Over the course of one week in August 2018, Kayla Robinson’s life changed forever.
Then 18, Robinson was in Minneapolis competing in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series with her softball team from the Houston Astros Youth Academy. The YA, which offers free baseball and softball instruction year-round to youth aged 7-17, was one of eight softball teams to qualify for the signature event of Major League Baseball’s initiative to provide young people from underserved communities the opportunity to play.
Robinson was also hard at work on an essay for an exclusive round of the Jackie Robinson (no relation) “Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life” contest. The national program, conceived and developed by Jackie’s daughter, Sharon -- an educational consultant for MLB -- asked students to write about barriers or obstacles they have faced or are still facing in their lives, and how they dealt with them using the values Jackie exemplified: citizenship, commitment, courage, determination, excellence, integrity, justice, persistence and teamwork.
The year before, Robinson’s coach, Megan Hays, had approached her and said she should enter the contest. Robinson didn’t know what her topic should be. Hays told her, “Write about your story.”
So she did, but the judges told Robinson that it didn’t have enough “touching information and compelling details.” The 2018 contest was the recent high school graduate’s last chance, and she was determined to win it.
“Throughout the week, on my free time, I was writing my paper, trying to make sure that when people read it, they were moved by everything that I’ve experienced,” Robinson said. “Coach Megan read that paper 1,000 times, just trying to make sure that it was a good product to present to the world.”
The now-recent college graduate’s 1,300-word entry, entitled “The Storm,” told the emotional story of how Robinson and her family left everything behind in New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and moved to Houston, where they then had their lives upended by the Memorial Day flood of ’15, the Tax Day flood of ’16 and Hurricane Harvey in ‘17.
“The idea of leaving everything behind and what would have happened if we stayed still clouds my thoughts,” Robinson wrote. “Once we were gone, we never looked back. Hurricane Katrina not only ripped homes from the ground, but drowned dreams that were not even developed yet. A setback that drastic for a five-year-old only meant I had to grow up sooner.
“My family knew that getting to higher ground was the only way to keep our nightmares from becoming a reality again,” she wrote later. “It was vulnerability in its purest form. I lost one house to wind and another to water. A life of nature that I could not seem to get away from.”
Through it all, guided by the two S’s of her life (school and softball), Robinson graduated in the top 20 of her class of 450 and was the captain of her high school softball team. That story won the “Breaking Barriers” contest.
Robinson was presented with a laptop computer by David James, MLB’s vice president of baseball and softball development.
Later that week, Robinson and her Astros YA team raised the RBI World Series trophy, presented by Kim Ng in her former role as MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations.
It was a full-circle moment for Robinson, one of the original members of the Astros YA when it opened in 2010. Some of the instructors were coaches at Robinson’s church, and they brought her, her twin brother and her two older twin brothers over to the Academy because it was up the street and in need of trainees, arranging rides for the kids to attend daily workouts and access tutoring services.
Robinson started off playing baseball, as she had since she was 2 or 3 with her brothers in New Orleans, before switching over to softball -- as often happens with young girls. There was a learning curve to adjust the timing of her swings at the plate and the angles of her routes in the field, but she worked hard to ensure that her skills translated: “It's the same game, but it's a completely different game.”
Hays made sure that Robinson had college recruits looking at her, since her school district didn’t have as many for softball. Daryl Wade, the director of the Astros YA, made sure that she had all the equipment she needed -- extra bats, gloves, anything they could spare.
“They’re family now,” Robinson said. “They had everything accessible to us so we could be successful in the future. We had no problem wearing Astros on our chest or showing up and being there for the Academy, because they gave us so many things back. It’s a blessing. My time at the Academy shaped not only my game in softball, but me as a person.
“Once they meet you and they see that you’re committed to the game, they’re there for you. … I’m just very grateful and thankful for the Academy and the people there, because without them, I know for sure I wouldn’t be where I am today. So the Academy, it’s all love. It’s doing exactly what it was implemented for, to be there for the community and those in it.”
The next phase of Robinson’s life was already awaiting her on the other side of that momentous week. She was late checking in and had to call her coach, Wilbert Early, at Grambling State University in Louisiana, where she enrolled on a full-ride scholarship with the softball team. Some of her old T-ball coaches from New Orleans who she had kept in contact with introduced her to Early, and “it was just history from there.”
“You can’t beat a full ride,” Robinson said. “In so many places and in so many families, paying for college is the hardest part. … I knew going to a school that offered me a full ride would be the best financial decision that I made starting my adult life.”
It also helped that Grambling -- whose motto "Where everybody is somebody" resonates with Robinson -- is an HBCU. She saw first-hand at the RBI World Series that historically Black colleges and universities were invested in recruiting a diverse pool of talent. It’s no accident that the Astros YA has 27 former members playing baseball and softball at HBCUs in 2021.
“They were searching for us,” said Robinson, who also has GSU teammates from an RBI program in Alabama who were discovered by Early there. “Obviously, we’re not playing just for fun. We’re playing to make a difference for ourselves. And they’re making sure that they have someone there watching us to better our future. So I commend MLB, USA Softball and the RBI programs for making sure that there are recruits there at the games and tournaments we play.”
Earlier this month, Robinson graduated from Grambling State with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in history in just three years. She plans to stay there on scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in sports administration and continue playing softball with the two years of NCAA eligibility she has remaining (including the extra year from COVID-19).
After that, Robinson has her sights set on attending Tulane University in New Orleans and earning a sports law degree, so she can achieve her eventual goal of working as an executive for MLB with the RBI programs. She already has some powerful supporters in her corner.
Sarah Padove, J.D., MLB’s senior coordinator of baseball and softball development, has taken Robinson to dinner. James, who has a close relationship with Hays and Wade in Houston, has made himself available to her. And Ng, well, she gave Robinson her business card after the trophy presentation that day in Minneapolis and maintains an e-mail correspondence with her.
“I want to have the most clean-cut résumé that they’ve ever seen,” Robinson said. “That’s the plan so far. You never know. I’m hoping for the best. Follow the plans. It’s worked so far.”