As each significant holiday passes, it’s another first for Tony Robichaux's family.
Two weekends ago, it was the first Father’s Day without the longtime UL baseball coach handling the duties on the pit for the family’s big Sunday barbecue.
Before that, it was the first Christmas and first Easter … without him.
All those special occasions have led Robichaux’s family to July 3, 2020 … one year since the coaching icon’s tragic death to heart failure.
“Some days, it still doesn’t feel real,” his oldest son Justin said. “Some days it feels like it was two months ago. Nothing in me feels like it’s been the length of a year. I think at most, it feels like a couple months.
“It definitely doesn’t feel like a calendar year has gone by since we lost our father.”
For the rest of their lives, it’s a date that will carry so many different emotions. This first one still involves processing, as well as appreciating all the many ways Robichaux's legacy carries on.
“We’re very mindful of the date,” Justin said. “I had a very close friend of mine mention to me and it really kind of hit home, he said, ‘Man, you should feel privileged as a son that you have a father that I think everyone in Lafayette and in the community knew where they were when they heard the news on July 3, 2019.’ I never thought about it that way.
“When you do think about it that way, you remember all the lives that were touched by him. How many players have successful marriages and businesses because of his impact.”
Perhaps the thing Tony Robichaux himself would be the most proud of is that July 3, 2020, marks one full year of his family and friends learning, growing and somehow becoming better people even in his physical absence.
There’s no way to know exactly where wife Colleen, Justin, daughter Ashley or youngest son Austin would be in their lives if Robichaux hadn’t died a year ago.
One thing is for sure, none of them will ever be the same.
“As a man, I’ve never been in touch with my emotions,” Justin said. “But when you experience something of that magnitude, it causes you to get in touch with some emotions and the growth process with who you are as a person and who you are as a husband and a father. My dad changed me through this process to make me better. Those are the things I’m specifically hanging on to as a son and a former player of him.”
Justin said he now feels like he’s 31 going on 40 and that Austin went from 18 to 30 “in a snap of fingers” last July.
“I know my father would be extremely proud of the mother my sister is and what she does with that family and the growth that my brother has made through this process and the level of strength that we continue to see on a daily basis from my mom,” he said.
"I think especially Austin," said Tony's twin brother Tim Robichaux, whose daughter and Tony's goddaughter Olivia is now expecting her first child. "He was kind of the baby of the family, but having to go through what he had to go through and what he’s doing now, taking on so much more responsibility. He’s definitely grown a lot. It’s affected all of them, but I think he’s changed a good bit. We stay in touch with all of them, but Austin has definitely grown and matured a lot."
Backbone of family
But through the year-long struggle of life without dad, no one set a better example in Justin’s mind than his mother.
“Me personally, I felt like I was strong until I saw my mom,” Justin said. “I had no idea — my sister, my brother nor myself — had no idea the level of strength that woman possesses. To be quite honest, we talk about perspective. That’s one perspective that we came away with through all of this — we have a warrior for a mom and we were blessed to have a warrior for a dad.”
The family’s strength publicly — from the wake, to the funeral until today — has amazed many in the UL community. But Justin said the entire family knows their strength isn't centered in their personal resolve.
“In my experience, when tragedy strikes that hard, you need something bigger to hang on to, because tragedy has a unique way of changing all of us,” Justin said. “We just had the luxury of experiencing grace through this process and a family that’s supremely supported in a community. I mean do you realize that at one point in time, we probably had millions of people praying for our family? Millions of people. That’s how we got through it. That's how we'll continue to get through it."
The family also moves on with the help of moments of comfort.
One such example came on Father’s Day. Colleen decided to move her late husband’s truck back to its customary spot that day.
It didn’t go unnoticed.
“You turn the corner and you see his truck in its spot when it hadn’t been there in a while, in a short period of time, your mind lapses back to when he was there,” Justin said.
Other than Ashley’s husband, Lon Moody, handling the outdoor cooking duties this time around, that day was as close to normal as possible without Dad physically being there … just like Mom planned it.
“For majority of my life, we’d always go to the house and he would barbecue and we’d hang out as a family,” Justin said. “That’s the same exact thing we did this year. Lon manned the pit, the grandkids and my mom played in the water and my mom actually backed his truck in his spot, so that it would be as normal as if he was still here.
“In retrospect, when we do get together like that, we feel him.”
UL community helped
The family also continues to recognize how soothing a role the UL community has played in moving on.
“Everything the athletic department at UL has done has been first class,” Justin said. “They’ve stayed in touch with our family. The generosity everyone at UL has shown us has been incredible.”
Another “luxury” the Robichaux family possesses that many grieving families don’t is the ability to punch his name into google and hear his voice.
So much has been written and said about Tony’s "Robeisms" — one-liners filled with life lessons and gems dripping with perspective.
”A lot of people ask me what 'Robeism' speaks to you,” Justin said. “I think Austin, Ashley and myself are very fortunate that that’s how he talked all the time at home. When you hear him publicly, to us it’s a foreign language. It’s how he spoke to us.
“To hear what people are doing with that and how they’re hanging on to that, I think he would be supremely pleased and happy to know the blueprint of impact. He’s still making a difference.”
Justin said he recently received an email from a former player who said Tony’s words of advice are guiding him through a tough divorce.
It was that influence on the world around Robichaux that gave his family peace with sharing their grief last summer.
"The bigger thing was what he stood for and how many lives he affected," Tim said. "That’s what really gave us that inner peace to get through everything. We realized that we needed to share him because of what he meant to so many people."
His wisdom needed today
So many could use Robichaux's wisdom today with the coronavirus pandemic and a social revolution dominating the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere.
“I can only imagine what his press conferences would be like if someone posed him a question, whether it be about the pandemic or what’s going on in society today,” longtime UL assistant coach Anthony Babineaux said.
In an era of great perspective, few provided more fitting big-picture thoughts than Tony Robichaux.
“No doubt,” Babineaux said. “We talked in the office all the time that there are plenty of reasons why we wish Tony Robichaux was still with us today, but none more so than to see and hear what his reaction would be to what is going on in today’s world. What advice he would give to both his players and to his coaches on how to handle or how to perceive what’s going on in today’s world.
“As we all know too well, he would definitely have a stance on all of this and he would definitely have advice and some helpful ways to handle and deal with everything that’s going on.”
In Justin’s mind, it would begin with “fixing the man in the mirror” in these trying times.
“It’s in those unique moments that Coach Robe/Tony Robichaux was able to put in purity for you to get you to understand that you do have more than you think you have, you just have to learn how to do it differently,” Justin said. “That's what a 'Robeism' means to me.”
Like so many, Robichaux himself would have been able to spend more time with his family during these coronavirus days of watching and waiting.
Missing the talks
When that wasn't possible, Robichaux spent much of that time away from home working with Babineaux in building the Cajuns' baseball program.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Tony and all the great things that he’s done for myself and everybody that he’s come in contact with,” Babineaux said. “For me, for someone who spent literally every day of their live with someone — with the exception of holidays — you think about him daily. I miss being able to walk down the hall and talk to him about anything, whether it’s something business-related or looking for some advice … just anything. You really miss that.”
Justin said he catches himself every now and then trying to create such moments.
“I feel sorry for the guy that took over his (cell phone) number,” Justin said while laughing. “It’s still in my phone."
"The biggest thing is just not having him around to talk to," Tim said. "We spent so many nights, late at night, talking on the phone or I would catch him before he’d leave for work. I even catch myself sometimes thinking about something and then reaching for my phone before you realize that you can’t call him anymore."
Still, for his twin brother, his best remembrances fittingly come on a baseball field.
"I still do a lot of coaching on the weekends," Tim said. "It was our kind of relief and outlet to get on the field. I think about him a lot every time I step on the field to coach. Besides being twin brothers, it’s a game we shared. We talked a lot about it. He helped me and I helped him."