What Ever Happened to Denard Robinson?

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I’ll answer the question here in a second, but do me a favor and let me throw it back for a bit first.

We gotta go back like 10 years, before all these articles and tweets started popping up online asking what happened to me.

Back to one specific moment in time — September 2009.

I’m an 18-year-old small-town kid from Deerfield Beach, Florida. Just showed up in Ann Arbor, without any clue what’s about to happen to me pretty much overnight.

Rich Rodriguez was the Michigan coach at the time, and the night before our opener against Western Michigan he walked the team over to the stadium.

“This is our house,” he said, after gathering us on the field. “It’s the greatest place in the world to play a football game. Look around. This is the place where you can make your dreams come true.”

As he spoke, I remember turning my head and looking at the bleachers from every angle I could, just kind of taking it all in. After a few seconds, Coach went on.

“I want each one of you to go find a seat somewhere. Pick out a place in this stadium, sit down, and just take a few minutes to envision yourself out on that field. Close your eyes and visualize yourself doing something special out there tomorrow.”

As soon as Coach finished speaking, I knew exactly where I was gonna go.

Some guys headed into the stands and sat down right away. First row, great view. Other players headed to the 50, and sat halfway up the bleachers, basically right in the middle of the field.

Me?

It was never even a question

I was headed straight to the top.

The field was soooooo green. The lines and numbers on the turf were super bright. The bleachers seemed to go on forever. Everything was absolutely perfect.Denard Robinson

I stretched my legs for a second or two, and then I started to climb.

Ninety-eight rows later, I turned around and looked down….

It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen.

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

The field was soooooo green. The lines and numbers on the turf were super bright. The bleachers seemed to go on forever. Everything was absolutely perfect — like what a football field would look like in a dream, or in some movie.

After taking a few moments to look out over the wall at the top, I grabbed a seat and gathered my thoughts.

I felt like I’d had a solid training camp, and that even though I was just a freshman, maybe some people on the staff had taken notice. So, sitting there, I remember saying to myself, If you somehow get a shot in the opener, be special. Do something amazing!

When I closed my eyes, I saw myself running past defenders, getting into the open field, and scoring a touchdown. It was as clear as day. Like I could actually see it happening right there in front of me.

My whole body felt like it had goose bumps.

Then, about 18 hours later, on the very first snap of my Michigan career, the first time I ever touched the ball, this happened….

Now, before I go any further, let me just say: I get why people ask the question.

I really do.

It doesn’t get me mad. I’m not bitter about it.

I understand.

A few years back, you couldn’t turn on your TV without seeing me make some crazy play like that run I had against Western.

That first touchdown in the Big House set it off, and then everything just kind of blew up from there. Huge games. Everyone watching. Tuning in to see what I might do. Notre Dame comeback No. 1. Notre Dame comeback No. 2 — with bonus points for it being under the lights at the Big House and going 80 yards in the last 30 seconds to win the game. Five total touchdowns in a win over that team down south. And on and on. Highlight after highlight. Stats for days.

At the grocery store, there I am, smiling back at you from the cover of a magazine. ESPN won’t shut up about my shoes being untied. Interview requests coming in from stations all over the country. It was like Denard Robinson overkill.

At one point they even put me on the front of a video game.

I was pretty much everywhere you looked for a while there. And then, just a few years later, it was like….

Dude is nowhere to be found.

I was pretty much everywhere you looked for a while there. And then, just a few years later, it was like…. Dude is nowhere to be found.Denard Robinson

So people started asking.

“Where’s Denard at?”

“What’s Denard doing these days?”

“Yo, what ever happened to Denard Robinson?”

And for me, hearing that, and knowing what I know, and having lived through both the extremes — the highs and the lows — when I hear it, I kind of just shake my head and chuckle at that. Because, it’s like….

What’s up with me?

What happened to Denard Robinson?

I mean, what can I tell you, man?

Life.

That’s what happened.

Life happened.

Back when I was at Michigan, people always told me that I made things look easy.

They’d come up to me and say that, and then talk about a specific run, or some game where I made four guys miss on a certain play.

Sooooo smooth,” they’d say. “So easy.”

I’d hear it and just smile.

But the truth is, it wasn’t always as easy and seamless for me as it might have looked.

In fact, that first TD I had is a perfect example. On that one, not a lot of people know this but ... I actually forgot the play.

I was so worried about getting everyone lined up properly and not messing up the snap count that I forgot what I was supposed to do.Denard Robinson

I was so worried about getting everyone lined up properly and not messing up the snap count that I forgot what I was supposed to do. And then, of course, I also forget to … actually catch the snap.

I wasn’t even supposed to keep the ball on that play. I was supposed to pitch it to a receiver on a reverse. But as soon as I dropped it, it was like: All bets are off. When I picked up the ball, in my head it was like: You can’t let your first play at Michigan end like this. You’ll never see the field again.

I basically had no choice but to score. I couldn’t mess up a play that bad, and then get chased down from behind by a DB or something.

It was score or go home.

And, yeah, I scored.

But that definitely wasn’t how things were supposed to go.

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Off the field, things weren’t always smooth and easy, either.

Michigan was my dream school, and I loved everything about it — still do! — but it was never a situation where I was on easy street and everything just fell into place for me because I was scoring touchdowns at the stadium. I’m a small-town guy. I wasn’t looking for any special treatment or fame. I kind of just wanted to make people happy and greet everyone with a smile and represent for Michigan as best I could.

Sometimes it just wasn’t meant to be, though.

Once things really got rolling for me, and the highlights started to make the rounds, people would be coming out of the woodwork.

This one night, I left our team study hall, hopped in my car, drove back to my apartment, and as soon as I opened the door and got out, this guy I didn’t know jumped out of his car and ran up on me.

He’d been following me the entire time I was driving.

This guy had somehow found out I had study hall at a certain place, waited for me to come out, and, without me noticing, followed me home and parked his car right behind mine. Then he was all up on me like, “Yo, Denard! What’s up man? Can you sign this stuff for me real quick? It’ll only take a minute.”

It had me shook, I’m not gonna lie.

It was legit scary to me. Because … I don’t know this dude, and, I mean, you just never know, right?

Fortunately, it turned out that he was mostly harmless — just looking to make a quick buck, I guess — and I signed his stuff. But I had to be like, “Yo, never again, man. Please don’t do this to me again.”

That incident really changed everything for me at Michigan. After that, I was constantly looking over my shoulder, worried about who might be jumping out next. And I didn’t even tell my parents or brothers about it because I knew they would’ve been really, really worried for me.

When that went down, I just remember being like, This is getting out of hand.

It had me shook, I’m not gonna lie.Denard Robinson

At one point, things got so crazy that I couldn’t even go to class anymore. Like I literally had one of my professors come up to me in private and ask me to stop showing up because me simply being present had become too much of a distraction. There’d be this chatter in the room, or people would be constantly coming up to me or whatever. And the professor had just had enough.

She was super nice about it, and I understood. But I’m someone who learns better in person, so having to do everything online wasn’t great.

Not how I would’ve written it up, for sure.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

And, you know what, the same can definitely be said for how things went down at the end of my college career.

During my time at Michigan, I set big, concrete goals for the future. It was: I’m going to be a star quarterback in the NFL and rewrite all the record books and be in the Hall of Fame. That’s where my head was at, and I had total confidence that I could make that happen. To me, it was going to be another one of those situations like I had before my first game at the Big House.

See it in your mind. Say it. Then — poof, just like that — it will happen.

But this is where the life-happened part of this article comes in. Because real life doesn’t always match up with what you visualize for yourself. And you definitely never envision injuries happening when you close your eyes and imagine what the future will hold.

Injuries are pretty much the mortal enemy of dreams when it comes to football. And, with me, that’s what my story turns on.

Injuries are pretty much the mortal enemy of dreams when it comes to football. And, with me, that’s what my story turns on.Denard Robinson

Midway through my senior year, against Nebraska at their place, I sprinted out to the left, made some cuts and then dove for a first down. I landed with all my weight on my right arm and hand — just absolutely smashed them both into the turf — and then one of their guys accidentally stepped on my arm.

From there, everything changed for me.

Everything.

The next day, I headed into a doctor’s office back in Michigan, and the doc pulled up some scans and told me I may never play football again.

What????????

It didn’t even really hurt all that much when it happened, but now I’m hearing stuff like….

“Severe nerve damage.”

“This may not go away.”

“You may not ever be the same again.”

I went from lighting up teams on national TV and setting all kinds of records … to crying in some random doctor’s office.

And I couldn’t grip the ball. Or throw.

It was all pretty scary.

Tony Ding/AP Photo
Tony Ding/AP Photo

Now, I want to pause for a second here because, at this point, I just want to be completely clear about something: No one ever pressured me to change positions.

Not once.

It wasn’t one of those things where a guy maybe would’ve been a great QB in the league but because he was really fast and not so tall they made him switch. That wasn’t what happened with me.

It was literally just me getting hurt, and still wanting to play football and help my team win. Since I couldn’t throw, playing a position other than quarterback was the only way I could do that at the tail end of my Michigan career.

So that’s what I did.

That’s why I switched to being a running-back-slash-receiver.

If I don’t get hurt in that Nebraska game … I never change positions. I ride or die as a quarterback into the league. That’s the honest truth. I was committed to making a name for myself in the NFL as a QB, and turning heads, and lighting up the scoreboard, just like I did at Michigan.

I was all in on that plan.

Now, could I have done it? Could I have been a great NFL quarterback? I guess that’s open to debate.

If I don’t get hurt in that Nebraska game … I never change positions.Denard Robinson

You can have your own thoughts on that.

The fact is that … I didn’t do it.

What I did do is get hurt and move off quarterback and get picked up in the fifth round of the NFL draft.

Life happens.

At the time, I’m not gonna lie, as positive a person as I am — as much as I just want to be happy and optimistic and smiling — I was hot about falling all the way down to the fifth round of the draft. I really thought I’d put myself in a good position to be taken high. And seeing some of the random dudes who got picked up before me was super frustrating.

But, looking back on it now, I’m actually fortunate that I got drafted when I did.

I’m grateful that the Jaguars were willing to invest a pick in a player suffering from nerve damage in his hand who was also trying to learn a new position at the highest level.

And once I got over the initial frustration about my draft position, I was able to let that gratitude fuel my work in Jacksonville. I could be myself again and just appreciate the fact that, even if it wasn’t exactly as I’d envisioned things going, I was still doing something pretty special.

It was super fun trying to learn a new position, and seeing the progress happen on a week-by-week basis. You know what was the most fun thing of all, though?

Just knowing that I was an NFL player.

Seeing that shield on my jersey? Getting to practice with NFL players? Running through the tunnel onto an NFL field? I ate that stuff up.Denard Robinson

That was something I had dreamt about ever since I was a kid. And knowing I’d actually accomplished that goal … it meant the world to me.

Seeing that shield on my jersey? Getting to practice with NFL players? Running through the tunnel onto an NFL field?

I ate that stuff up.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

As I started to understand what it meant to be an NFL running back — how to throw a good block, pass protection, all the nuances of the role — I wanted to be the best in the game at that position.

And for a minute there, it seemed like I was on my way.

I got my footing and just absolutely worked my butt off, and during that second season, in 2014, I had some big games. I helped my team win, and I proved that I belonged. It felt so good.

I was a starter in the National Football League.

And then….

Life happened again.

Look, injuries are a part of the game.

I’m not the first or the last guy to have a potentially successful career derailed by injuries. I get that. But at the same time, it’s never going to be easy to sit by and watch your dream dying.

This time, while playing the Texans, I hurt my foot. What seemed like nothing at the time ended up knocking me out of action for the final three games of the season.

I’d never be a starter in the league again.

Then, just like that, in what seemed like the blink of an eye … I was done.

It’s never going to be easy to sit by and watch your dream dying.Denard Robinson

I tried out for a bunch of teams after being let go by the Jags, but the injuries just kept piling up. I played in the Alliance of American Football before the league folded, and the CFL never stopped calling. But that was basically it for me. I never made it back.

My football playing days were over.

I’m not one to dwell on the past, or to focus on the negative. But at the same time, I’m not someone who is going to b.s. you, either.

Football had been a special part of my life ever since I was five years old. I truly love the game. So no longer being able to play? That was rough.

I really struggled with it for a while there. I found myself having a hard time being my usual positive self. There were definitely some low points, some moments when I was in my feelings and allowed them to drag me down.

But one good element of that whole life-happens thing is that … it works both ways.

Football had been a special part of my life ever since I was five years old. I truly love the game. So no longer being able to play? That was rough.Denard Robinson

Sometimes, when you least expect it, something happens that turns your life around and completely changes things for the better.

For me, that something was the birth of my son, Denard Xavier Robinson Jr., in the fall of 2017.

That little guy, he was my saving grace.

At the time, I was going back and forth to tryouts, looking to prove to teams I could still play — basically grinding like crazy, but with nothing to show for my efforts. That whole process, it wore me down, both physically and mentally.

Then my son arrived and put everything in perspective.

Courtesy of Denard Robinson
Courtesy of Denard Robinson

It’s funny how quickly you can go from thinking football is the most important thing in your life to knowing, with absolute certainty, that it is not.

Having a kid will definitely do that to you.

After my son was born, I came to see it as a blessing that I was no longer playing football, because that meant that I was able to spend tons of quality time with him. I didn’t miss anything he did. Him lifting his head for the first time, him rolling over, crawling, taking his first steps, his first words, I was there for all of that.

Those experiences, being present for those moments, that made me forget about all the stuff in my life that wasn’t going right.

It didn’t make the bitter taste disappear completely — I still got down and frustrated at times that I wasn’t playing anymore — but my son, spending time with him, it made everything O.K.

He gave me something to be joyful about again, and now, thanks to him, I’m happier than ever.

The smile is all the way back.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

And hey, it’s not like football isn’t a part of my life anymore. It’s not like I hung up the cleats and then swore off football for good.

After my playing days came to an end, almost immediately I got into coaching.

I started out at Jacksonville University, when coach Ian Shields gave me my first big opportunity. I was helping out with the running backs and working with the special teams units. Then, last year, I linked back up with my former team, the Jaguars, as a member of the coaching staff. Doug Marrone, Dave Caldwell and Marcus Pollard were instrumental in bringing me in, and being back with the Jags has been a wonderful experience. The team’s owner, Shad Khan … I love that guy. He’s always been so great to me, and I can’t thank him enough for bringing me on.

I started out doing quality control work with the offense, learning a ton from Coach Terry Robiskie. Recently, I’ve begun to focus more on scouting. I’m out there trying to uncover those diamonds in the rough — small-school dudes, guys lighting it up at FCS schools. Just really trying to learn the ins and outs of as many parts of this profession as I can.

I’m super grateful to Trent Baalke and Urban Meyer for keeping me in the organization. And guys like Tom Gamble, Mike Davis, DeJuan Polk, Ricky Thomas Jr., Regis Eller, Joseph Anile, Lamar Sorey, Tyler Walker and Drew Hughes, they’ve been passing down their knowledge to me, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. I’m learning from the best.

And I’m having fun doing it.

In terms of my career, my profession, what I do for a living, that’s my new passion. I’m loving everything about it, and I’m just happy to be back in the NFL again.

I’m definitely not someone to feel sorry for. I’m blessed, truly, truly blessed.Denard Robinson

So yeah, I’m doing good.

I’m definitely not someone to feel sorry for. I’m blessed, truly, truly blessed.

I have such an incredible, supportive family that I love more than anything, people who have always been there for me through thick and thin — my parents, Thomas Sr. and Dorothea; and my siblings, Thomas Jr., Tiara, Daniel Sr., Durrel, Timothy, Tevin, and Steven Corker. They made me who I am, and I am so fortunate to have them in my life.

Some people play to prove their haters wrong. But me? I always played for the people who supported me and showed me love over the years. I cannot thank them enough.

Also, from the very beginning, my hometown of Deerfield Beach has always had my back. I just hope that I made everyone there proud over the years.

And then, of course, there’s Michigan!

I still get back to Ann Arbor for games whenever I can. And every time, it’s like going home again. The memories come flooding back, and all the Michigan fans in town always show me so much love.

It’s like having a second family … only with 110,000 aunts and uncles and cousins.

When I’m not there in person on game day, I’m watching our games on TV and getting fired up like it was me out there on the field. I’m still over here hating that team from Ohio and cussing out Michigan State, and pulling for Coach Harbaugh and the guys with everything I’ve got.

Denard Jr. is all in now, too.

Obviously.

So when we play that team down south in a few days, you better believe the two of us will be watching the game together, fully locked in.

Lighting it up at the Big House was amazing. No one can ever take those memories away from me.

But when it’s just me and my son at Our House, chilling on the couch, watching the game together, rooting like crazy for the Maize and Blue? That right there is the best thing in the whole entire world.

Go, Blue!