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They call him Shoelace: The story of Denard Robinson

BY RYAN KARTJE
Managing Sports Editor
Published November 4, 2010

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.


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