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They call him Shoelace: The story of Denard Robinson

BY RYAN KARTJE
Managing Sports Editor
Published November 4, 2010

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — A television sits at the edge of Rose Robinson’s one-car garage. Atop a dolley just below eye level, the bulky, off-brand box overlooks a sea of mismatched folding chairs: a makeshift amphitheatre in the heart of this South Florida town. The party has yet to begin. Members of the Robinson family and a few others arrive, in a trickle at first, pulling their cars onto the grassy patch across SW 10th Court.

They’re waiting. Michigan football kicks off in an hour or so, and then their family will be complete again. Everyone is here, with the exception of Denard Robinson, the Wolverines’ quarterback and the reason why they gather here every Saturday.

It’s getting closer to gametime, so they shuffle underneath a tent in front of the garage to block out the blistering Florida sun, which always seems to burn hotter in rough neighborhoods.

Kent Robinson takes a seat at the center of the makeshift amphitheatre. His shirt says it all. It reads: Armed and Dangerous, Shoelace.

“I designed that shirt and all the other ones here,” he says.

He points around to others beneath the tent a group, which now includes almost a dozen people. They’re all wearing t-shirts with some reference to Denard’s nickname back home: Shoelace. To everyone in Deerfield Beach — everyone but his mother, that is — there is no Denard, just Shoelace.

One chair remains at the front of the tent, just right of the television. The family knows that seat is for Dad. He’s still working — he always seems to be working — but he wouldn’t miss a minute of his boy’s game.

With everyone seated, Dorothea Robinson, silent to this point, steps behind the third and final row of chairs. She refuses to sit while Denard is playing. Soon, as kickoff approaches, she’ll be connected with her son again.

They are here to see Michigan’s overnight success, though they’ve known all along that there’s nothing overnight about him at all. He’s the product of a father’s hard work and a mother’s loving protection, of hard-nosed coaches who pushed him and remain critical of his every move. With his success have come worries. Concerns. Can he stay healthy? Can he win a national title? These are mostly unanswerable, but there are clues in his past, if you get the people at this party talking.

To those who follow the Michigan football team, he’s a savior and an enigma. He doesn’t say much. He's quiet, always reserved. His eyes give nothing away. Ann Arbor wonders. Who is Denard Robinson? How can someone so young be capable of so much? Can he really handle the weight of a program? His parents wonder. Have they done all they can? Has he learned enough to be ready?

There are so many questions.

Here, around this television, there are answers.

**

Denard Robinson was just a boy — 10, almost 11-years old — and he didn’t like this feeling. His team lost. The Rattlers were his team, he was their quarterback. He could have won that game. He could have been better.

So it must’ve been his fault, he told himself. It wasn’t any of his teammates’ faults. It wasn’t coach’s fault. It was his fault. He couldn’t stop thinking about that as his parents drove him home. He had to get better.

He asked his dad what to do. His dad was the hardest working person he knew. He would know how to get better.

To those on the outside, it seemed like he was doing more than enough. The Rattlers practiced five days a week. They had film study. But it wasn’t enough for him. So he came home and played in the street, throwing balls across the pavement between his grandparents’ houses to anyone willing to catch them.

Sammie Huggins saw this. The Packer Rattlers’ coach knew Robinson wasn’t the fastest guy on the team — that was Denard's friend, Adrian Witty. But his decision was easy: Robinson was a quarterback, plain and simple.

Huggins couldn’t keep the ball out of his hands.

“He loved to run that ball,” Huggins says, looking over his old stomping grounds at Westside Park. “He’d tell me, ‘Coach, call quarterback sneak!’ I’d tell him no, to hand it off, and so he’d fake the handoff and keep it and run for a ton of yards.”

Witty and Robinson became the dynamic duo. They were a perfect cocktail of speed and athleticism, magic and might. Everyone knew they couldn’t be stopped if they were at their best.

And Robinson played the game with his shoes untied.


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