Robinson opens up about overcoming adversity, including death of brother, at Big Ten luncheon

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Senior quarterback Denard Robinson smiles at head coach Brady Hoke while thanking Hoke for giving him the opportunity to play at Michigan. Buy this photo

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published July 27, 2012

CHICAGO — When people think about Denard Robinson, their minds usually go to one of several places.

There’s the immense grin that the senior quarterback wears at all times, the fascinating celebrity status he has assumed on campus and, of course, his electrifying play on the football field for Michigan.

But in the speech Robinson gave before Big Ten football coaches, players and other attendees at the conference’s kickoff luncheon on Friday — a speech he wanted and volunteered to give, a surprising turn from his quiet nature — the quarterback wanted those present to hear what they didn’t know about him.

Just a couple minutes into his eight-minute speech, Robinson revealed that he used to host recruiting visits at his grandparents’ house because he was embarrassed about the rough area he grew up in around Deerfield Beach, Fla. He said he was ineligible to play spring football in his freshman year of high school due to poor grades.

And, most strikingly, Robinson alluded to the tragedy of losing a brother at the age of 10, something he had never previously spoken about publicly.

“It would’ve been easy for me to give up and fall into what all the other students were doing,” Robinson said in his speech. “But it was my choice to be different, to be uncommon.”

That’s what Robinson kept coming back to on Friday: choices. Instead of quitting school, resorting to drugs or living the “street life,” he emphasized that he made the choice to persevere and keep working toward his goals.

The funniest moment of the afternoon was when Robinson mentioned that in the past year he met both the president and LeBron James, and “both knew who (I) was” — drawing laughs from the audience.

Robinson’s point was that he and his Big Ten football-playing peers live their lives on a stage of sorts, with the public eye always trained on them. And he used his literal stage at the luncheon to encourage them to make the right choices in light of all that attention, so others could be inspired by their decisions and examples.

And Robinson didn’t just focus on the positive aspects of the intense attention he receives, mentioning the time that his Twitter account was hacked last year. That brought much embarrassment to the 21-year-old, but he said he tried to focus on the positives through the ordeal.

“Everyone should,” Robinson went on. “My motto is to try and make someone’s day everyday.”

It doesn’t match the significance of getting past a family member’s death, but the fact Robinson was even able — let alone willing — to take the podium before such a large audience, to give such an important speech, is an example of overcoming in itself.

After all, when Robinson arrived at Michigan, he strongly disliked speaking to the media, and was even quiet around his own teammates. He readily admitted that in the round-table interviews he gave a few hours before his speech as part of Big Ten media days.

But he realized he had to take on a bigger, more vocal role since he was becoming the leader of the Wolverines. Robinson began that process last season and was vastly improved by the end of spring practice.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke commented that he was impressed at the development he’s seen in his quarterback in that regard, even though Robinson’s been under such a microscope that Hoke has told him he “wouldn’t want to be him.”

“I think I know how to (speak before the media) more,” Robinson said. “I wouldn’t say I like it more, because if I play a bad game, there’s going to be questions about how Denard did this, how he did that.

“I can face them, I can go up and speak (now) because I have to, and I know how to.”

Robinson had a lot to live up to in giving the speech. Then-Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins was roundly praised for the one he gave last year at this event, and Robinson’s would inevitably be compared to Cousins’s.

And Robinson himself was aware of that, evidenced by him semi-jokingly referencing Cousins’s speech at the beginning of his own remarks.

The quarterback wasn’t perfect on Friday afternoon, to be sure. He spoke too fast at times and slightly stumbled over his words at others, making him difficult to hear over stretches.

But to criticize the performance aspects of his speech would be to miss the point — Robinson had an inspiring, important message to deliver, and deliver he did, symbolizing the progress he has made in his comfort level before the public.

For most, the sentiment that likely came from hearing Robinson’s speech was something approaching the senior’s own feeling when he prays to his deceased brother before every one of his games:

“No matter how hot it is outside, I always seem to get a cool breeze,” Robinson remarked. “I like to think that comes from him.”