Long journey teaches Robinson to expect unexpected
On the phone, Luther Robinson Jr. thought he heard his father crying. Luther Robinson Sr. wasn't ashamed to admit he was.
Seven hours before kickoff, the Green Bay Packers rookie defensive lineman had just been signed to the active roster against the Minnesota Vikings. Here, in a quiet moment between father and son, a dream was realized. They made sure to enjoy it. Their journey hadn't always been this sweet.
For years, Robinson Jr. kept his head down, gritted his teeth and quietly worked. His path to Green Bay was paved with perseverance, an internal drive to prove doubters wrong. He never faltered, never quit — even when others quit on him.
"There were some very, very low moments," Robinson Sr. said Thursday afternoon.
Every turn has been difficult. Robinson Jr. endured a turbulent coaching change at Miami. With the new staff, he was lost in the shadows. After going undrafted in May, he signed with the Packers following a tryout at their rookie orientation camp. This wasn't an ideal path to the NFL. There were plenty of chances to move past football, onto something else.
Robinson Jr. never hesitated. He stayed focused, pursued his dream.
"I didn't think about not getting a call," Robinson Jr. said. "I just didn't know if I was going to come out and have a contract. I knew if I got a call, I could come in and play. I knew that."
He showed it against the Vikings.
Seven hours after the phone call with his father, Robinson made the most of his first game at Lambeau Field. His deflected pass against Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder forced an interception, which Julius Peppers returned for a 49-yard touchdown. It was a shocking play for a rookie who started the morning on the practice squad.
For Robinson, it was also fitting. At every turn, he's learned to expect the unexpected.
'A GOOD 40'
In high school, Robinson thought he was destined for big things — and not just on the gridiron.
Basketball was his first love. Robinson played center for Westwood High in Fort Pierce, Fla. At 6-foot-3, tipping almost 300 pounds, he was big enough to push anyone around.
This was his ticket, Robinson was convinced, until he met "a real basketball player" from his area. That player was Larry Sanders, now the Milwaukee Bucks' starting center.
"He taught me that I wasn't a basketball player. Because, you know, he's 6-10, 6-11," Robinson said. "… I think he dropped a good 40 on me. I scored 20, though. It doesn't equal out. He had a good 40, I had a good 20."
On the football field, nobody got the better of him. Robinson finished with 90 tackles, 14 sacks and 10 forced fumbles as a senior at Westwood. He was Class 4A first-team all-state, no easy feat in Florida.
Growing up a Florida State fan, Robinson thought he was destined to be a Seminole. He attended football camp in Tallahassee each summer between seventh and 11th grade. When it came time to choose a college, Florida State didn't offer a scholarship until two weeks before signing day.
Instead, Miami became home. Most times, it didn't feel like it. After two years on campus, the coach who recruited Robinson was fired. Current Miami coach Al Golden was hired to replace Randy Shannon, and Robinson was quickly buried on the depth chart.
Robinson started two games as a redshirt freshman under Shannon. In two seasons under Golden, he started only once. In his junior season, his father's frustrations boiled over. Robinson Sr. called into WQAM radio in south Florida and labeled Golden a "liar" who spouted "a bunch of crap." He claimed Golden intentionally held back Shannon's recruits.
Robinson Jr. apologized to his coach and teammates, saying his father didn't have the team's best interests in mind. Two years later, Robinson Sr.'s stance hasn't changed.
"Shannon was the guy who recruited Luther, so a lot of the things that were said during the recruiting process, it changed when the coaching change came along," Robinson Sr. said. "The new coaching staff that came in, I don't think they really believed in Luther. They just didn't give him the opportunity. I think he played, but he was never the starter. He never became the starter, and I think that was Luther's biggest focus, to become a starter."
Looking back, Robinson Jr. is honest about his college career. No, he said, it wasn't a good experience. When Florida State won the national championship in January, it was tough not to think about what might have been.
"Yeah, I could've been there," he said.
Instead, there was only uncertainty when Robinson's college career ended. He didn't know what would come next. Deep down, Robinson believed he could play professional football. With limited college film, he also knew being drafted was a lot to expect.
He did enough to earn a spot at Green Bay's rookie orientation camp. The Packers were the only team to offer an invitation. Robinson had one shot at a professional football career.
Again, he made the most of it.
Robinson was one of three undrafted rookies the Packers signed from their camp, joining tight end Colt Lyerla and safety Charles Clay. He's the only one still with the team. Ironically, it was the athleticism gained on the basketball court that earned his first professional football contract.
"You're always looking for big athletes," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "It was just his movement, and that type of thing. You're always comparing him with other guys in camp. We thought he was one of the better athletes.
"Here's a guy that came out of a program at Miami that's had a lot of athletic guys. We've been impressed with the way he's handled himself, and his ability to pick things up. He's done a good job with that."
'A LONG JOURNEY'
When he narrowly missed the Packers' 53-man roster at the end of training camp, Robinson wasn't discouraged. His internal drive kicked into high gear. He wanted to prove he belonged.
In organized team activities, Robinson said he felt like he fit in. The key was making his coaches see it. Through the season's first four weeks, he toiled on the practice squad. Each day, another opportunity.
"I think he did a great job of staying ready and being ready when your number is called," Peppers said. "You know, we always say that, 'Next man up. Be ready.' That's just one of those things where, it happened. He got called up. He came into the game, had some good rushes, and he did a good job for us.
"That's what we need. We need everybody in the locker room, and that's just an example of that."
Robinson crammed during those seven hours between contract and kickoff. He pored over the game plan, making sure he knew every detail. When the game started, his mind was clear. His decisions, precise.
Not every rookie can handle the pressure, especially on short notice. Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac thought Robinson would fare well. Trgovac called Robinson "one of the smartest rookies" he's coached. When the lights came on, and the nation sat down to watch "Thursday Night Football," Robinson was ready.
"You always hope for the best," Trgovac said. "Sometimes, the stage gets big for some guys. Other guys, it doesn't. He's very levelheaded, so I expected him to react the way he did, just because of his awareness, his mental toughness. I expected him, that he would come through for us."
Robinson played 36 snaps against the Vikings. They weren't perfect. He struggled in run defense, receiving a minus-2 grade from Pro Football Focus. But, when it mattered, Robinson delivered.
Afterward, his phone flooded with messages. Nothing was sweeter than the postgame conversation with his dad.
"Oh, he was hyped. He was hyped," Robinson said. "He was like, 'Man, I'm crying. Man, I'm so proud of you. Man, you stuck it out.' We've been through a long journey."
Now, Robinson wants this moment to last.
He's come too far for a simple cup of coffee. Every game Robinson stays on the active roster, he's proving the doubters wrong.
This week will be more special than most. The Packers will play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, where Robinson played college football. Robinson Sr. has fielded the ticket requests this week. He said there might be 100 family members — or more — in the stands.
Inside his college stadium, it would seem Robinson's circle is complete. He isn't looking that far. Just another game, another chance to show he belongs.
"I tell him, 'This is just the start. You've got to stay focused. You've got more work to do. This is just a taste of it. There's more out there,'" Robinson Sr. said. "I still think that Luther can be the best, and that's the thing I keep pushing for. Not getting the opportunity (at Miami), again, he's going to prove that.
"I just want him to know, it's OK to celebrate, but you've got more work to do. I think that's where his focus is at."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood