When he wasn't home with his wife and kids, you could usually find Robert Malone pacing the sidelines of a baseball field or basketball court somewhere, shouting encouragement to his players.

A former college athlete, he saw coaching as a way to stay around the sports he loved, while challenging youngsters from Minneapolis' North Side and Robbinsdale to discover their potential. Friends and relatives say that he saw a bit of himself in each of his players, some of whom also came from neighborhoods where their resilience was constantly being tested. For them, he was a coach, but also sometimes a mentor, guidance counselor, therapist and after-school tutor.

But those who knew him best say that Malone's role as a youth sports coach was only a small part of the impact he had on everyone he met.

Which, they say, made his death on April 14 from COVID-19 complications all the more painful. He was 54.

"He was a father to more than just his kids," said Malone's eldest daughter, Teagan, 23, recalling how her father's booming voice seemed to fill every inch of whatever room he was in. "If he was around the phone, you could hear him from down the street; I don't know what it was if he thought that phones didn't have a good connection or what."

Tom Wolfe said his friend of 20 years — whom most people knew as "Robb" — will be remembered for his boundless optimism and ability to make people feel comfortable.

"I've had numerous people describe him as their best friend," said Wolfe, adding that Malone led a cleanup effort on his block after the 2011 tornado that devastated parts of north Minneapolis. "He was the guy that was out here the next day with a chain saw helping move trees and branches, asking if you need anything."

"He would really try to engage with everyone," said Judith Kilian, a family friend. "When I needed help putting up Christmas lights, or I was trying to figure out what was going on with my heat, or plumbing issues, he was always here for me."

Ricky Hill, who grew up with Malone at the Glendale Townhomes housing project in southeast Minneapolis, said that the two were nearly inseparable even as kids, and would go on to attend the same middle school, high school and university. Malone always had his back, he says.

One episode, in particular, sticks out in Hill's mind. The two had been college roommates, surviving a move from Bemidji to St. Cloud. But after dropping out because of financial issues, Hill enrolled at a local community college before earning a scholarship to play football at Boise State University in Idaho. When it came time to move, Malone offered to drive him to his new home and the two of them made the 1,450-mile journey in Malone's Jeep Cherokee. For months afterward, Malone would send Hill money to help cover his expenses.

"The man was a loving, caring, great father to his kids," said Malone's younger brother, Dennis. Robb, whose childhood nickname was "BooBoo," was a regular presence at Luxton Park Recreation Center, where he used to play as a kid and later worked, says Dennis.

Years later, Robb channeled his energies into being a father after having kids of his own and, later, coaching — first his kids' teams and later for youth leagues like Robbins­dale Crystal Little League, said Dennis' wife, Karen. The Des Moines native worked as a senior facilities manager at Caribou Coffee, but his passion later in life was for coaching, she said. When he contracted COVID, friends and relatives were shocked by how quickly the still-fit Robb succumbed. Within days of being admitted to a hospital, he was dead.

"That's just not fair, but that's life, and that's why you treasure people and the moments when you have them," Hill said.

He is survived by his wife, Relina; five children, Teagan, Kensie, Jamen, Ty and Talia, and three brothers, Monitez, Dennis and Leon. Services will be private.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 • Twitter: @StribJany