Eugene Robinson: A Big Hit

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October 25, 2011

By Scott M. Johnson

Robinson250_1025Like many football players of his generation, Eugene Robinson couldn’t stand the word no. Not when they told him he was too small, not when they told him he didn’t have an impressive college pedigree and not when they told him that he was no longer good enough.

Eugene Robinson defied the odds many times during a 16-year NFL career. While he takes pride in being one of the few players to go from non-scholarship Colgate University to the starting lineup of an NFL team, the thing that he remembers most about his career is how he won back the starting job that was once taken away. Robinson did it in typical style, by hitting an opponent so hard that it was impossible for the coaches not to sit up and take notice. Perhaps no story better defines the hard-hitting safety than the one about how he refused to take no for an answer.

With a 5-foot-9, 145-pound frame, a passion for comic books and a spot on the National Honor Society, Eugene Robinson was not the prototypical football player while at Weaver High School in Hartford, Conn. And he knew it. So the little guy with the big dreams made a point of trying to make an impact every time he was on the field. More often than not, he did, as many of his opponents undoubtedly remember.

There was the time when Weaver was playing against a New Haven High School team that included a star running back who weighed in at around 200 pounds.

“Everyone was worried he was going to run us over,” Robinson recalled years later. “I knew he wouldn’t run me over.”

And so Robinson laid out the running back that carried nearly 60 pounds of advantage. It would become a staple of Robinson’s repertoire during a high school career that saw the Weaver High team knock off the No. 1 team in the state en route to a third-place trophy. Hitting bigger opponents was one of Robinson’s favorite things to do.

“I was always a tough kid,” he recalled in 2007. “I understand scouts have to look for the bigger, faster guy. But anybody can be big or fast. I don’t have to be faster than you; I have to be smarter than you.

“People don’t like to get hit — I know that, and they know that. That’s the great equalizer.”

But big hits can only carry so much weight in a sport that looks for size and speed. No matter how many times little Eugene drilled opposing players, the big-time colleges just weren’t interested. And so he ended up at Colgate University, a non-scholarship school in upstate New York that is known much more for its academics than its athletics. Not even Colgate was willing to guarantee Robinson a spot on the football team. He had to earn a spot on the team as a walk-on.

Not that Robinson had much time to hone his craft. In addition to the school’s rigorous academic workload, Robinson had to work at McDonald’s to pay his tuition. And he was also a member of Colgate’s wrestling program.

And he continued to make an impact on the football field, where Robinson was a three-year letterman, and two-year starter, for the Red Raiders. He helped lead Colgate to two Division I-AA playoff appearances and had a team-high 52 tackles as a senior.

Along the way, he grew three inches and bulked up to 175 pounds. But still, Robinson was often smaller than the guys he was leaving crumpled on the field.

“It doesn’t matter how big a person is,” he said. “My older brother (Samuel) taught me that, and he’s absolutely right.”

It was a credo that would carry Robinson past all expectations.

Robinson’s studious nature helped him thrive in the classroom as well. An avid reader – he still remembers his first book, “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” which he read at the age of 4 – Robinson earned a degree in computer science and appeared to be well on his way to a successful career in software technology.

But the football itch was one he needed to scratch. After running the 40-yard dash in a comparatively slow time of 4.66 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, Robinson saw only one option in the upstart United States Football League. The USFL’s New Jersey Generals selected Robinson in the 1985 territorial draft, giving the Connecticut native hope of playing at the professional level.

“I said to myself: I can do this,” he said of attending training camp with the Generals. “I didn’t think I was too much different from the other guys there.”

Robinson300_02_1025Rather than stay near his home and play for the Generals, Robinson opted to defy the odds by trying out for an NFL team. The Seattle Seahawks were willing to give him a shot, but much like his early days at Colgate there were no guarantees. The Seahawks invited him to try out at a spring minicamp, then saw enough to warrant a longer look at training camp. With Pro Bowl cornerback Dave Brown mired in a contract holdout, Robinson saw his opportunity and seized it. Able to play both cornerback and safety, Robinson stuck on the final roster due in large part to his versatility.

Robinson saw limited playing time as a rookie, mostly on special teams, and quickly found out that he needed to improve his speed if he was going to succeed at the NFL level. He spent the summer of 1986 working on that aspect of his game, and the next fall a faster Robinson earned a starting job, at the age of 23, after veterans Kenny Easley and Paul Moyer went down with injuries.

Robinson would stay in the starting lineup for all 16 games of that 1986 season, showing improved speed and a knack for making plays. He started at free safety for all 28 non-strike games over the next two seasons while veterans like Easley (retirement) and Brown (trade) moved on. In 1988, Robinson was named a defensive captain alongside veteran Jacob Green.

But in 1989, with the Seahawks looking to mix things up on defense, Seattle brought in a veteran safety named Johnnie Johnson, who had played with the Los Angeles Rams. Coach Chuck Knox called Robinson into his office and explained that the trade was made because the Seahawks were looking for a new starting free safety.

“There was no mystery about it,” Robinson recalled. “I think his words were: ‘He’s going to start. It’s not personal.’ But I took it personal. It was tough. I wanted to start, and I had that starting mentality. I had been starting since 1986, and you never want to be relegated to that backup position.”

Johnson and the veteran Moyer split time in the regular season opener, while Robinson was relegated to duty on special teams and an occasional snap in nickel and dime situations. With no intentions of giving up his starting job without a fight, Robinson knew he needed to make an impact if he was going to challenge Johnson for playing time. And when Robinson got his chance, he made the biggest impact of the game.

Seahawks vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Sept. 10, 1989
As told by Eugene Robinson

The game I remember the best isn’t a game we won or a game of much significance for the team, but it was the game when I made my biggest hit when I really needed to.

Before the season, Coach Chuck Knox wanted to go in a different direction, so he traded for a safety named Johnnie Johnson, who he knew from the Rams. He wanted him to play free safety. Incidentally, I had to do a lot of praying for Coach and a lot of praying for myself so I wouldn’t have a bitter attitude.

But I was pretty hot. My wife kept reminding me to pray, to pray for Coach Knox. I was angry, and I took it personally, so there was a lot of prayer that year. In the end, I took my frustration out on Keith Jackson.

He was the Eagles’ Pro Bowl tight end, a big guy who had about 60 pounds on me. We were in Cover-2, and I was back on the right half of the defense, maybe 15 to 20 yards deep. I saw Keith run a post route. He was coming back into my area. As I saw him, I was debating whether to go for the interception or the knockout. I went for the knockout. And that’s exactly what I did. I knocked him out — lights out.

I’m coming across the field, and as he’s coming toward me, I’m accelerating on the ball. I hit him so fast and so hard that he didn’t have a chance to react. It was such a clean hit, and it happened so fast, that he hit the ground before he knew he got hit. The sound wasn’t a whap or a smack like you see in the Batman comics. It’s not like that. But I just wrecked him. To me, it was like a blip on the screen. I didn’t really feel it.

He was a lot bigger than me, but there was no hesitation at all. Tight ends are easy to hit. Size is a misnomer. People think that it’s how big you are. But it has nothing to do with the size. He weighed, at that time, 235 or 240. He’s coming across the middle, looking at the ball, and he can’t see me. I could have just stood still, and he’d have fallen down. It’s like stepping into a hole when you don’t know the hole’s not there. It doesn’t matter how big the hole is, or how small the hole is. If you’re not expecting it, you’ll fall.

He wasn’t expecting me to be there, and then I had all this anger — I was mad — and that helped too.

That was one of the hardest hits I’ve ever had. When they picked him up off the field, he was dragging. I remember looking at Coach Knox and saying, ‘I’m back. Don’t forget me now.’

Keith Jackson and I are friends to this day – we ended up playing together in Green Bay – and so we can joke about it now. We argue about it all the time. He says I cheap-shot him. But I didn’t cheap-shot him. I hit him across the middle and knocked him out.

I think we ended up losing that game. But it was a time for me where, even though I had lost my starting spot, I reassumed it quickly. I made a statement. I showed all my peers and Coach Knox that, hey, it’s on; Eugene Robinson is in the game.

We weren’t a powerhouse that season. We finished with a 7-9 record and missed out on the playoffs. There was nothing else memorable about that year, other than the time that I got medieval on Keith Jackson. I really needed that, just to boost the confidence.

Johnnie Johnson and I split time the next game, and then he got cut and I became the guy. Three or four games into that season, they ended up cutting Johnnie Johnson. He went from a starter to out of a job. And I ended up having a really good year that year.

Robinson350_1025Robinson started the final 14 games of the 1989 season, leading the team in both tackles (102) and interceptions (five). It was just a sampling of what was to come. Over the next six seasons, Robinson would emerge as the leader of Seattle’s defense. He was named team captain four consecutive years, was named the franchise’s Man of the Year four times and went to his first two Pro Bowls in 1992 and ’93. In 1993, he led the entire NFL with nine interceptions, which marked the second-highest total in franchise history.

Perhaps his greatest achievements came off the field. The Man of the Year award took into account Robinson’s locker room leadership, his steady play and his work with charitable groups. He had become a pillar in the community and one of the most recognizable sports stars in the city of Seattle. No one was questioning whether Robinson had what it took to thrive in the NFL anymore.

And yet, Robinson’s career as a Seahawks would not last forever. Like countless stars throughout professional sports, Robinson saw his dream of playing an entire career in one city come to an end in 1996. The recent addition of the NFL’s salary cap left an alarming number of productive veterans throughout the league in precarious positions, with many teams purging their rosters of big salaries. Robinson, who was due to make $1 million in 1996, was traded to Green Bay for a defensive end named Matt LaBounty.

Shortly after being traded, the 33-year-old Robinson called a press conference to speak with local reporters. Rather than rip the team for cutting its indisputable leader, Robinson just wanted to publicly thank the organization for giving him a shot. If he had any regrets about his 11-year career in Seattle, it was that the Seahawks didn’t have enough success on the field. He went to just two postseasons, in 1987 and ’88, and at the time of the trade the team was coming off a miserable four-year run that saw it go 22-42.

That bad luck would all change for Robinson soon after his arrival in Green Bay. Playing on a team that had an up-and-coming head coach in Mike Holmgren, a maverick quarterback in Brett Favre and a behemoth tight end by the name of Keith Jackson – the veteran recovered from the 1989 hit and went on to have a productive career — Robinson would go on quite a run in terms of playoff success. The 1996 Packers won the franchise’s first Super Bowl in almost 30 years, and Robinson helped lead Green Bay back to another Super Bowl the following season.

After signing with the Atlanta Falcons in 1998, Robinson continued his remarkable run by going to his third consecutive Super Bowl. The Falcons upset the heavily-favored Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game, sending Robinson and his new teammates to Miami for a matchup with the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

Adding to his on-field success, Robinson continued to earn awards for his work in the community. In 1998, his first season with the Falcons, Robinson was named not only his team’s Man of the Year but also the runner-up for the league-wide honor. He was also named the winner of the Bart Starr Award, which is given out by a Christian organization called Athletes in Action to honor the player with the highest moral character. The deeply religious Robinson accepted the trophy on Jan. 30, 1999, and had the world at his feet.

But just a few hours later, everything would come crashing down. A poor decision Robinson made in his personal life would mar his image for the rest of his career. The same day he accepted the Starr Award, and one day before he was to play in Super Bowl XXXIII, Robinson was arrested and charged with soliciting an undercover police officer in downtown Miami. Robinson, who is married and has two kids, was booked and released before playing in the Super Bowl on very little sleep.

A distracted and groggy Robinson gave up a long touchdown during the Falcons’ 34-19 loss to the Broncos. Afterward, he spoke to a few reporters in the Atlanta locker room while issuing an apology to his family and teammates.

“The ramifications are far-reaching,” Robinson was quoted as saying about his arrest. “You have no idea of the gravity of the situation as I see it and how it’s going to affect people. A good friend of mine said, ‘Confession is good for the soul, but bad for the reputation.’ It is so true.

“Reputation, I can deal with that. But my wife, that means much more to me. I truly love my wife. I love my kids. I’m sorry that I had to drag them through that type of deal. I’m sorry that it even happened.”

A few weeks later, the charges against Robinson were dropped when he agreed to take part in an AIDS awareness program. But his reputation was forever tarnished. He announced he would return the Bart Starr Trophy.

Robinson247_1025More than anything, Robinson was eager to turn the page on the episode. His family stayed together, and he played another season with the Falcons, but his career was never the same. Atlanta went 5-11 the following year, and the 36-year-old Robinson was released. He signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers but struggled through a 7-9 season before announcing his retirement.

When all was said and done, Robinson had played 15 NFL seasons for three different teams. His 42 interceptions in the 1990s were the most of any player that decade, and he ranked 10th on the NFL’s all-time list of career interceptions, with 57.

Although he played just one season for the Panthers, Robinson found a home in Carolina. He stayed with the team as a radio analyst, and after the 2003 season he went to another Super Bowl – his fourth – although this time he would not participate.

On the morning of that Super Bowl, while walking through the hotel lobby on his way to get his shoes shined, Robinson was stopped by a small group of reporters who wanted to bring up his recent past. Robinson told them that he was thankful to get another chance to be at the Super Bowl and that he was remorseful for what happened the last time he was at the big game.

“What bothers me is I hurt my wife,” Robinson was quoted as telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The only thing you can do is make amends and atone… be as contrite and as repentant and hard-working as possible. I don’t try to run away or hide. My prayer is that none of that stuff would happen (again) to any player that would take away from the game at all. If it does, you have to accept responsibility.”

No matter what happened after his 11-year Seahawks career – both good and bad – Seattle fans would long remember him for being a leader, a strong community presence and an overachieving football player. And, as the four-time award winner’s trophy would remind him, the city of Seattle would always remember him as a real man. The guy who thrived on taking out people twice his size was a real hit for Seahawks fans.