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They call him Shoelace: The story of Denard Robinson

Managing Sports Editor
Published November 4, 2010

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.