You would have better odds of becoming an astronaut than a high-schooler has of getting into the Coca-Cola Scholars program. Daron Roberts beat those odds 20 years ago, and today, he teaches collegians about the same qualities that forged his success: empathy and vulnerability. He’s so good at it, he can break through even the hardest shells.

By Tim Turner | Photos by John Glenn


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Before delivering this morning’s lecture to students in his University of Texas course, “A Game Plan for Winning at Life,” Daron Roberts had a decision to make: Would he maximize the opportunity to teach a life lesson, and one of his core values, to the many? Or, would he go for cheap laughs and humiliate a few?

You see, roughly half the students in Roberts’ standing-room-only lecture are Longhorn athletes, whose hometowns are from across the nation and around the globe. Most are freshmen, and all were attentive as Roberts actively practiced what he was preaching. And he did it almost imperceptibly.

Central to Roberts’ lecture this day were two qualities he says today’s young people lack, but which he considers vitally important — vulnerability and empathy.  So, to get the discussion going, Roberts asked the students for examples of shame they had experienced at different stages of their lives. Answers ranged from “wetting your pants” in elementary school, to “wearing Skechers” in middle school, to “losing” in their respective sports in high school.

And for college? Right there before Roberts was an example that was the lowest of low-hanging fruit for him to use. This was the students’ first class after Labor Day weekend, and Roberts could have easily made mention of the Longhorns’ shameful home football loss, 51-41, to Maryland. But he didn’t. He wouldn’t.

“I did that on purpose,” Roberts, founding director of UT’s Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation (CSLi), told me later. “I’ve got several football players in this class, and I didn’t want to embarrass them. How could I teach them to have empathy and want them to be vulnerable if I did that?”

Empathy. Vision. Self-Awareness. Inspiration. These are the four key leadership values the 38-year-old Roberts has embraced since his selection as a Coca-Cola Scholar in 1997. It’s been 20 years, but lessons learned during the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation weekend affected Roberts personally. They also affect his work as a college professor, and they will resonate in communities internationally.

 
 
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Daron Roberts teaching his course, “A Game Plan for Winning at Life,” at the University of Texas in Austin.
 
 
 
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Through what he learned as a Coca-Cola Scholar, Roberts encourages students to evaluate themselves on a deeply personal level. Only through self-examination, Roberts reasons, will they genuinely learn to understand others. It’s a concept of leading from the inside out.

And it’s a practice that has served him well since his Coca-Cola Scholars weekend in Atlanta in 1997. There, scholars were challenged to reflect on themselves, so they could more effectively lead others. For many of them, it was a new way of thinking about leadership.  Scholars were taught that leadership isn’t merely checking boxes to get things done. Rather, it’s a journey that requires them to bring other people along. They are taught to embrace those values and deploy the tools the program provides to become even more effective leaders when they arrive on their college campuses the following fall.

Count Roberts among those who was once only a box-checker. It’s what high achievers often do, even fifth-generation ones from Mount Pleasant, Texas, where Roberts and his older sister were raised by a mom who was an elementary-school principal and a dad who was both a Baptist minister and a soil scientist. He excelled athletically and academically at Mount Pleasant High School. His success in the classroom led to the school’s guidance counselor urging him to apply for the Coca-Cola Scholars Program.

That, unbeknownst to Roberts, was the easy part. Annually, about 180,000 high-school students request an application to become a Coca-Cola Scholar. Of those 180,000, about 100,000 actually submit an application. Of those, only 150 receive scholarships.

“And they’re outstanding,” says Jane Hopkins, executive vice president and president-elect of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation. “It is easier to become a NASA astronaut than it is to become a Coca-Cola Scholar. I mean, those numbers are phenomenal.”

 
 
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The same adjective applies to the Coca-Cola Scholars Program. The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation was founded in 1986 to celebrate Coca-Cola’s centennial birthday. Its U.S.-based bottling partners wanted to give a gift to the company. Crawford Johnson, from Coke United, went to the late Roberto Goizueta, then CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, with the idea of starting a scholarship program to reward the future leaders in the communities where they were doing business. Johnson understood the company was only as healthy as those communities. Goizueta loved the idea, but stipulated the company itself be a full partner in the program.

Coke awarded its first class of scholars in 1989. Since then, the flagship program has had 29 classes of scholars and awarded more than $63 million in scholarship dollars.

An algorithm selects 2,000 semifinalists, whose submissions are read by 30 college admissions counselors. The application is similar to one for admission — essays and recommendations included. That number is reduced to a more manageable 250 regional finalists. From there, each is interviewed by a Coca-Cola Scholars alum, a tradition begun to help shape the future of the foundation and to reach the final 150 scholars.

Roberts, a member of the foundation’s Alumni Advisory Board, helps select Coca-Cola Scholars during one of three trips he makes annually to Atlanta. The 16-member board meets to discuss ways alumni can provide leadership programming for Coke Scholars around the country. Examples include a session held on the West Coast with Google, designed to help Coca-Cola Scholars to learn more about the concept of mindfulness, and to network with other scholars.

As a high-school senior, the opportunity to come to Atlanta and go home with a scholarship can be a life-changing opportunity.

"The weekend was so much more than the scholarship," Roberts says of his experience two decades ago. "That weekend reminded me of the power of community. So, although we were there for three days — it’s a short period of time — I formed some friendships with people that have lasted until now.”

It also was responsible for an internal course correction for Roberts. As engaged as he was in the classroom and in his community, he found himself among peers who forced him to step up his game.

“It forced me to double down on what I wanted to do,” Roberts says. “It made me realize that I shouldn’t put a cap on my aspirations. There were people there going to Harvard. People starting nonprofits already. People creating startups. Designing games.

“I remember walking in and thinking, ‘Wow. I’m a kid from a small town. I really have the potential to do something great, because I’ve got 149 other people here who are really trying to maximize their potential on Earth.’”

To Roberts, that meant a career in public service. So, while studying at UT, student government became his thing — first as a student government representative in both his freshman and sophomore years, then rising to SGA president by his senior year. He was, he thought, unstoppable.

Until, well, he was stopped.

 
 
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“I was wait-listed for Harvard Law School. Four straight years,” Roberts said. “That was my dream law school. I wanted to go into politics.”

The career in politics never happened. But Harvard Law School eventually did, after a stint in Washington as a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and earning his master’s in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

That first year at Harvard Law School — one Roberts calls "the most demanding of my life" — could have consumed him. In his class of 550 students, he found himself among former Miss Americas, brain surgeons, and Green Berets. Name any endeavor requiring superior capabilities, and it was represented by some classmate. And it all would have been intimidating for Roberts had it not been for his Coke Scholars experience.

"Being around and competing against those I was with at the Coke weekend was the best preparation for being in that law school environment," Roberts said. "Those 150 scholars, they were doing some amazing things.”

 
 
 
 
 
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They still are. The Alumni Advisory Board is giving back through organizing community service events, such as a Service Summit in Denver this year. Last year, when it was held in Austin, participants removed debris and helped to upgrade an elementary school playground.

Past scholars have gone on to become leaders bringing significant changes in their communities. One scholar now helps doctors tailor drugs and treatment regimens to work more effectively for women. Another has founded an organization that supplies children in India with educational resources and proper medical care. One scholar leads an organization that raises funds and awareness for United Nations programs that provide girls in developing countries with basic needs — access to school supplies, life-saving health services, safety from violence. Still another arranges work for low-income people around the world through her companies.

In addition to the Alumni Advisory Board, Roberts works with the Leadership Development Institute of the Coca-Cola Scholars program. The institute helps to train new Coca-Cola Scholars each spring through a weekend exploration into areas like empathy and vulnerability.

Participating in these weekends with alumni and the students constantly reminds Roberts why he took a nontraditional path for a Harvard Law School grad, but the right path for him.

While in law school, he accepted an invitation to help coach at a summer football camp. The experience redirected his interests from practicing law to coaching, something he did during stops at Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, and Houston in the NFL. He also coached collegiately at West Virginia University.

“I was in no position to turn down anything in the National Football League,” Roberts said of his first NFL job at Kansas City. “I could have gone to (law firm) Vinson & Elkins in Houston and started at $150,000. But in my mind, this was one of those things — when I fast-forward to talking to my grandson — is this one of those opportunities that I’m going to regret not taking?

“I kept thinking, can I get the same job at Vinson & Elkins in three years? Yeah. Can I get another training-camp internship with an NFL team with no coaching experience? No! So, I took the NFL up on its offer.”

That’s right. A Harvard law degree was Roberts' Plan B.

 
 
 
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“It was funny, because I had buddies on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, Baker & McKenzie, and I’m sleeping in a stadium on a Coleman mattress,” Roberts said. “I saw Harvard Law School as a tool that empowered me to take risks. My friends saw it as a, ‘Now I have to go practice.’ I was like, when you come to a place like this, you can do whatever you want to do. I felt like with that kind of background, I can get back into law if I needed to.

“My friends looked at it as wasting my law degree. I told them legal problems aren’t going anywhere. The NFL was a rare opportunity. Vinson & Elkins was not — in my mind.”

Roberts worked his tail off with the Chiefs. He kept his mouth shut and made himself ubiquitous. He figured the only way he was going to get ahead was to do so much work for people that everybody wanted him around. If copies needed to be made, he made them. Offensive linemen need BBQ sandwiches? Roberts got them. Coach wanted his car washed? He washed it. He put out cones before practice and collected them afterward. He did this for a year.

“It really taught me the power of humility, because a lot of the coaches were skeptical of me,” Roberts said. “They were like, ‘Who is this guy from Harvard Law trying to coach?’ It took me six months to get that out of their heads. By the end of the season, I wasn’t on their level — I wouldn’t say that — but they didn’t mind having me around.”

That included Head Coach Herm Edwards, who, after firing three coaches from that year’s staff, hired Roberts as a quality-control coach. The new job lasted one additional season, until Chiefs management fired its entire coaching staff.

 
 
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Roberts with his children in Austin.
 
 

With coaching out of his system, and still with a law degree in his back pocket, Roberts’ next act was to pursue making an impact on young people as an educator. He moved his family to Austin. He reached out to UT’s dean of liberal arts for teaching opportunities. In the fall of 2014, he began teaching a class on Sports Leadership, a career move he said was validated by his Coke Scholars experience.

“My Coke Scholars weekend reinforced the idea that leadership is important,” Roberts said. “Being in a room with 149 other leaders, from all facets of life, showed me leadership is something that can take me to places that I may have never been able to go to. It started back then. It taught me how important it is to train people in leadership.”

Which he does every day while leading CSLi, the nation’s first university-based institute dedicated to developing leadership and character curricula for high-school and collegiate athletes. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he’s at UT teaching two courses — “A Game Plan for Winning at Life” and “Leadership Strategy in Sports and Disruptive Innovation in Sports.” On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he’s traveling extensively to speak to schools and corporations about leadership topics.

"What I’m doing now is influenced by the Coke experience, which reinforced what my parents taught me — that we’re all connected, that we need to share resources,” Roberts says. “And seeing how important community service was to Coke, I wanted to live a life of service.”

Additionally, Roberts donates time to community service through his own nonprofit football camp, 4th and 1 Inc., which provides free SAT prep, life-skills development and football training to at-risk youth in Michigan, Texas, and Florida. The camp has served nearly 500 student-athletes since 2010. His free time, otherwise, is consumed with helping raise five kids  — three boys, two girls, ranging in age from 4 months to 7 years old — with his wife, Hilary.

The value of service was what Roberts was trying to convey to his class, as he encouraged them to explore personal vulnerabilities and express empathy to connect with other people. It’s why, for this class, he used elements from a presentation he sat in on three years ago at the Leadership Development Institute during a Coke weekend for this lecture. Because he teaches roughly 300 students annually at UT, he considers their getting experience in vulnerability and empathy a worthwhile commitment.

It certainly is to Roberts. But would it be the same for his students? His answer came near the end of a recent lecture, when a male student shared that after being encouraged by his friends to ask a girl out for a movie date, she told him no. Given that the classroom was filled with jocks, this could have been a potentially devastating admission for the guy. Instead of being met with ridicule, the response was a collective and nearly deafening, "Awwwwwww."

At that, Roberts smiled broadly. His lecture had hit home.