It’s been 36 years since Rex Robertson graduated from Forest Park High School, but since returning to Phillips Drive to turn a downtrodden football team into a winner in his first season as a head coach, he feels as though he never left.
Yes, things have changed in the city of Forest Park since Robertson turned his tassel in 1984. Stores, restaurants and miniature golf courses he once frequented as a kid have long been replaced. The city’s demographics have changed and so have the fortunes of a football team that posted seven straight winning seasons in the 1990s, including consecutive 11-win years in 1994-1995.
“It’s weird,” he said. “So much has changed around here, but it is still very much the same place — and that’s because of the people in this community. There’s a sense of family here and a love for Forest Park High School and our community. I can’t tell you how many alumni have reached out to me and just say they want to help our team. We’re talking about people who went to school here in 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and people who I have known for years. This community shares a love for this school and our team.”
What Robertson is trying to do at Forest Park is by no means a walk in the park. It’s a mountain that will make his first season perhaps as difficult than any other first-year coach in the state. Robertson arrived on campus knowing the team not only hadn’t had a winning season since 2000, but hasn’t come close to being mediocre, considering the team hasn’t won more than three games in a season this century.
What else? Try dealing with COVID-19 that forced him to get to know his players over Zoom instead of in person and during summer workouts, where the seeds of team unity and strong player-coach relationships are planted.
“What’s been going on has been so hard on everybody,” he said. “But I can’t say enough about our team. These kids have done everything — and I mean everything — that we’ve asked of them. I thought I was going to have to come in here and get them to trust me, but from the first day I could see how much they wanted to win and be a family. It hasn’t been easy, but that’s what we are becoming here — a family.”
Robertston says he doesn’t watch the news. He doesn’t know if there will even be a season. He doesn’t have time to worry about it because he’s too busy getting his team ready. He is concerned because as hard as his team has worked, as hard as they’ve studied technique and as hard as they’ve tried to work together as a common goal, they haven’t been permitted to tackle and really, do anything that resembles what they will do in a real-game situation.
Fortunately for Forest Park, Robertson is no stranger to rebuilding struggling programs. As an assistant, his ability to produce successful offensive schemes and five all-state quarterbacks in the past decade has led to dramatic turnarounds at Henry County, Eagle’s Landing and Meadowcreek, transforming perennial cellar dwellers into playoff teams. In 2017, with Robertson as offensive assistant, Meadowcreek — just a few years removed from a 53-game losing streak — made the Class AAAAAAA playoffs, marking its first postseason playoff appearance since it was a Class AA school in 1989.
Forest Park’s senior class has gone 7-23 the last three seasons. That’s a marked improvement for a squad that went 6-64 from 2011-2017. But what will separate Forest Park under Robertson is he’s committed to continuity. While he’s quick to point out he’s not speaking for any of the team’s previous coaches, it is easy to point out that the team had 12 coaches — none of whom stayed more than two consecutive years — since Bob Smith stepped down after six seasons in 2002.
“These Forest Park kids are hungry and they want to win,” Robertson said. “I can see it in their eyes and how hard they are working. These kids want to win.”
And so does Robertson, desperately.
“We expect to compete. We expect to win,” said Robertson, whose program hasn’t been to the playoffs since being bounced in the first round in 1996 to finish a 7-4 season. “I’m not going to set a win total. But we won at Meadowcreek and we are a lot further along here than we were there. One half of winning is expectation and preparing to win. We are coming into a region where I believe we can win and be competitive right away.”