Denard Robinson played four years at Michigan. (AP)
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Last Sunday, four days before his NFL pro day and the final chance to impress scouts and general managers that he's worth millions of dollars, Denard Robinson found a couple hours to slip in something of a calf workout. He did it by securing a spot on the aisle of the sixth row of Section 126 at the University of Michigan's Crisler Center, a.k.a. the Maize Rage student cheering section.
There he spent two hours hopping up and down, clapping in rhythm, and taking part in a series of choreographed cheers and dances to lift the Wolverine basketball team past Indiana. (Alas it didn't work: The Hoosiers won 72-71).
Robinson said he planned on studying later that night, most likely for a challenging physics class, one of five courses he's taking this semester so he can earn a degree in sociology.
"I'm graduating on May 4," he said matter-of-factly during halftime of Sunday's basketball game, before proudly flashing his trademark smile.
In short, Shoelace Robinson is just your typical college senior here in Ann Arbor, wrapping up his school work with an eye on the job market.
Yet in being a normal college kid, he's become a somewhat of an abnormal NFL draft prospect.
The majority of players drop out of school for the spring semester and move to a training facility – usually in the South or West – so they can work out undistracted with professional trainers and position coaches, alongside other prospects represented by the same agent. That way it's total football.
"I was never going to do that because I wouldn't have graduated," said Robinson, who hails from Deerfield Beach, Fla. "It was the dream of my family to see me graduate. I'm going to be the first in my family to graduate from a four-year school.
"That's what I wanted to do, that's what I put my mind to and that's what I'm going to do."
It turns out the most electric athlete in college football, complete with world-class speed, long, flowing braids and his signature untied cleats is Bo Schembechler Old School.
Robinson is one of the wildcards of April's draft, a brilliant athlete who could go anywhere from the second to fourth rounds. He just needs to find the proper fit. His hope is that his commitment to academics, or, at least, his commitment to fulfilling his original commitment to his family of graduating on time, is considered an intangible that a NFL team will appreciate.
The easy path, after all, was to work out in Arizona or Florida and promise to later finish his academics. It certainly isn't his routine of getting up before dawn and trudging through the Midwest winter to begin a series of intense workouts interspersed with classes, study halls, projects and papers.
"It's pretty rare," said Michael Perrett, Robinson's agent at SportsTrust Advisors. "With Denard, though, being the first person in his family to graduate from college was important to him. So that's just how it was going to be."
Robinson ignored all the agents who tried to push him to leave school. He insisted he'd be fine working with the Wolverines' director of strength and conditioning, Aaron Wellman. Perrett was on board with the plan and simply changed the typical logistics, such as having longtime NFL coach Richard Williamson, who routinely works with SportsTrust wide receiver prospects at a training facility, travel to Ann Arbor at least once a week for individual skill development sessions.
It makes for a long day, however. Robinson meets Williamson at 6 a.m. at the Michigan football facility and has an early weightlifting session. Then he attends a couple classes, comes back for conditioning, goes back to a class, returns for more work with Williamson and finishes with a night lift. A study hall is squeezed in somewhere. He's often not done until after 10 p.m. – only to get up and do it all over again the next day.
"I think a lot of teams will look at me as someone who is determined, someone who isn't going to quit, someone who is going to go out there every time and give everything I've got," Robinson said.
To be clear, Robinson isn't the only prospect who values education. Some NFL prospects have already graduated, leaving spring free for draft prep. And others also stick around campus: Perrett also reps Ohio State defensive tackle John Simon, who is doing the same. These, however, are the exceptions to the rule.
"It takes a special kid," Perrett said. "Usually staying on campus offers more distractions, so you need someone who is mature and self-motivated."
In Robinson's case, that mindset goes along with his willingness to play virtually any position on the field.
He was mostly a superstar quarterback at Michigan, but unlike many who refuse to give up their dream of playing football's glory position, he's training to play running back, wide receiver and both kick and punt returner. And though he accounted for 91 total touchdowns at the college level – "I'm pretty good with the ball in my hands," he noted – he's even willing to switch to defense and play cornerback.
Whatever the team needs, he said.
"That's me," he said. "I've been playing football all my life. I just enjoy playing football, competing, being out on the field, being with my teammates."
When the 5-foot-10, 199-pounder ran a blistering 4.43 in the 40-yard dash last month at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, it was clear Robinson's plan was working. He then excelled in a variety of wide receiver gauntlet drills before showing vastly improved pass catching from a shaky Senior Bowl in January. It's clear he's doing work. The buzz surrounding him has grown.
On Thursday, Michigan holds its annual pro day, which will bring more tests of speed and strength, receiving and even some passing for the NFL executives who arrive intrigued about this multifaceted talent.
Perrett, for one, is trying to sell NFL teams on the stay-in-school plan as proof that Robinson is someone capable of managing his time, expectations and responsibilities without any hand-holding. You know, being a pro.
"Especially in today's personal conduct world of the NFL, character and intangibles play an even more important role," Perrett said. "I think it shows who he is, a high-character, highly motivated kid."
Between the class work and draft prep, Robinson said cheering on the Michigan hoops team became his entertainment outlet, his chance to lose himself for a couple hours.
He was a regular in the Maize Rage this winter, the big man on campus donning the same yellow T-shirt as the chemistry majors and sophomores from Saginaw and then happily doing every semi-lame dance and chant.
The football system in this country might have told him to drop out, put the degree on hold, give up on being a kid and focus solely on moving up on someone's draft board. Robinson took the old-style path, the less-traveled path, and isn't apologizing for trying to enjoy every last second of college life. He'll have his degree and a final few months of memories.
"It's my last year," Robinson said. "How many times can you say you are a college student? I have had fun doing it, being part of the Maize Rage. I'm just going out and having fun. I think it's the best part."
It is. Now he just needs to find a NFL team that agrees.
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