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Green Bay Packers legend Dave Robinson reflects on life, career

Jul. 19, 2011
 

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Former Green Bay Packers linebacker Dave Robinson is introduced at halftime during the 2010 home opener against the Buffalo Bills Sept. 19 at Lambeau Field. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette

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Dave Robinson thought he was going to die.

Just two days before the former Green Bay Packer linebacker’s 70th birthday in May, Robinson received the sobering news that he might have pancreatic cancer.

“I had a brother die of pancreatic cancer,” said Robinson during a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I know the odds of pancreatic cancer. I went home and started making plans for my demise.

“I was kind of numb. I thought it was pancreatic cancer, which is 98 percent deadly. I went home thinking 2 percent, those aren’t good odds at all.”

There was good news and bad news on his return trip to the doctor the following week. A biopsy revealed the spot on Robinson’s pancreas was benign, but colon cancer and an 80 percent blockage of a major artery were detected.

Robinson received a stent and blood thinner for his heart, and in June underwent surgery to remove the cancer. Many anxious days followed as Robinson came to grips with his mortality and awaited the pathology report.

Robinson reflected on his father’s heart problems and death at age 52. As the youngest of nine children, he pondered how only one sister is still alive and just one of his five brothers lived beyond 70. He thought of his wife, who died in 2007, and two of his three sons who preceded him in death.

He couldn’t help but wonder if he was next and that his time was almost up.

But Robinson’s two-month medical odyssey, which began with a routine examination for a possible knee replacement, finally ended on July 7 when doctors told him he was cancer free and wouldn’t need chemotherapy.

Without early detection, either the colon cancer or clogged artery would have killed him within five years, according to his doctors.

“I’m here for a purpose,” said Robinson, who lives in Akron, Ohio.

“I don’t know what God has planned for me.”

Whether it’s his health, family or football career, Robinson’s life has been charmed and cursed.

He joined Vince Lombardi’s Glory Years Packers in 1963 and played an integral role in the team’s unprecedented three consecutive championships from 1965 to ’67. He was one of the best outside linebackers in team history and earned three Pro Bowl berths and All-Pro distinction, yet Robinson has been passed over for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There is growing sentiment that Robinson, more than any former Packers player, deserves that honor.

Before his death, Phil Bengtson, who served as the Packers’ defensive coordinator in the 1960s and succeeded Lombardi as coach, rated in order the five best players he coached: Ray Nitschke, Robinson, Henry Jordan, Herb Adderley and Willie Davis.

All were inducted into the Hall of Fame except Robinson, who was No. 2 on Bengtson’s list.

Former Packers player and assistant coach Dave Hanner made a stunning pronouncement in 2004 to Cliff Christl, the former Green Bay Press-Gazette sports editor and current Pro Football Hall of Fame voter.

“I know people think I’m crazy, but if you had to pick between Nitschke and Dave Robinson, I’d take Dave Robinson,” Hanner told Christl.

Hanner wasn’t alone in his high regard for Robinson in comparison to Nitschke, who is regarded as a Packers legend.

“Robbie was just as good a player as Nitschke, there isn’t any doubt in my mind,” former Packers receiver Boyd Dowler recently told author Royce Boyles for an upcoming book. “If Robbie would have been with us two years earlier and been on all five of the world championship teams, he would have been a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame.”

Some voters believe the Hall of Fame has reached its limit for inducting 1960s Packers players.

“Hogwash” is Robinson’s response to that line of thinking.

“Any time a team dominates the way we did in the ’60s, you’re going to get a lot of Packers in the Hall of Fame,” he said.

Robinson has learned to live with the slight.

“I really, really was upset for a while,” he said. “Now I’m just numb. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t even get excited about it. I don’t wait to see who the nominees are.”

He said the biggest flaw in the system is that most voters never saw the older veterans play.

“I would like to have people that I played against say that I don’t deserve to go in, then it wouldn’t bother me,” Robinson said.

He chooses to focus on other things, like his new lease on life.

“I’ve got five good years at least,” Robinson said. “I want to use them all.”

Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact him at mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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