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Jovon Robinson gets second chance to chase his dream
Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to move forward. Even at 19, Jovon Robinson has been through enough difficulty in his life to understand that.
From the outside, it looks like Robinson has it made. He’s confident, but not cocky. He’s quiet at first, but quickly casts that aside to reveal an affable, easy going nature.
His size, speed and skill on the gridiron made him one of the nation’s most sought-after running backs recruits of 2012. That gave him a shot at a first-class education and a chance to play football at most any school in the country.
There’s also a focus about him. It’s nothing overbearing, but he carries himself in a way that lets you know he’s got “it.” Talk to him about the expectations he has for himself, and it’s clear he senses it, too.
But scratch below the surface a bit and its clear that his story, like so many others, is more complex.
From struggling with the loss of his father at an early age to having his dream of playing college football — at least temporarily — being taken away, he’s dealt with more than his fair share of adversity.
I was ‘War Eagle’ all the way
Robinson rushed for nearly 5,000 yards and 75 touchdowns in a decorated prep career at Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tenn.
He signed with Auburn last February and arrived on campus on May 14, 2012, spending the summer working with the team in hopes of becoming the Tigers’ starting running back in the fall.
Physically, he was ready to play, effortlessly carrying 227 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame. Even though he was a freshman, his punishing running style made him the closest thing on the roster to a prototypical tailback for then-offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler’s pro-style offense.
In a backfield already depleted by the loss of 2011 national championship game MVP Michael Dyer, playing time was a virtual guarantee. The only question was how many carries he would get.
Like so many others, his boyhood dream was to start for a major college football team as a freshman. For Robinson, that goal was squarely within sight.
He took part in the team’s first five practices, and by all accounts, performed well. Then, in early August, came word that he would be held out of practice. The NCAA was taking a closer look at his high school transcripts.
Robinson initially heard rumblings from a teammate who read about it on the internet. At first, he tried to ignore the rumors, but a conversation with running backs coach Curtis Luper a couple of days later made that impossible.
His dream was officially on hold.
“(Luper) said ‘Jovon, come here I need to talk to you. You heard about the situation with your grades?’” Robinson said. “I told him yes, that I had just seen it (on the internet) the day before. He told me, ‘Yeah, you probably won’t be able to practice because of the investigation. Even though this happened, you will still probably be able to come back here. You will have a story to tell, and people will listen. I know the potential you have. Just stay focused.’
“He took more of like a father approach to it. It was cool the way he handled it.”
A day later, Robinson met with head coach Gene Chizik. During that meeting, Chizik talked to him about the process and procedure of his upcoming meetings with NCAA investigators. Chizik warned him not to try to hide anything from the investigators “because the NCAA will know.”
As best he can recall, Robinson said that eight NCAA representatives were seated on one side of a conference table with five members of Auburn’s support staff on the opposite side. He was positioned at the head of the table.
“It was a surreal moment,” he said. “I was prepared to play in the SEC as a freshman, to maybe be the face of Auburn University, and in a moment it was like I was being snatched from my ultimate dream.
“I felt like I had been crucified. The meeting with Chizik was like the final stone being thrown.”
The investigation carried on for approximately three weeks, first in Auburn and then after he had returned home to Memphis.
In the end, the NCAA concluded that someone at Wooddale had altered a grade on his transcript. He was ruled academically ineligible.
To pick up the pieces of his dream, Robinson would have either have to go to prep school — and risk dealing with the NCAA Clearinghouse all over again — or graduate from junior college.
Back home in Memphis, Robinson watched as the team he had once been part of crumbled. An anemic offense and a defense that was, by the end of the season, disinterested led to a 3-9 season. When it was over, Chizik, Luper and the rest of the coaching staff were fired.
Though he had no set plans or direction, Robinson spent his time away from the game working out and doing his best to stay in shape. He would run on his own or sometimes play “Tiger Ball,” a 6-on-6 game of football that the University of Memphis players play on a 15-by-40-yard turf field in socks. He spoke with coaches from a couple of junior colleges, but was unsure about his future.
In early March, a chance meeting with Marcus “Doc” Holliday, a local prep legend running back who went on to play at the University of Memphis in the early 90s, quickly changed that.
“It was a crazy coincidence,” Robinson said. “My barber had just got done telling me about this guy [Holiday]. He was telling me, ‘You know this guy Holliday, man, he was cold. He was the best around back in his day — the best in the city. He used to be just like you.’ Then, as I was walking about of the barbershop, I ran right into him — (Holliday) was walking in. It was the first time we had ever met.
“(Holliday) asked me, ‘Man, what you got going on? How’d you do at Auburn?’ and I told him, ‘I did good things. I know I’ve gotten better.’ He said, ‘You know what, Jovon, it’s really not about getting better. It’s really just about growing up.’”
A few sentences helped change the course of Robinson’s future.
“It was like I realized everything I’ve done in my past — my school years, my football games, my personal relationships and relationships with my family — it just really put it all together,” he said. “It really put everything in perspective. I made me think, and I think that equipped me to be ready and willing for anything that may happen and will happen.”
Soon after, Robinson reached back out to a coach at Georgia Military College, one of the junior colleges that had been in contact with him, and began taking the necessary steps to get his dream back on track.
Robinson arrived in the small town of Milledgeville, Ga., home of GMC, in late March. The campus sits ninety-eight miles southwest of Atlanta, but playing in front of a few thousand fans each week, it seems a million miles away from the SEC.
Not only is Robinson re-adjusting to the rigors of college football, he’s also learning to handle with the structure of life as a military school cadet.
The real test starts this week as the Bulldogs begin spring practice, but so far, so good.
“He’s really bought into the system in terms of what we do on offense,” GMC offensive coordinator Ross Robinson said. “He’s taken extra time to study the film and study the playbook, and do what it takes to learn the system.”
In the Bulldogs’ backfield, Robinson will work in tandem with Akeem Judd, a sophomore tailback with BCS offers. Though the coaches have only seen Robinson on film, he’s expected to play a big role in the offense this fall.
“He’s going to do a little bit of everything for us,” Ross Robinson said. “We’re a highly multiple scheme on offense. We start with the downhill running game, but we do it in fast-paced, no-huddle tempo, and he’ll be a guy we use in multiple positions. Obviously, he has the ability to be a power running back, but he also can be an agile slot receiver for us.
“He’s going to make his living coming out of the backfield, but that will be carrying it and catching it. It’s hard to say too much before we see him on the field, based on what I’ve seen from him on film and from what I’ve gotten to know of him here the past few weeks, he could be a 20 touches per game type kid for us.”
Tragedy becomes inspiration
Robinson got first-hand experience dealing with adversity at an early age, forced to deal with a tragedy that no one should have to endure — let alone a child.
In July 2002, his father, Jeffery Robinson, was shot by Memphis police in a botched drug raid. The police, acting on a tip from an informant, knocked down the door of an outbuilding where Jeffrey Robinson lived as a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker and shot him in his neck and jaw. He was paralyzed from the shooting and, six weeks later, died of complications from pneumonia.
A jury ultimately found that the police planted evidence to show Robinson lunged at them with a box cutter. The family was awarded nearly $3 million in damages and eventually settled for seven figures. But the money was little consolation to a boy that had lost his father.
“It really didn’t sink in at that moment because I was so young,” he said. “It was almost unreal. I went to the funeral, and it was like, somebody’s got to step up and be the man of the house.
“So, for me, it was more like a motivation than a depression, because I’ve always been the type of person that looks at the bright side of things. Even if there’s no bright side, I’ll make a one.”
Unfortunately, Robinson’s older brother Jabril, now 23, didn’t handle things as well.
“Losing the guidance like that, it can mess a person up ” he said. “He really didn’t know how to express himself to me or my mother, but we always knew that he took it harder than any one of us.
“My father was the guiding light for my brother. My brother was actually on a good path (before their father’s death). He was playing football, going to school, he had good grades, and I don’t know what happened. It was just a 180.”
That change in behavior landed Jabril Robinson in jail. He was incarcerated during all of Jovon’s high school career.
Jabril is scheduled to get out of jail in May, and even though it won’t be on an SEC stage, he’s looking forward to attending watching his brother in person.
“He really wants to see me play,” Jovon said. “He saw me play on t.v. while he was in jail, and he couldn’t believe he missed it. He saw my highlights and stuff, but on television it’s nothing like the real life experience.”
A fresh coat of paint
Robinson’s 2012 Dodge Challenger, which was once painted white with orange and blue stripes, has been a topic of accusations and allegations. Fans of Auburn’s rivals insist that someone connected to the program purchased it for him.
DMV records show that it was purchased in April 2012, the same month he took possession of his share of the settlement from his father’s death. The car, he says, was a graduation present that he and his mother purchased.
Before he left for GMC, Robinson changed the color of the stripes to red and black. Even though those are the Bulldogs’ colors, it’s meant to signify Auburn’s arch rival.
“The color on my car can represent GMC, but it’s actually more ‘Roll Tide,’ ” he said.
Robinson, who won’t be eligible to transfer to a Division I school until December 2014 at the earliest, knows that a lot can change between now and then, especially in the fickle world of recruiting.
“If does work out, it can (represent Alabama),” he said. “If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Robinson considered both Alabama and Auburn out of high school. The first — and only — college game he’s ever attended was the 2010 Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s crazy how things work out. Alabama was my first offer, and I wasn’t even thinking about Auburn at that time,” he said. “Auburn was my last offer. Then I went to Auburn, and now, I guess, I’m hoping to go to Alabama.”
The Tide’s recent success is part of his attraction.
“It’s a domination type of deal,” he said. “They’ve been the powerhouse, so, why not? My train of thought is like a powerhouse, so it just fits. It just fits me — even though I didn’t commit there the first time.
“The type of running backs that they want, that’s the type of running back that I am. It’s a good fit for me, and I think it could be a good fit for them.”
Though Robinson insists that there are “no hard feelings at all” between he and Auburn, he’s not likely to consider a return to the Plains. If Alabama doesn’t turn out to be an option, Georgia is one school that he will look at.
Switching the color of the stripes on his car was just another step in the long journey of becoming a major college running back.
“I’ve always been the type of person to manifest a dream,” Robinson said, “because they don’t just come — you have to make it happen.
“You’ve got to pray about it, you’ve got to work — you’ve got to do all the things in order for it to come to life.”
After a brief false start, Robinson looks like he’s well on his way to realizing that dream now.