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For Michael Robinson Super Bowl Means Answering Big Questions

by on January 30, 2014 6:35 AM

The questions came one right after another from all different angles.

Some were relevant and many were not. That's the nature of Super Bowl media day.

"What's on your iPod?"

"Why do you think Marshawn Lynch doesn't want to talk to the media?"

"Which Broncos defensive player are you most looking forward to hitting?"

"Do you prefer women with natural hair or weave?" (That was really a question.)

Seated in a Newark hockey arena Michael Robinson had answers for every question. A media pro, dating back to his playing days at Penn State, he smiled and enjoyed a one-hour session of questions some serious, some silly.

This was a moment that he'd dreamed about -- one every boy that picks up a football dreams about -- being on a team getting ready to play on the sport's biggest stage. Super Bowl Sunday is near and you're on the team.

But for Michael Robinson you can excuse him if this day means a little more.

There was a time when the questions were all serious and lacked easy answers.

In training camp he'd injured his ankle. But his body felt weak, something seemed wrong so he was hooked up to get filled with fluids. When they hook you up to an I.V. for hydration there is an immediate relief as you feel the fluids entering your body. That day, the relief didn't come.

Something strange was happening to Michael, a pillar of strength to his teammates in a violent game. The emergency room doctors had no answers and specialists arrived.

In that hospital room there were moments of uncertainty and despite his faith some moments of doubt. Despite super-hero qualities society places on the modern-day NFL gladiators they're human, they feel fear and worry.

The questions started; questions for which there were no immediate or good answers. The kidneys, the digestive tract, the liver were all malfunctioning. Doctors worked hard but answers were slow in coming.

Robinson's wife Shameka was at his side and that gave him strength.

"In the hospital room my wife and I prayed, says Michael. There was so much uncertainty. I told the doctors don't give me any bad answers."

Football receded into the background and family became ascendant.

He'd been here before. Playing for Penn State in 2004 a brutal blindside hit at Wisconsin left him unconscious. He was immobilized on a backboard and left the field riding in an ambulance. But he returned a few weeks later.

In 2005 he quarterbacked Penn State's offense to a Big Ten championship. He was named Big Ten MVP, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and even appeared in a fashion spread in W magazine. Sports Illustrated On Campus Magazine named him the College Football Player of the Year.

Sometime in the early hours of January 4, 2006 at a winning post-Orange Bowl party he stood with Franco Harris and Joe Paterno. Michael's mother Rita Ross wanted a picture of the three men.

"You know," Joe Paterno said, "these are without a doubt two of the greatest football players I have ever coached."

Big words.

Back in 2004, in that hospital room in Wisconsin, answers were more immediate. He also knew that regardless of injury he'd have a team to come back to.

In 2013 it was another question, one he couldn't answer. He thought of his career, the game he loved. The year before he believed his team was the best but they fell short in the playoffs.

In that hospital the Super Bowl wasn't even a thought. He was just hoping to get healthy and God willing back on the field. One question was answered. It was discovered his body had an adverse reaction to the medication he'd received. He would be okay in time.

Then the football news he feared arrived; he was released on the last day of roster moves.

"It didn't surprise me. I know it's a business. I get paid to put a product out on the field. At that time I knew I couldn't be out there."

He turned to his family and his faith.

"We knew God had a plan for me. I don't have any control over it. I leaned on my faith. God had a higher purpose for me, maybe a bigger plan. I just wasn't able to see it," he says.

After the illness erased twenty pounds, he fought back. He worked out. He stayed in shape. He was ready to answer any call from any team.

Finally in late October he saw an injury to his replacement. He knew the call would come; was it part of the bigger plan?

His teammates called immediately. Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson were the first.

"I can't really say what Marshawn said," Robinson recalls. "I guess I could give you the PG-13 version."

The Seattle fans were excited too. Social media lit up. Michael had built a connection with Seattle fans -- an unusually strong one for a man playing the unsung fullback position.

The connection was built on his media accessibility and his web show. "The Real Rob Report" gave fans a view into the NFL life and allowed Michael's personality to come through. Fans admired his substance too; on-field leadership and performance. In his career he's been a Pro Bowl player and been named to Sports Illustrated's All-Pro team.

As he returned to the field Robinson attacked the season like a man given a second chance. He could no longer take pain medication or anti-inflammatories yet he endured the pain the game dishes out. He'd been given back the game and a chance to rejoin teammates he loved.

"Sundays were the hardest. As I sat at home watching I really appreciated what I'd had. I wanted to pull on that jersey and play again. I knew I could still play. I longed for that moment."

Back on the team all was right again, but there's still a higher purpose.

On a blistering 2012 May afternoon Michael and Seattle teammates Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington and rookie Ricardo Lockette stood in a large park in Richmond, Virginia. Around them hundreds of kids ate Chick-Fil-A Sandwiches during lunch break at Robinson's football camp. This was an answer to the question of purpose.

This was more than a free football camp for kids in Michael's hometown. These young men learned football while chasing and tackling NFL players, who looked to be having more fun than the children.

More importantly, the camp was the hook for something bigger. The boys at the camp learned the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the potential pitfalls of social media. They heard the importance of doing well in school from Michael who holds two Penn State degrees.

His camp and Excel to Excellence organization is part of his plan; his leadership flowing from a unique belief in inspiring others. Despite a road leading from college to playing on the west coast in San Francisco and Seattle he never forgot his hometown roots on Merle Street and at Varina High School.

He never forgot the unique player-coach relationship he had with his college coach Joe Paterno. In January 2012 he flew all night from his first Pro Bowl trip in Hawaii to speak at the memorial service for Joe Paterno at Penn State. He made the journey, nearly 10,000 miles roundtrip, to spend seven hours on campus to honor his coach.

Roots.

Leadership grounded in faith, grounded in strong roots.

Even at Super Bowl Media Day his name came up over and over again when other players talked about leadership and the guys they most respect on the team.

As more media questions came someone asked about tickets. For big games, tickets become a distraction. Michael laughed, giving an answer that revealed his sense of self.

"I told my friends and I even told my wife. The only people I'm taking care of are the four people who helped move me into my freshman year dorm room in Shunk Hall at Penn State. My mom, my step-father John Ross, by brother Anthony and my cousin Biz. Well I guess I better take care of my wife and kids too."

This is a moment he has worked for all his life. The emotions were clear as he cried and hugged his teammates after a hard-fought NFC Championship win nearly two weeks ago.

There was a moment during that game that showed Michael's character. San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman had been injured badly and was down. A picture taken by an alert photographer captured Michael standing over the fallen player.

"I was saying a prayer for him and wanted him to hear it. I wanted him to know I was there for him. Those Penn State ties ... even though we were never on the team together, he's like a brother," says Robinson.

There are big questions ahead for Michael. After eight years in the NFL and a serious health scare, the end of playing days looms -- if not this year certainly in the foreseeable future. Robinson wants to keep playing, but he knows the future is in God's hands.

"The market controls that. We'll see how long I play."

Right now there is a Super Bowl to win. But there's more ahead.

His foundation is growing and he has big plans for this summer's camp. He's hoping to create what "A Reverse Fantasy Football Camp". The kids would get to play football with NFL players, and the NFL players would get to play with the kids.

"The NFL Players will have more fun than the kids. But most importantly we want to motivate kids to continue to go to school and do the right things. We hope to create a program that we can put around the country," he says.

Michael has big plans, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. The road hasn't been easy, or always straight. At Super Bowl media day he listed all the positions he'd played at Penn State before he became the starting full-time quarterback.

"The position switches made it easier to stick in this league," he says. "There are a limited number of roster spots and the more you can do the more valuable you are."

As he looks around the league he wonders what he might be doing if he'd come out of college now. The mobile quarterbacks who run the zone read play are in vogue now. In 2006 conventional NFL thinking believed the zone read run/pass quarterbacks couldn't survive in pro football. So Michael switched positions.

Eight seasons later he doesn't dwell on what might have been. His faith tells him it is part of a bigger plan. The questions will continue to come but Michael is confident that he will continue to find answers.

One answer that he hopes will arrive this Sunday is a Super Bowl win. The four people who helped move him into his freshman dorm will all be there, along with many more people he has picked up along his journey.

Win or lose Michael will relish the moment he's given and then look for more questions to answer.

Jay Paterno coached Michael Robinson at Penn State from 2002-2005.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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