” Willie said. “They’re not used to this kind of love, and they have a shield, like I did. The best thing we can do for them is let them open up and be themselves. I would love it if my kids went to a college where there was a family that invited them to a meal and checked on them once in a while – not to be a parent, but to be there if needed.”

Willie Roberts twins

Willie Roberts stands between two of the former NPCC students that his family hosted during their time in North Platte. The twins are from San Antonio, Texas. Pictured left to right are Loren Lealiiee, Roberts and Lexa Lealiiee.

Willie and Amanda keep in contact with many of the students they’ve mentored over the years. They’ve enjoyed watching them grow and find success, but for Willie, the host family program is also about coming full circle.

“O’Connor told me when I got recruited that when you get a scholarship, it’s like getting paid for a job before you even get it,” Willie said. “Helping these kids is a way for me to pay off that scholarship. The college is what brought me to this place, and I want to give back because of what it gave me – my wife, my kids. Mid-Plains and this town have always been good to me.”