JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The shredded 6’3″, 218-pounder in a 2XL Mike Bibby throwback cannot catch a break. The harder he tries, the uglier it gets.
It was his idea to golf. Why exactly is unknown.
At the extravagant Topgolf driving range, Allen Robinson lines up his feet, adjusts his grip, switches up clubs and keeps his eye on the ball, only to whiff and slice and hook and hack away. Several shots—look out!—ricochet off the adjacent ball dispenser. A Happy Gilmore response is expected, yet through 60 swings, Robinson is remarkably…calm.
He doesn’t chuck his 3-wood, no. He’s devoid of any emotion. At one point, he even walks over to the touch screen to dial up a more challenging game in which players must target specific, color-coded greens on this fairway. All that decision does is net a negative score.
When he’s finished, Robinson lounges on a couch inside his Topgolf bay, eats pepperoni pizza and is glued to a Cavs game on the TV above. A waiter arrives and asks him how his game went. Robinson doesn’t reveal the 70-something he just scored but is instead quick to tap open Snapchat to show his respectable 233 score from last night.
“I’m trying to get better, man,” Robinson tells him.
“One thing about golf,” the waiter says, “is you can’t skip out on that work.”
Robinson nods. It’s no coincidence he’s so undeterred. So placid. He knows that if he takes enough swings at Topgolf—and this is his sixth visit—he’ll start crushing drives with ease. It’s a confidence he carries over from his day job, playing wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, where the work he’s put in, he believes, has him on a path directly to the Hall of Fame.
The proclamation had first been made in Phoenix, in March, moments before a workout at EXOS, and he doesn’t backpedal here in Jacksonville. Forget all the losing. The exasperating 2016 season. The quicksand of a football career. Reaching Canton, he insists, is the goal.
Reaching Canton, he insists, is 100 percent realistic.
“Win, lose or draw, for me, every time I go out there it’s for more than the Jacksonville Jaguars,” he says. “It’s for the name on the back of the jersey. That’s something I’ve played for my entire life, not only for proving the Jaguars right for drafting me where they did, but—there was also middle school when I said I wanted to be a professional athlete and people telling me that was unrealistic.
“I am definitely one of those guys who plays with that chip on the shoulder.
“One of my No. 1 goals is to put on that yellow jacket. That’s where I want to be. I aspire to be a Hall of Fame player.”
Win, lose or draw, for me, every time I go out there it’s for more than the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s for the name on the back of the jersey. That’s something I’ve played for my entire life. —Allen Robinson
“I think it’s possible because, for me, I’m not afraid to work to get to that. I don’t take practices off. I put the work in. I have the dedication to want to get that done. It all starts with a mental state.”
A mental state and work ethic shaped by constantly being in a position to fail. Robinson was lightly recruited…then was embroiled in the Penn State mess…then was the 11th receiver drafted…then was sentenced to a career with the Jaguars…and really should be bracing for what’s next.
Look closely, though, and you’ll see Robinson is not delusional.
A canvas of tattoos paints the portrait of a Hall-bound receiver.
Follow that ink, and you start to believe Allen Robinson and discover a Hall of Famer in hiding.
Odessa died Robinson’s rookie year, at 85, due to heart complications. When Mom called—voice trembling, words skipping—Robinson knew something was wrong. She delivered the news, and he was devastated. He had just chatted with his grandmother two weeks prior. On injured reserve that season with a broken foot, Robinson told her he was headed home early for Christmas.
“It was unexpected,” Robinson says. “That was the closest person to me that I lost in my life. For me, that was hard.”
Odessa was the one taking away the video game controller and handing Robinson a book, the one who helped him keep his grades afloat with Mom (in sales) and Dad (at Ford) working so often. He needed every nudge, too. Robinson’s eyesore of an ACT score and 2.3 GPA as a junior were big reasons only a few mid-majors offered scholarships initially. He wasn’t even clearinghouse eligible until late November. Grandma’s work—and his—paid off as he eventually lifted that GPA to 3.4 as a senior and headed to Penn State.
Recently watching Last Chance U on Netflix, Robinson realized how close he was to being such a needle in the JUCO haystack and disappearing from the football field forever. So he taps this tattoo and promises aloud he’ll go back to finish college for his grandmother.
If he ever does wear a yellow jacket, she’ll be a major reason why.
Nobody can ever say they want more from me than I want. And I know that. —Allen Robinson
Look up, and curved around Robinson’s lower neck is another very visible tat: Detroit vs. Everybody.
From kindergarten to high school, in the nation’s most dangerous city, Robinson told anyone who’d listen that he was going to be a pro athlete. Friends laughed. Friends also slipped into the street life because peers, drugs and guns and jail time were all “intertwined” and, Robinson repeats, it’s “very easy” to succumb to Detroit’s dark side. If not for a stable household and his long-term vision, he could’ve suffered the same fate.
Survive and thrive, and you’re built for success. You’re wired differently than the other 21 players on the field.
“Nobody can ever say they want more from me than I want,” Robinson says. “And I know that.”
That’s why the rapper Big Sean resonates with him. He, too, is a Detroit native. He, too, faced steep odds of attaining national notoriety. The two have met a few times, and Robinson’s sister went to high school with one of Big Sean’s video producers. Both are fully aware their rare gifts—Big Sean’s flow, Robinson’s hands—can provide snapshots of hope to kids in Detroit.
“Being from that area,” Robinson says, “it’s something you embrace.”
Of course, his own dreams were nearly crushed for good in college. The memories remain vivid. News of Jerry Sandusky’s horrific child abuse broke, mobs of media flooded campus and pressed up against the fence at practice. Joe Paterno was fired. Severe sanctions were levied. And inside a living room, two weeks before training camp, seven Penn State teammates faced a life-changing decision.
All were considering transferring to Arizona State to start fresh. All decided to stay put in Happy Valley instead.
Robinson had only caught three passes as a freshman the previous year. So what? He controlled his own future. He knew Bill O’Brien would elevate his game. Hence the bold, block Work Hard, Stay Humble on his Achilles and the cursive No Grind on one biceps and No Shine on the other.
Whenever a storm around him erupts, these tattoos supply a sense of calm. The brutal nature of his profession is that he can only affect a game if the ball is thrown in his direction, and who knows how high, how low, how erratic that pass may be?
Who knows when an unforeseen hurricane—in this case, an abhorrent child predator—enters your world?
Robinson stayed, and it paid off.
At EXOS, he lifts his shirt to show exactly how much. Right there, in pinpoint precision, is an illustration of his own immaculate reception, the 36-yarder he plucked from above the helmet of Michigan cornerback Channing Stribling with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a 2013 quadruple-overtime win.
This tattoo is Robinson’s daily reminder of how freakin’ dominant he can be, that he has the skill to make the trapeze plays his Canton-bound idol Randy Moss used to make with regularity.
Robinson admits he’ll never measure up to Moss—”almost impossible”—but Moss will always be his gold standard.
Catching anything anywhere any time, Moss morphed Moss into a verb inside NFL locker rooms.
“Whenever anyone speaks of the best receiver of all time,” Robinson says, “I have to go Randy Moss without a doubt. No disrespect to Jerry Rice and the other guys, but when you watch how Randy Moss played the game and what he did, when you talk about pure talent and The Best, you’ve got to go with him.
“Guys can only dream of doing the stuff he did on the field.”
Those who’ve witnessed Robinson’s rag-dolling dominance up close cite a different athletic freak. Tight end Kyle Carter was in that living room at PSU and played pickup hoops with Robinson often. He remembers seeing bursts of a snarlin’ Russell Westbrook, a refusal to gear down like all other all football players on the court.
“He was the guy running down trying to dunk on kids playing full speed,” said Carter, now a Vikings tight end. “He looks like Westbrook. He plays basketball like Westbrook. If I could say what his intensity level is and what his work ethic is, I would definitely compare it to Russell Westbrook.”
Not surprisingly, Westbrook is one of Robinson’s three favorite NBA players. Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving are right there, too.
Like Westbrook, he gets in the face of players on the court. Like Moss, he gets in your face on the field. Cornerback A.J. Bouye would jaw back and forth with Robinson twice a year when he was with the Texans. Now, they’re teammates in Jacksonville, and Bouye doesn’t hesitate.
He looks like Westbrook. He plays basketball like Westbrook. If I could say what his intensity level is and what his work ethic is, I would definitely compare it to Russell Westbrook. —Former teammate Kyle Carter on Allen Robinson
“When the ball’s in the air, he’s going to come down with it.”
That Michigan catch can be the norm.
Canton is a realistic goal.
“Yeah, I believe so,” Bouye says. “He knows exactly what he wants to do, and in order to get there you’ve got to win.”
About that whole “winning” thing…yeah, this is a franchise that’s covered sections of its stands with black tarp in years past.
In Robinson’s three seasons, the Jags have been an 11-37 laughingstock.
One look at his 2014 draft classmates should demoralize Robinson. Odell Beckham Jr. has a two-time Super Bowl MVP (Eli Manning) as his quarterback. Kelvin Benjamin has the 2015 NFL MVP (Cam Newton). Brandin Cooks swapped one future Hall of Famer (Drew Brees) for the G.O.A.T. (Tom Brady). Davante Adams has a two-time MVP (Aaron Rodgers). Martavis Bryant has a future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger). Mike Evans has Jameis Winston. Jarvis Landry has Ryan Tannehill. Even Jordan Matthews has a rising star in Carson Wentz.
And here’s Robinson catching passes from the dude with a windmill throwing motion.
He doesn’t sigh, doesn’t bite his tongue. Rather, Robinson says multiple times Blake Bortles is capable of leading the Jaguars to the playoffs and then stiff-arms any questions insinuating that the quarterback’s slipshod accuracy holds him back.
“For me, that’s what I pride myself on,” Robinson says. “Being able to make those plays. That’s why Jacksonville drafted me. That’s why I’m here: to make those plays. I like making those plays. I embrace it. Sometimes, yeah, it’s frustrating. It can always be worse though. I’m one of those guys. When you look at the Michigan catch, those are the plays I’m known for making.”
He can look at that catch every day in the mirror, and he can look up the second-most recent receiver admitted to the Hall. The Raiders’ Tim Brown played with 19 quarterbacks.
If the Hall of Fame is the goal, it shouldn’t matter who’s throwing the ball.
“It won’t matter at all,” Robinson says. “You want to be in the Hall of Fame? You’ve got to make Hall of Fame plays.”
So all tattoos lead to his right arm, a sleeve of art still in production.
In bright orange on the side of his right forearm is a Koi fish because it’s in the Koi fish’s nature to swim upstream and against currents.
Underneath the arm is the iconic image of Perseus gripping the slain head of Medusa, the beast with snakes for hair who turned people into stone. Blood trickling from the decapitation, the words RESPECT FIRST pop with serif, all-caps punch.
This sleeve is his response to his lowest of lows, to when he nearly drowned in his own current. As the Jaguars stumbled through a pathetic 3-13 season, Robinson’s receiving yardage dropped by 37 percent, his touchdown total fell from 14 to six and he spiraled into a “dark place” of frustration.
His dark place was no specific game, no moment, but rather a lingering dread.
“I’m not going to lie: most of the year,” Robinson says. “At the same time, I learned a lot from last year. Would I want last year to be different? Yes. Would I change it? No. That’s going to make me a better player not only this year but the rest of my career.
“I know how last year felt. I don’t ever want to have that feeling again.”
There was no escape for the 23-year-old in 2016. Fantasy owners who were gushing over Robinson the season prior were now attacking him incessantly on social media.
“All the time,” the wideout says. “All the time. All the time. That’s regularly. Daily.”
Some tweets bothered him, but—thing is—Robinson wasn’t happy with his season either. So rather than stay in Jacksonville during the offseason, he dispatched to EXOS for eight weeks. He sharpened his 360-degree quickness and learned to treat route running like brakes on a car. The better the brakes, the better he could stop and cut and leave cornerbacks twisted into human pretzels. He knows he’ll never run a 4.3 40-yard dash like Moss, but he realized he could gain separation in other ways.
Already, Robinson feels like a reborn receiver. While he absolutely believes he has the talent to be the best receiver in the NFL, he admits he’s “still chasing” Beckham and Evans in that ’14 draft class.
He’ll catch them in 2017, and the Koi fish in pads expects to win, too.
Five different times, from EXOS to Topgolf, Robinson outright gushes over the Jaguars roster. The way he rattles off names from Bouye to Ramsey to Malik to Yannick to Hurns to Fournette, you’d think he plays for the Patriots.
There’s no mincing words this 83-degree night in Jacksonville. He raves about the fanbase, then raves about his team. This season, for the Jags, is playoffs or bust.
“Yes. I would say so,” Robinson says. “There’s a lot of talent on this team. The talent we have, you can’t keep a lot of that talent together forever. So we have a window we have to capitalize on. … I know we have that talent. The guys we brought in with the guys we had to the guys we drafted, we have a very, very talented locker room.”
Of course, his sleeve isn’t finished. Robinson slides open his phone to show the next tat on deck. He plans on getting the face of the Heath Ledger Joker from The Dark Knight inked on his arm with the words, Laugh Now, Cry Later.
The message, he says, is intended for “a pretty wide group.” He’s returning with a vengeance.
“For a lot of people—whoever it may involve—laugh now, cry later.”
All tattoos are intended mostly for himself, for his own manic focus. Turmoil is bound to rip through his life again, and when it does, none of it will distract him. While watching the Cavs eviscerate the Raptors one three-pointer at a time, Robinson explains that this Bibby No. 10 isn’t the only NBA jersey he owns. He has also stitched “Robinson” and “15” on the back of Spurs, Warriors, Knicks, Bulls, Kings and Clippers NBA jerseys. He’ll be selling his own personalized jerseys soon, too.
Losing may weigh on him, but it’ll never detour his tunnel vision.
“People around me know that’s my goal,” Robinson says. “Anybody who knows me knows that’s my goal.”
That, of course, and to start booming his drives.
One bad day of golf won’t discourage him. He tucks his Topgolf membership card away, chats with two waitresses about the scene here and exits with a smile, vowing to return again soon.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.
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