Coach: IC soccer player who died of brain cancer ‘typified student-athlete experience’
Robbie Lopez was best known to the Illinois College community for his tenacity on the soccer field.
By Steven Spearie, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/@StevenSpearie
This article appeared in the State Journal Register on Dec. 6, 2020.
Off the pitch, Lopez was much more: a terrific student — he had the highest grade point average on the team — a member of a literary society devoted to service and an active member in his church, First Assembly of God, in his hometown of Normal.
Lopez was a standout from the University High School program in Normal, but he chose Illinois College, a school that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, to continue his playing career with academics very much in mind.
“If you were to describe a student-athlete at our school, there wouldn’t be a better person to mention than Robbie. (NCAA) Divison III is a lot about balance and it’s a holistic approach to the college experience and he typified that experience. In a sense he was the face of that.”
Lopez, 23, died on Nov. 29 at Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria after battling brain cancer for about a year and a half. Philpott and most of Lopez’s teammates attended a funeral service Saturday in Normal. Several of those teammates served as pallbearers.
Illinois College officials have already said that Lopez, who had hoped to be a youth minister in his church after graduating, would be awarded his bachelor’s degree posthumously at commencement in the spring.
The college’s athletics department and the soccer team will be launching a social media campaign to remember Lopez.
Teammates, including his younger brother Christian Lopez '22, commemorated Lopez by wearing “Rally For Robbie” wristbands during the 2019 season. A fundraiser was held for the Lopez family the weekend of Illinois College’s game against Midwest Conference rival Beloit College when Lopez was recognized in a special ceremony.
Kyle Tucker '20, a former teammate and roommate of Lopez’s, said Lopez used his emotions to inspire his fellow Blueboys in a good way.
“Very rarely was he negative,” Tucker recalled of Lopez. “He was always trying to pick everyone else up. He was one of those guys you wanted to play for because of how much passion he brought to the team.”
Lopez joined Illinois College in 2016 and played three seasons. Philpott said he had ACL surgery in 2018 and was just starting to take part in training sessions in the spring of 2019, shortly after Philpott was named coach.
“Then he started feeling symptoms. He had some really bad migraines,” Philpott recalled.
Lopez got the official diagnosis in the late spring. Still, he remained on the roster for the 2019 season.
“He was able to come to a few home games when he was feeling well enough,” Philpott said.
That fall semester, Tucker remembered, Lopez was always busy trying to catch up on schoolwork. And Tucker knew most of the time his friend was tired and didn't feel good.
“I know it made him upset that he couldn't play with us during our senior year, but him just being there made me play harder and want to be better,” Tucker said.
Kurt Albrecht said he recruited Lopez to the Jacksonville school because he was a hard worker, got good grades and had good character.
“He checked all the boxes,” said Albrecht, now the coach at Millsaps College. “It was an easy choice.”
Hearing about Lopez’s cancer diagnosis, Albrecht added, was like “a sucker punch. But I knew if there was someone who was going to have a chance to beat that, I figured Robbie would. He was always willing to fight for anything he literally cared about.
“(Hearing about his passing), that was a really tough day.”
Philpott knew Lopez was a warrior on the field, but he also knew that Lopez drew a lot of strength from his faith. it seemed like every conversation Philpott had with Lopez was about all of the things he was doing for others.
“He inspired a lot of people as he was going through this entire process,” Philpott reflected. “Never did he give up, never did he not take part in things. He was still going to church, he was going to our games.
“He always would light up the room. He was always smiling and encouraging others. His spirit inspired the team and inspired everyone he met.”
Ironically, Philpott never coached Lopez in a game. By the 2019 season, Lopez was too sick to play and COVID-19 wiped out the Blueboys’ 2020 season.
If Philpott’s time with Lopez was short, it was memorable and instructive.
“These things are never easy,” Philpott admitted, just hours after Lopez’s service. “One of the things that makes coaching so special is that you get to meet so many special people who are so heavily involved in a part of your life and even though it was a short time, Robbie made an impact on my life.
“He was able to teach me how to be a better leader, how to be a better coach, be a better person, be a better man. He had a gift of inspiring people and getting the most out of you. That’s something I’ll always take with me as a coach.
“I’m extremely thankful to have met him and for all the things he was able to do for me, for the team and for Illinois College.”