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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. Kids would go for his shoes on tackles, and he’d come up to the huddle in just socks. His coach couldn’t stand it at first and neither could his parents. They’d tie wristbands around his shoes. When that didn't work, they tried athletic tape. They even rolled his socks over his shoes. He was a marvel, and he wasn’t even finished with the sixth grade.

He was just different.

“He listened,” Huggins says. “That’s the difference. We had some guys on that team that didn’t listen. Denard’s attitude was always great, that’s why you know he’s going to go somewhere.”

But he was still hurting after that particular loss. He couldn’t shake that feeling — the pain of losing.

He told his dad what he was feeling and that he wanted to get better. So the two took the seat of a swing that they had found lying around, tied a thick rope to it and looped the rope around a tire. Thomas Sr. put the swing around his son’s waist. And Denard took off.

The young quarterback ran 40 yards and walked back. Then 40 more. And 40 after that. He ran 40 yards till his calves burned and his lungs ached and he couldn’t run anymore.

**

Minutes before the game begins, the seat next to the television is filled. Thomas Sr. is finally home.

He came straight from his work with the City of Deerfield Beach, rushed and weary. He’s wearing his Michigan shirt and hat.

He is quiet like his son, never speaking unless necessary. But at this moment, he turns to the family members in the first two rows and speaks for the first time as words like “Heisman” and “superstar” blurt out from the television.

“My hands are getting sweaty,” he says, laughing weakly. He wipes them on his jeans and turns back to the television where the game is seconds away from beginning.

The TV analysts continue in the background. More questions. “How can Iowa shut down Denard Robinson?” a voice asks from the television.

“Ain’t no shutting him down,” Thomas Sr. answers. “You can try to contain him.”

There’s not even a touch of humor in his voice. He has seen too many athletes look silly trying to tackle his son, too many out of desperation try to yank off his shoes just to slow him down. He’s seen too much success to ever assume Denard will fail. A fire burns inside of him, as it does inside his son.

“He just hates to lose, more than anything,” Thomas Sr. says.

After choosing to kick off at the game’s start, the Michigan defense stops Iowa’s offense on its first drive — three-and-out. It’s time.

At that moment, every eye huddled around Rose Robinson’s garage stares straight at the screen as Denard Robinson makes his way out onto the field.

“My hands are still sweaty,” Thomas Sr. tells Kent, his brother.

On the second play of the drive, Denard takes his first carry of the game straight into the Hawkeye defense for four yards. The tailgate erupts.

“If you wanna win…” Dorrell yells.

“… put Shoelace in,” his cousin Roscoe answers.

But Thomas Sr. isn’t listening. His body is in this chair, surrounded by his family, but his heart is a thousand miles away in Ann Arbor. He gets anxious in the chair as his son gets anxious at the Iowa 40-yard line. He is forced to watch, helpless, hoping that he showed his son enough.

Robinson looks like a grown man to most watching this television, but to his dad, he’s still that little boy with a swing around his waist, dragging that tire.

**

Denard Robinson stood at home plate, looking down at his red running spikes. They used to be red, at least. After years of racing, they were more a mix of brown and darker brown. But he’d never get new ones. He was too superstitious, and the holes aren’t that bad, he told everyone who asked.

He felt the dirt of Deerfield’s baseball diamond below his spikes. After so many practices, it made no difference to him that he wasn't on an actual track. His back was turned to the other members of his state champion 4x100 relay team, and he looked straight into the eyes of his coach, Kenny Brown. He was ready.

So Brown smacked a pair of 2x4s together to simulate the sound of pistol fire, and Denard spun around on his heels. The coach knew that without a headstart, the others didn’t stand a chance — he was too fast.

Denard remembered as he ran what coach Brown had told him: drive your elbows, keep control, stay focused. As he gained ground, he heard him again. Elbows, control, focus. Elbows, control, focus.

He was gaining on Witty, and the record continued to spin in his head. Elbows, control, focus.

“He always runs faster when he’s chasing someone,” Brown says.

At Deerfield High School, speed is power. If you have it, kids respect you for it. Students would challenge other students to race between classes and after school. It's how Dorothea and Thomas Sr. met. It was how a lot of people met around here.

Brown wouldn't let Denard forget that this was just the beginning though.

He slipped inspirational clichés in conversation with Denard at every opportunity. Brown is all about pride, and most importantly pride in being a teammate. The book Teammates Matter sits in a drawer in his desk, and his teams have all seen it. On the back wall of his classroom, a poster reads: Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG DIFFERENCE. Photos have accumulated around the message over the years. Now, four newspaper clippings and two pictures fill up almost a quarter of the wall — Denard is in all of them.

Denard may have left Deerfield Beach, but the coaching never stopped from Brown. He still calls his star sprinter every week, once before Michigan's games and once after to talk about the result. The lessons in humility shine through in these conversations: Denard whispered the good news about being named Michigan’s quarterback, to protect the feelings of his teammates who were presumably within earshot.

Brown still jokes with him about “getting all Hollywood,” and after Michigan's win over Notre Dame, he joked that he heard the Irish’s defense was bad. Denard had demolished them for 500 yards.

He still makes Denard chase for it.

“Stay tuned for next week, Coach,” Robinson told him.

**

Twenty yards or so away from the tent, Dorothea Robinson seems to be looking for something. She’s been pacing in the driveway behind the tailgate’s final row of chairs for much of the first quarter, and now that the Wolverines trail 21-7 in the second quarter, her pacing becomes more intense.

Still, she remains silent. After Denard throws an interception, his fourth in two games, she stands calm at the back of group, oddly unfazed by her son's mistake, unlike the rest of her family. If only she could calm her son down.

“He’s getting anxious again,” Thomas Sr. says, still staring at the television.

Suddenly, she stops watching. She walks out to the curb and talks to the children who aren’t watching the game. If she sticks around, watches her baby struggling, she’s bound to burst. They’ve invested so much in him, like they have with all seven of their kids, and she knows how hard he’s worked.

Denard’s aunt Mary Louise leans over, “She’s always so nervous,” she says, gesturing toward Dorothea, who’s fiddling with the spread on the food table.

It’s halftime now and the family begins digging into the potato salad and fried chicken, just outside of the tent. “They can’t play that conservative with Shoelace,” Kent says angrily, stomping toward the rest of the group outside of the tent.

But Dorothea just watches as the party eats, looks back toward the television and crosses her arms. As the second half starts, she stops pacing and her eyes fixate on the television, and it seems different this time, as if she’s convinced herself to watch. She smiles slightly and starts to react with the rest of her family. She stays calm at first, but as Denard runs for a first down, she charges into the center of the tailgate, “Go!” she yells, above the noise of the rest of the group.

They know her outbreak has been building, ready to bubble over. She recoils to the back of the group and continues to watch. But as she looks on with the same frozen, solemn face, something changes. He’s hit — and hit hard. The rest of the Michigan offense heads back to the huddle, but some are congregated around the ball, around Denard, who’s still lying there. He’s not getting up. Thirty seconds pass and he’s still down.

“Come on baby, get up!” Denard's aunt Mary Joyce shouts at the television.

“He’s going to get up. He’s alright,” Rose, his grandmother, says.

From behind the group, Dorothea speaks up. Her voice is subdued, but with an edge. She’s giving him an order.

“He better get up,” she says.

The group quiets down. They don’t know what else to think. They’re all wondering what’s wrong. Is it serious?

Her son was never really injured in high school. It was just a bruise here, a sore muscle there. But now he’s hurt all the time, he’s always in pain. What’s going on? Can he keep getting back up?

She can only stare at the screen while coaches and trainers surround her son. When he was growing up, she was always hovering. She barely let him ride with his peewee team 200 miles up the road to Sarasota. Now, he’s across the country, hurting, and she can’t help.

“I know he just wants to get in so bad,” she says.

**

Denard continued to grow, kept getting better, moving from dragging a tire on the pavement to the baseball diamond track practices to the Friday night lights of Broward County. In two years as Deerfield’s quarterback, coach Art Taylor drilled a mantra into Denard and his teammates, like they were his troops. He called, they responded on command.

“A man is determined by how he handles…”

“Adversity,” they’d respond.

It was the lodestar of Taylor’s teams. It was something Taylor made Denard understand in his junior year of high school, as life was about to reinforce a familiar lesson.

The night of the Florida state semifinals, Denard looked across the line of scrimmage at the titans of Broward County football — Miami Northwestern, the No. 1 high school team in the nation. He was on fire though. He knew it. Everyone knew it. Two minutes remained and his team led by three. Now, on fourth down, everything he’d worked for was just one yard away — one yard to put away the game.

They had it in the bag. Just one more yard and they’re on their way to the state finals. Taylor sent him the call: quarterback sneak, up the middle. It was his play, the one he had called for himself so many times in peewee.

But he snapped the ball, and everything collapsed. He ran into a brick wall and couldn’t push forward anymore. He had failed. Turnover on downs. He walked off the field furious, a failure.

Jacory Harris, Northwestern’s quarterback, marched his team down the field on a two-minute, 99-yard drive. The win would’ve been legendary. But it was gone. A few days later, Denard hadn’t said much. Taylor called him into his office to go over the film, but he could barely watch.

You should’ve looked before the snap, Taylor told him. He saw then that the right side was wide open. His heart sank.

Denard stormed out of the room.

He had failed. But he had learned something from this pain, just as he had learned as an 11-year-old boy. He would get better. He had to get better. This would make him stronger.

He held all of these lessons close. Don’t stop pulling the tire. Just 40 more yards. Don’t stop coming from behind: elbows, control, focus. Elbows, control, focus. He left Coach's office stronger that day, obsessing, replaying and dreaming. He wanted another shot. Next time, he’d fight harder.

**

The end of the game nears. The party winds down as the sun begins to set. Denard Robinson isn’t coming back today. His shoulder is too sore.

In Ann Arbor, the questions pick up where they left off, louder now than before: Will he be back? Can he fight through another injury? Through failure? Can he carry this team on his back?

His parents see him as he paces the sidelines. They stare at the box in the middle of the garage, finally calm. Dorothea and Thomas have been apart all afternoon, on opposite sides of the tailgate, left alone to their worries and their pride. But in the game’s final moments, they find each other. Dorothea stands behind Thomas and puts her hands on his shoulders, and they look at their son.

The questions may continue in Ann Arbor, but here, they have some answers. They can’t teach or protect him here, but they can see in his eyes and hear in his voice that he has learned all the lessons. The answers are in all the things they’ve watched him go through. They remember the determination in his face as a little boy, dragging a tire half his size. They remember that single yard.

Mom and dad continue to wait. She checks her phone for a message. She doesn’t have any. She checks again. Still nothing.

Thomas checks his phone and notices a text message from Denard’s brother Daniel who is in Ann Arbor. “Daniel says he’s going to be fine,” he tells her. But that’s not enough for mom. She’s waiting to hear from her son, like she does after every game.

The phone vibrates, and her eyes focus on the words. She smiles slightly. The tension leaves her face.